What’s up in Vienna’s Stephensdom?

This is pretty weird.  From a reader:

I have recently visited Vienna and was stunned by the beautiful churches of this magnificent city. One day I went to St. Michael’s church not far from Stephensdom and it was there and then I’ve realized how little I know about Catholic symbols in the Church. Perhaps you or your readers can help? My tip for the main altar is, that it depicts gender neutral beings engaged in various sport activities. Perhaps a reference to Sochi 2014? God help us!

The attached photos (click for larger versions):

Are they mad?  Verrückt?

Whoever put those ugly, ridiculous things in that beautiful church should be severely punished.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Pò sì jiù, You must be joking! and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Whoever put up those banners appears to have been smoking some of the plant material pictured therein.

  2. jonvilas says:

    Well, the people behind those “strange”, to say the best “canvasses” most likely think they are contemporary “inclusive” catholics. While all that old Barock stuff is from the days, when Church was too authoritarian and masculine.

  3. They remind me a little of some of Matisse’s work. Perhaps the hole in the figure is a reference to the emptiness within the human being without God or the emptiness when we really fast? Other than that I don’t get it but then I am biased against much modern and contemporary art. In fact I am probably biased against most art since about the 14th Century. Give me icons any day.

  4. mamajen says:

    How truly bizarre. The combination of styles in the third one makes no sense whatsoever. The hole-y figures remind me of African tribal art.

  5. Fr. Hamilton says:

    Seeing those hideous things reminds me that whatever our liturgical problems in the United States, we are in a much better condition than Europe, even though they have so many beautiful churches. This is good for us to recall when we are feeling discouraged. I’ve seen enough of European practices in liturgy to recognize that the US has passed through the liturgical “adolescence” that much of Europe is still caught in.

  6. mschu528 says:

    I’ll be making a trip to Austria in a few months… I think I’ll just stick to the FSSP parishes, damit ich nicht so ein hässliches Gesicht erfahren muss.

    From the splendor of the Habsburgs to this. That’s “progress”, or so they try to tell us.

  7. Mightnotbeachristiantou says:

    mschu528- Please do not limit yourself to one type of parish. There are some really beautiful churches and some really plain ones. Many of TLM are in some breath-taking places.

  8. Phil_NL says:

    They’re hardly new (1982), judging from the discription on the church’s site:


    I’ll refrain from further comment, except for the obvious observation that the silly season may be on the retreat, but that there are places where it’s in full swing still.

  9. Stu says:

    Space Invaders.

  10. liebemama says:

    It is supposed to be an artistic Lenten Banner? Jesus in the middle, St. John (purple) is supposed to represent the masculine and Mary (blue) the feminine… Sheesh!
    Who really believes that this kind of art will strengthen someone’s/anyones’s faith?

  11. Mike says:

    Such unedifying productions may serve ours and future generations as cautionary examples. Their dim artistic value reflects the attenuation of the faith of the modernistic Church in which they were wrought.

    Prayers to Our Lady and to St. Michael would seem to be in order.

  12. Gail F says:

    Chariots of the Gods? Beyond that I have no guess to venture. If it is supposed to be Lenten in fails in communicating anything Lent-like.

  13. Volanges says:

    These are hunger cloths or Lenten veils. There is a centuries old tradition in Germany of veiling not only the statues and crosses during Lent but also the chandeliers, the relics and the altar so that the community fasted from the visuals. This was done by hanging large tapestries at the entrance to the choir.

    The artwork on the ones at St. Michael’s is not quite as edifying as the artwork on these.

  14. Gail F says:

    Here is the computer-generated translation of that page:
    “The St. Michael’s Lenten veil is perhaps the biggest batik work that was ever done.
    Christ in the middle section as a calming influence in contrast to the up-to-strong-motion-located crowd.
    John and Mary on the side altars represent the male and female aspect. In the church are folders with more in-depth information about the Lenten veil during Lent.”
    So that’s Christ in between the Olympics-style sports figures? And the other two are Mary and John. Ummmmm… okay….

  15. dafrenchman says:

    Peterplatz is a few minutes away and is also very nice. When I visited (multiple times) a few years ago, it was not “improved” by any such displays.

