Why a painting in the Naumburg Cathedral is causing controversy

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In 1519, painter Lucas Cranach the Elder(1472-1553) was commissioned to create altarpieces for Naumburg Cathedral. But just a few decades later, in 1541, they were destroyed by radical Protestant iconoclasts who thought that having extravagant artworks such as these distracted the faithful from true piety.

Numerous sacred works of art were lost in the Middle Ages in a similar fashion. Only two parts of the work in the Naumburg Cathedral, considered to be one of Germany’s most outstanding churches, survived.

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But now, after almost 480 years, the Protestant cathedral once again has a complete altarpiece.

In the three-winged work known as an “altar retable,” a structure placed either on or above a church’s altar, two of Cranach’s original images have been added to a new painting by artist Michael Triegel. The new altar artwork is the combination of painters from different eras, and the project is called “Triegel meets Cranach.”

The church itself has been welcoming thousands of visitors each year. The cathedral of St. Peter and Paul is located in the small town of Naumburg, located about 40 kilometers (24 miles) from Leipzig. The church, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2018, is world-famous not only for its medieval stone carvings from the 13th century, but also for its life-like Donor sculptures, considered to be masterpieces.

Triegel’s painting depicts an almost sacred scene in the style of Renaissance painting. Mary is shown as a youthful woman who holds out her newborn son to the viewer. At her feet, girls play music, while in the background, people hold a piece of cloth around her as if for protection.

Looking closely, viewers will also spot a rabbi and a man wearing a red baseball cap, hardly expected choices for such a religious work.

‘Connected to the cathedral’

Triegel says he has felt “connected to the cathedral since childhood.” The 53-year-old artist from the German city of Erfurt is currently one of the country’s most important painters of religious art. He gained international attention for a 2010 portrait of then-Pope Benedict XVI.

A few years later, the artist was baptized and became a member of the Catholic Church.

Triegel has created a series of religious works in the style of Renaissance paintings, including paintings for altars in smaller Protestant churches in Lower Saxony in 2004 and 2005 and large works for several Catholic churches in Franconia.

Yet the Naumburg altar can be considered the artist’s most ambitious achievement to date.

A man from Rome

Triegel doesn’t shy away from adding personal touches to his paintings. He reproduced the traits of his daughter in a girl standing next to Mary. His wife has also appeared in previous works. It’s part of the artist’s personal way of approaching the greats of Renaissance painting.

The person in the painting wearing a red baseball cap is a homeless man he saw on a street in Rome. Triegel wanted to paint him, approached him and agreed on a fee to have the man sit as a model. Now he represents the apostle Peter.

Over Mary’s shoulder, the Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), executed by the Nazis in April 1945, looks viewers in the eye.

The United Cathedral Foundations (“Vereinigte Domstifter”), a state foundation independent of the Protestant regional church, deliberately decided to commission the work.

The Vatican’s ecumenical minister, Cardinal Kurt Koch, expressed the hope that the “renewed Naumburg Marian altar” will become “a symbol of renewed ecclesial unity.”

A ceremony to celebrate the new work was also unique, as it was done by Protestant regional bishop Friedrich Kramer and his Catholic counterpart, Bishop Gerhard Feige. Cathedral priest Michael Bartsch also called the “ecumenical togetherness” a “sign of hope.” Thus, an altar stands as a sign of reconciliationin contrast to the expression of hatred with which the original was destroyed.

A threat to World Heritage status?

Yet, whether or not the altarpiece will be allowed to remain in its current position is currently up for debate. In recent months, representatives of the monument protection authorities and ICOMOS, a non-governmental international organization dedicated to the conservation of the world’s monuments, have been raising objections.

The organization claims the altar retable disturbs the view of the church’s magnificent statues. Such an obstruction could cost the church its UNESCO World Heritage title, which would in turn result in fewer visitors coming to Naumburg every year.

The dispute escalated after the altar retable was erected and consecrated. ICOMOS and the regional government of Saxony-Anhalt are urging that the altarpiece be quickly placed elsewhere in the cathedral.

Until now, the United Cathedral Foundations had relied on the altarpiece being able to remain in its central position in the church’s west choir for an initial three years, after which a decision would be made to leave it there permanently. Now they want to shorten the initial period to December 4, 2022.

Yet because one can walk around the back of Triegel’s work, many claim views are not compromised and that it should not be moved.

Triegel’s work was, after all, painted to fit in its current location. Whether or not “Triegel Meets Cranach” will be allowed to remain after December 4 remains to be seen.

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