The Rosary Paintings by ERNST FUCHS
in the parish church of Hetzendorf Vienna
The parish church of Hetzendorf houses three huge paintings of international renown. In 1970 they were awarded a prize at the Sao Paulo Biennale (South America). They form a triptych, which was painted by Ernst Fuchs between 1958 and 1960. The artist is a famous representative of the so-called Viennese School of Fantastic Realism, a type of surrealism developed in Vienna. Each of the parts measures three times three metres; they are painted on 12 goatskins that were sewn together but left uncut at the edges, and executed in the artist´s special mixed technique. It is a kind of large-scale parchment painting. The pictures are not connected with any altar of the church, they are no „altar paintings" but were hung up on light metal rods by means of loops, looking like banners floating in free space, and put up behind the priest’s seat. They suit the name of the church: „Queen of the Holy Rosary" and remind the congregation of the central events in the story of Redemption. They are unique pieces as there does not exist any other surrealistic work of sacred art that has such dimensions. The triptych represents the joyful, the sorrowful and the glorious mysteries of the rosary. The painter always managed to combine five mysteries into one huge unit. The meaning is theological, not historical. They do not intend to visualise the actual events of redemption, their impact is rather on a more profound level. The fact that they need an interpretation is no criticism; even the great paintings of earlier epochs need an introduction or at least become more lucid with the help of one. The rosary paintings have been executed with traditional accuracy. Normally they were hung up in such a way that the glorious mysteries formed the centre, the joyful mysteries were to the left and the sorrowful mysteries to the right. This sequence was altered according to the special seasons of the ecclesiastical year, so that the characteristic series was always placed in the centre.
In 1979 all three paintings were badly damaged by an „iconoclast". After their restoration the paintings were returned to the Church of the Holy Rosary in April 1999.
The Joyful Mystery
On the left edge of the painting stands the Angel of the Annunciation. Mary, blessed with child, walks across the sickle of the moon, which has been turned upside down and which also represents the mountain range Mary has to cross on her way to Elizabeth. With her hands in sacrificial position she offers her child to the Lord, like in the Temple. The child she has given birth to resembles the Prague Child of Jesus - also wearing a crown - and he blesses the world. One halo envelops the divine child and his mother. They are both clothed with the sun.
From among the joyful mysteries only one is missing: the finding of Jesus in the Temple. Instead the artist has included the vision from the 12th chapter of the Apocalypse: the hellish dragon with the symbols of his power ( the 7 heads and crowns, the 10 horns and the tail which sweeps down one third of the stars from heaven) rebels against the woman and her child. But the Angel defeats him by thrusting an amethyst rod into his spine. The amethyst is known as an ancient cure against drunkenness, in this case against Satan’s drunken overbearance. We must not be surprised by the angel’s three hands, they simply symbolise God’s manifold power which is revealed through his angel. In reality the angel has no hands at all.
The grave features of the Holy Virgin on a painting of the joyful mysteries can be explained by the danger which threatens her and her child at all times.
The Sorrowful Mysteries
The background is formed by a purple Lenten cloth that is decorated with the ornaments of the flaming Cross of Love. The cross is depicted as a tree of life, it blossoms at all the places where is has been cut, it even brings forth fruits of grace and salvation. The Saviour stands on the cross, spreading his arms in a sacrificial gesture like the priest at the altar. The Hebrew inscription „JEHOSCHUA" - Jesus - in the halo indicates that the Lord became the Redeemer of mankind through his very death on the cross. The cross has been put up as a sign which demands a decision. Everybody has to decide whether he wants to stand at the right side like Mary or to the left with Satan.
Mary is shown in a genuine Christian conflict of the heart. She recoils with horror from the brutal scene of her son’s death and yet joins in his sacrifice with a gesture similar to that of the crucified Lord. Instead of John, the usual „assisting figure" under the cross, we see at the left side what the cross has achieved: the disempowerment of Satan. He falls down from heaven like a flash of lightning and hits the earth with his neck. During this „plunge" he is changed from an angel of light into an evil creature, a monster, with sunken eyes and manifold horns. His pay is death. In his hands he has the scourge and the rod which pressed the crown of thorns onto the Lord’s head. He is responsible for the Lord’s suffering; the soldiers were only the henchmen.
From among the sorrowful mysteries only the carrying of the cross is missing. The Lord’s head, bowing lifelessly in his freely accepted death reveals his infinite suffering. There is no such thing as a „beautiful" crucified master.
The Glorious Mysteries
This picture is the most difficult of the series as it has to show „what no eye has seen". The risen Christ stands before us, with wide-spread arms and legs. The salvation he pours out into all four directions with the gesture of a victor springs forth from his wounds, from his suffering. From his head proceed 7 fiery flames, the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit whom Jesus sends.
The garment of the resurrected and ascended Lord is adorned with pomegranates. The richness of its seeds has made the pomegranate a symbol of the fullness of salvation. The painter wants to say: The Redeemer comes to us with the fullness of his grace. Light spreads from his mouth because he has redeemed us also through his word.
On his forehead he wears a sign like one confirmed, he is the one anointed with God’s spirit, t h e true Christ, „Christos". His undergarment is that of a High Priest, adorned with little bells, because he is the one true High Priest of all mankind. The stars of David (like the genealogy in St.Matthew’s gospel) mean that he is the promised noble seed from the house of David, the Messiah.
Kneeling before him we see Mary, taken up into heaven on a cloud, to share her son’s glory. The handmaid of the Lord kneels and receives salvation from the Lord. How beautifully the two gestures correspond: the giving, male element in Christ and the receiving, female element in Mary. Around the head of this „Mother of the beautiful Love" we see the shining flames of love. Hovering above her head there is the crown of glory with which she is adorned by her son. She is a handmaid and yet a queen, a sovereign and yet kneeling to intercede for us. The almost dancing agility of her movements expresses the heavenly joy of her heart. Like in the other parts of the series Mary appears as a symbol of the Church. Thus the Redeemer and mankind redeemed form the theme of the third rosary painting.
The damage done to Ernst Fuchs’ paintings in 1979
On September 21st, 1979, after the morning service, a psychopath ripped down the pictures from the aluminium rods and damaged them badly by numerous knife stabs. The burning with petrol, which had also been intended, could be prevented by the police, but the paintings were damaged almost beyond recognition.
To prevent the shrinking of the cut up pieces they were stored in a studio on specially constructed huge metal tables and weighted with stones. The restoration was extremely complicated and expensive.
Various subsidies and private donations have contributed to the restoration. The third painting returned to the Church of the Holy Rosary in April 1999.
The total costs of the restoration amounted to ATS 850,000, (approx. € 62.000 or USD 98.000)
Very many thanks for the translation by
Maria Swoboda, Vienna Religious Centre, Votivkirche,
contacted by Rev. Gregory Felling, Deacon for English-Speaking Catholics, Vienna
Religious Centre, Votivkirche, Tel. +43-1-408 50 50.
and to Martha Friedl, Vienna.