    When i went there for mass, there was confession available throughout the whole service.


  16. Sonshine135 says:

    @ Volanges
    If these banners are being used to serve the purpose you suggest, then they are doing a fine job of it. Talk about mortifying the senses.

  17. The Cobbler says:

    Stu, I don’t think so — I understand Space Invaders. Furthermore, these would actually look better blocky/pixelly…

  18. It doesn’t matter to me what they might represent, as they used to say in Laugh-In, “Gag me with a spoon”

  19. Gregory DiPippo says:

    By current Viennese standards, these are the very soul of restraint. You may remember that the Stephansdom not too long ago hosted the display of a sculpted bronze “homoerotic Last Supper”, and the last time I was there, there was a very large crucified rabbit prominently displayed over the altar of a church nearby. Stay away from the Stephansdom whenever a liturgy is going on, go to the Peterskirche, where the clergy are making a real effort to do the OF properly, or the Hofburgkapelle.

  20. Kathleen10 says:

    I know what it means. I do. It is a depiction of a person who grew marijuana on their property, then the feds showed up. Somehow he/she got an unfortunate cannonball wound in the skirmish, but still managed to put his/her arms up to surrender. Very inspiring.

  21. Kathleen10 says:

    @Gregory. Are you saying a Catholic church or cathedral housed a homoerotic representation of the Last Supper? And if this is so, can you please also tell me what the reaction was of the people to such a horrendous blasphemy, and who was responsible for putting it there in the first place?
    I am also wondering if you are saying a REAL rabbit was crucified in a nearby church. I’m wondering if you mean an artistic rendering, not a real rabbit. I shouldn’t ask, but, maybe I am misunderstanding. And whatever the answer to that, was that a Catholic church?
    I have to say, I don’t understand what is going on in Germany. I know this is tangential, but the recent homeschooling debacle with that poor family who had to seek asylum in the U.S. still shocks me. (The family home-schooled and the German government doesn’t allow this. They threatened to take the children away from their good parents.) I would say why are Germans tolerating such tyrannical, atheistic actions on the part of their government, but as an American I can hardly say this when currently we have our own tyrant problems and not as much resistance as seems indicated.

  22. MBinSTL says:

    What they’re doing in that church, I don’t know. But those figures look to be adapted from one of the great puzzles of archaeology and sociology, i.e. the appearance all over the earth (i.e. among physically disconnected populations) at roughly the same time periods of petroglyphs which depict the same “squatting man”, abstract zig zags, etc.

    There have various explanations attempted by serious scholars and crackpots alike, with some suggesting that prehistoric men experienced a common “awakening” that wasn’t bounded geographically but instead common to our species as a whole. How else to explain diverse, disconnected groups of people all deciding to switch from etching (relatively) realist cave art to drawing abstract stick figures and weird geometric patterns? I believe there has even been developed some “new age” pseudo-mysticism in connection with the “squatting man” image. I once bumped into a fellow in a laundromat who had it tattooed on his arm. I asked him what it meant and he described something along the lines I mentioned above.

    In any case, a more likely and far more compelling explanation was advanced by Dr. Anthony Perratt, a respected plasma physicist, in 2003: Characteristics for the Occurrence of a High-Current, Z-Pinch Aurora as Recorded in Antiquity. Regardless of the “neato” factor of Dr. Perratt’s research, I must conclude that the images have no place in a church of the True Faith. Laudetur Jesus Christus!

  23. I’m with Stu :) Space Invaders.

  24. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Two chaps with the munchies each rejoicing in anticipation at the prospect of hash brownies to come?

    And an abstracted version of the chap with the kettle on his head in the lower right of the right-hand panel of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights?

  25. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    By the way, how much did these little gems cost and who footed the bill with whose money?

    Can’t they be sold to someone who promises never to loan them for use in a church and the money given to the poor?

  26. Legisperitus says:

    So the figure engaged in some sort of squatting activity is supposed to be Christ? How rude. Piis oculis offensivum.

