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Samstag, 17. Mai 2008

Das Ross am Kirchturm. Provokation?

AZA 2500 Biel Postfach 624

The horse on the church spire – a provocation?

Pfarrblatt – weekly journal of the roman catholic churches of the old canton of Bern

Kunst und Kirche Art & the Church Since the end of April a horse has been hanging from the spire of St. Michael. Church community leader Hubert Kössler on art, lies and the church.

Seit Ende April hängt am Turm der Kirche St. Michael ein Ross. Gemeindeleiter Hubert Kössler über Kirche, Kunst und Lügen. Zweite Seite „Unter uns“

Freiwillige unterstützen Ohne sie geht nichts. An der nächsten Synode sind einmal mehr auch die Freiwilligen Thema. Seite Region

Teil eines faszinierenden Kunstwegs. Das Ross am Kirchturm. Foto: jm

Part of a fascinating art trail: the horse on the church spire.

Männer Ist Religiöses „Frauensache“? Diakon Bernhard Waldmüller über Männer, Spiritualität und Vorbilder. Zweitletzte Seite „Brennpunkt“

17. Mai 2008

Wochenzeitung der röm.-kath. Pfarreien des Kantons Bern, alter Kantonsteil

Nr. 21, Saturday 17th May 2008


A horse has been hanging from the spire of the Roman Catholic church of St. Michael in Wabern near Bern since the end of Ap­ ril. The poor animal is tied helplessly to the cross 30 meters above the church square, waving it’s hooves in the air. Hubert Köss­ ler, the leader of the local church community, in con­ versation about art, faith, lies and clueless joggers. “Pfarrblatt” : Hubert Köss­ler, a horse on the church spire – an irritating sight, isn’t it?

straight at its halter and continued on his way. So much for the Baron’s ta­le. Second­ ly, the installation is part of the artistic trail “artpicnic“ that leads from the Eich­holz all the way up to the Gurten and which will be accessible throughout Euro 08. 1 Thanks to the horse, our church is a station on this artistic pil­ grimage.

The clueless jogger

As leader of the church community, do you want to support a monument to lies?

Interview + photography: Jürg Meienberg Pfarrblatt, weekly journal of the Roman Catholic communities of the Canton of Bern, 17.5.2008

Hubert Kössler: Recently a jogger rang the bell at the vicarage and asked in confusion whether I knew what was hanging up on our church spire. I told him Munch­hau­sen’s story. He laughed and said he would show his wife and kids the next day. But what on earth do the fibs of Baron of Munchhausen have to do with the church?

Firstly, the context is one of his most fa­ mous adventures. If you remember, Munch­ hausen was riding across a snow-covered field, he then tied his horse to a pole stick­ ing out of the snow and went to sleep. Next morning, once the snow had melted, he discovered his horse only after a long search: it was hanging from the church spire. As a good shot, he freed the horse by aiming

When the American Pre­ sident tells untruths to go to war in Iraq, he is lying. Munchhausen’s stories, by contrast, work because everyone who hears them knows that they never qui­ te happened that way. Before the Baron even told his stories, people mutually ag­ reed on this setting for the tales. They are therefore not really lies, but stories about the imagination’s capacity to transcend reality. Imagination aims to entertain, to lift the spirit, to break down boun­daries. As the writer Bruno Schulz once put it con­ cisely: “The original function of the spirit is fabulation”. The Bible, too, is familiar with this tradition. The Bible? Sometimes the essential is not the imme­ diately obvious. Take the story of the seer Ballam in the Book of Numbers. He does


not recognise the angel, who bars his way with a sword of flames, but his donkey does. From a theological point of view, this story is about distance and contrast as means of coping with existence. Laughter is a subversive force against all political, social or ecclesiastical constraints. Think of the tradition of “risus paschalis”, God’s joke or the Easter laugh. Humor and Faith are connected by a desire to show reality as contingent – both enable us to live si­ multaneously at a distance from the world, and within it. But you could have hung a donkey on the spire, or an angel – at least these would have been familiar biblical figures. Don’t forget: the celebrated artist couple “Haus am Gern” approached us with the idea, and we offered them the use of the church spire. In my opinion, the church coun­ cil cannot be praised too highly for being so open-minded towards an art project that is both witty and meaningful. After all, this interview and the incident with the jogger demonstrate that it works. It is also about com­munication with modernity, with culture and the world. Our church has always been shaped by the world around it, just as it in turn shaped that world through its active participation. But there were other reactions; people who feel the horse desecrates the church by degrading it to a mere art object. To be aware of religious feeling is very im­

portant, there is no doubt. But arguments based on religious sensibility can drain all energy from the church. There are other values of our faith that would have been offended had we decided against the ins­ tallation such as: tolerance, humor, dialo­ gue, openness to the world, inner freedom. The artists and the responsible com­­munity council of Köniz initially doubted the project could be realised, because they thought of the church as cautious and detached from the world. They experienced something very different from their expectations. The installation enabled a surprising encounter with an age-old movement with a contem­ porary message. After all, anyone who wants to see the installation has to look toward heaven. And that enables new experiences, for example, of creation and our responsi­ bility for it. What do you mean? It is not likely we’ll ever have enough snow again for Münchhausen to fasten his horse to a church spire. I cannot think of a more timely warning. Don’t you agree? Hubert Kössler, thank you for your time.