    MBinSTL: Interesting. So maybe those prehistoric types were drawing lights in the sky which they interpreted as schematic humans? Wonder if that would explain the invention of the constellations, people having been told by their ancestors that figures had once been seen in the night sky.

  27. I believe the Stephensdom is also the home of Alfred Hrdlicka’s blasphemous sculpture of Bl. Maria Restituta Kafka, who is portrayed as apparently bare-breasted and looking like a damned soul during its first ten seconds in hell. Bl. Maria Restituta was a Franciscan Sister of Charity and trained nurse who was arrested by the Gestapo in 1942 and beheaded in 1943 for her outspoken opposition to Nazism.

  28. sisu says:

    Hmmm, seems like an international campsite symbol warning ” Giardia in the drinking water “- which feels like a hole in the stomach, and involves much squatting.

  29. Peter in Canberra says:

    Erich von Daniken lives !!

  30. Widukind says:

    Fr. Z.
    Here is an explanation of the Hunger Cloth I put together for an history project several years ago:

    The Hunger Cloth [in Low German – Hungerdoek, in High German – Hungertuch, Schmachtlappen, or Fastentuch, and in Latin – Velum Quadragesimale], was a custom in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and England, whereby a large cloth decorated with various scenes from our Lord’s Passion and Death, or with various symbols of it, was hung before the altar in Church so as to conceal it from the congregation. The Hunger Cloth is first mentioned in 1010 in the Chronicle of Farfa. The 14th and 15th Centuries was its high point, and in the 16th and 17th Centuries it flourished primarily in Westphalia. This custom of hanging a Hunger Cloth has its remote origins in the early Church’s ceremonial expulsion of public penitents from the congregation for Lent. Having atoned for their sins, penitents were reconciled on Holy Thursday and admitted to Communion. Penance evolved to a more private experience, along with a growing realization of everyone’s need for repentance and conversion, particularly in Lent. The old custom of ritual expulsion was impractical for such large numbers, but a symbolic separation was not. For this, a cloth was hung before the altar. The Hunger Cloth was usually of linen, and its scenes or symbols were stitched or painted, often in violet. Throughout Lent, the hanging served as a reminder for perseverance in the observance of fasting and self-denial. From this came its name “cloth of hunger”. Further, it offered a point of reference for prayer and meditation. The Hunger Cloth was of two sections so that at the principle parts of the Mass, it could be drawn back to reveal the altar. In some villages, the people kept a small Hunger Cloth in their homes during Lent to serve the same purpose. On Wednesday of Holy Week, the Passion according to Saint Luke was read at Mass. Coming to the words – “…the curtain in the temple was rent in two…” there was a dramatic moment: a bell rang, the Hunger Cloth dropped to the sanctuary’s floor, and the congregation proclaimed, “the Hunger Cloth has fallen.” Thus was marked the ending of Lent and the beginning of the Sacred Triduum. The German Bishops Conference in 1976 revived the practice of the Hunger Cloth as a means to support the work of its social action agency, Misereor. Every two years a third-world artist is commissioned to create a new design for the Hunger Cloth, which is distributed to the parishes for Lenten usage.

  31. Legisperitus says:

    Widukind: Also interesting. So it’s a sort of liturgical archaeologism denatured with a generous portion of multiculturalism.

  32. jflare says:

    Stu, Cobbler, boxerpaws,
    I had much the same initial impression: Some sort of space alien coming in. I think I’ve watched too many movies! *groans* Given that these are in a church, wouldn’t space “demons” or “goblins” make more sense?

    Couldn’t they settle for simple, plain purple cloth being hung over the murals?
    I don’t think they really needed a space guy standing over a small plant or a guy watching crowd doing calisthenics. … Or whatever it is they’re doing.

  33. Mariana2 says:

    Schreck, lass nach! Hunger cloths, okay, but why depicting the moon goddess, who, having smoked the stuff beneath her starts emanating blue light, and the sun god, who reacts with a red aura, and then the sumo god watching the falling about of lesser beings, after smoking the stuff?

  34. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    Sad. I have made many visits there and the holy place just drips Christendom. So very sad.

  35. Mariana2 says:


    Thanks for the explanation!

    Hunger cloths were used in medieval Finland and Sweden, too. Hungerduk in Swedish.

  36. Vecchio di Londra says:

    Setting aside the rather dreary Nu-Age design of these particular Lenten Cloths (a sun for St John and a moon for Our Lady – riiight!) it’s a very starkly ascetic medieval tradition of the deprivation of the senses. The High Altar and chapel altars would have been behind these cloths for perhaps the whole of Lent (or often just for Passiontide).
    Here are some rather nicer and more edifying medieval cloths included in the article
    Eamon Duffy in ‘The Stripping of the Altars’ (P.111) writes that this ‘velum templi’ was also a medieval English custom. However, the veil would have been raised with cords for the reading of the Gospel (then lowered again at the Orate Fratres) and not used at all (ie left in a raised position) for all the solemn Masses of Lent. Pressure from the laity to see the Host was eroding the veiling custom by the end of the Middle Ages. And in most English churches there was in any case a rood screen that would already partly obscure the altar from the nave.
    The veil would have been suddenly lowered at the mention of the rending of the veil in the Temple at that moment in the Matthew Passion readings during Holy Week.
    So in this light the Lenten Cloth looks more like a mobile and (in its narrative design) often pictorial element of religious drama to alternately conceal and reveal the Lenten truths of the Passion to the faithful, rather than just a great hunk of coloured cloth stuck in front of the altar for the whole of Lent – an addition, rather than a subtraction.
    I would surmise that this more flexible approach (with cords to lower and raise the curtain) was in place also in continental countries. I cannot imagine that the (devout but stroppy) medieval laity would put up with the Mass being completely invisible and inaudible for forty days.
    Btw, Duffy also writes (ibid, P.472) that the protestant reformers re-introduced the Lenten cloth to conceal the ‘communion table’ from worshippers at the reformed Anglican services at Old St Paul’s, because they wanted to stamp out the veneration of the Eucharist by parishioners used to gazing at the Host in adoration during the Old Mass…(Aha!)

  37. Andreas says:

    Yes, encountering visual or audio vulgarities in an otherwise Holy place may prove discordant with what is otherwise truly transcendent. Such singular displays do tend to detract and may result in displacing that splendid transcendence with more worldly curiosity at best and anger at worst (forgive me, but I tend toward the latter in this regard). Despite this, one should not dissuade the visitor from experiencing the vast beauty that dominates the senses in places such as the Stephansdom. In this regard, and noting that the rather odd hanging cloth is at the Michaelskirche and not the Stephansdom, I can only respectfully disagree with those who would steer you away from Mass celebrated at the Dom. As one living in Austria, I can assure you that with the exception of the ‘articles’ mentioned, the building and the treasures of art and music that one can find within should be experienced first-hand; not just as tourists, but especially during the celebration of Mass. The Masses are indeed solemn, celebrated each week in several languages (including Latin). The music is truly sacred and of great beauty in keeping with the liturgy. A listing of the music for Mass can be found at: http://www.dommusik-wien.at/Dommusik/index.jsp?menuekeyvalue=10&langid=1. Might I also recommend listening to Mass from the Dom broadcast via Radio Stephansdom (http://www.radiostephansdom.at).

  38. Gregory DiPippo says:

    @Kathleen10: If you google the words “Hrdlicka Last Supper”, you can find all the horrifying details about the display of the piece by the “sculptor” Alfred Hrldicka. You can also check the Wikipedia article on him; it has links to some articles about the piece. The sculpture was displayed in the Cathedral Museum right next door to the Stephansdom. The New Pentecost has been very hard on the Faith in German-speaking lands, and I suspect the matter was greeted with dismay, but no surprise, by orthodox Catholics, a small and dwindling minority in Austria.

    I should have been clearer about the rabbit – it was a large painting of a crucified rabbit, not a real one. It is a common custom in German lands to cover the paintings over the altars with images of the Passion during Lent. I saw this abomination on Holy Saturday in the Jesuitenkirche, but I believe it is not there all the time.

  39. Mightnotbeachristiantou says:

Comments are closed.