1 The Eichholz (a wooded area by the Aare river) and the Gurten (a large hill overlooking the town, reached by funicular railway) are popular recreation areas in Bern. The European Football Champion­ ships took place in Austria and Switzerland in sum­ mer 2008, with several games played in Bern.


1 : 1 In the context of the open-air exhibition Artpicnic in Wabern, a suburb of Bern, Haus am Gern attached a life-size sculpture of a horse to the spire of the Catholic church. Haus am Gern had the wicker

2008; Installation; Wicker horse, lashing straps; Artpicnic, public art trail in Wabern near Bern

horse made by basket maker

through wintry Poland to StPetersburg. Tiring from the journey, he ties his horse to a stake in the snow and goes to sleep. Next morning he awa­

­kes lying in a graveyard. The snow has melted overnight and his horse is hanging by

Jan Rospek in Poland, after an engraving by

its halter from the church spire. The horse on the

Gustav Doré from 1862. The engraving illustrates

spire elicited strong reactions from the church

the story in which liar-baron Munchhausen rides

and village communities.

Fig. 1

Fig. 3

Fig. 2 Fig. 1 Fig. 2 Fig. 3 Fig. 4 Fig. 5

Masters of wickerwork: Jan Rospek and son, Odolanow, Poland Loading Zbyszek Marszałek’s trailer In Ruedi Häberlis horse trailer Arrival in Wabern Installation on the church spire

Fig. 4


Fig. 5


Gustave DorĂŠ, The Horse On The Church Spire, wood engraving, 1862


In which the Baron proves himself a good shot. Chap.II.

I set off from home on my journey to appeared above the snow; for the sake Russia, in the midst of winter, from a of safety I placed my pistols under my just notion that frost and snow must of arm, and lay down in the snow, where course mend the roads, which every I slept so soundly that I did not open tra­veller had described as uncommonly my eyes till was it full day light. It is not bad through the northern parts of Ger­ easy to conceive my astonishment to many, Poland, Courland, and Livonia. I find myself in the midst of a village, lying went on horseback, as the most con­ in a church-yard. Nor was my horse to venient manner of travelling; I was but be seen, but I heard him soon after lightly clothed, of this I felt the incon­ neigh, somewhere above me. On loo­ venience, the more I advanced north- king upwards, I beheld him hanging to east. What must not a poor old man the wea­ther-cock of the steeple. Mat­ have suffered in that severe weather ters were now very plain to me: the and climate, whom I saw on a bleak village had been covered with snow common, in Poland, lying on the road, over night; a sudden change of weather helpless, shi­vering, and hardly having had taken place; I had sunk down to wherewithal to cover his nakedness? I the church-yard whilst asleep, gently, pitied the poor soul: though I felt the and in the same proportion as the snow severity of the air myself, I threw my had melted away; and what in the dark mantle over him, and immediately I I had taken to be a stump of a little tree heard a voice from the heavens, bles­ appearing above the snow, to which I sing me for that piece of charity, saying, had tied my horse, proved to have been “You will be rewarded, my son, for this the cross or weather-cock of the steeple! in time.” Without long consideration I took one I went on: night and darkness overtook of my pistols, shot off the halter, brought me. No village was to be seen. The down the horse, and proceeded on my journey. [ Here the Baron country was co­vered with Gulliver Revived; seems to have forgot his snow, and I was unac­ Containing Singular Travels, Campaigns, Voyages, quainted with the roads. feelings; he should cer­ and Adventures [… ] Tired, I alighted at last, tainly have ordered his by Baron Munchausen. The Fourth Edition. and fastened my horse to horse a feed of corn, af­ London. Printed for G. Kearsley, ter fasting so long. ] something like a pointed in Fleet Street, stump of a tree, which M. D . C C .  L X X X VI ., p . 15 – 17 — —


Even fanciful scenes may inspire reflection A horse, whether dead or alive,

has no business on a church spire. The spire belongs to the cockerel, which exhorted generations of Christians to daily vigilance, and reminded them that the cock’s crow accom­panied Peter’s betrayal of Christ. If it wasn’t for Munchhausen and his crazy, boastful stories no one would ever think of hanging a horse’s carcass on a church spire. For com­­pared to the cockerel the horse isn’t properly bound to Christian tradition. Apart from St. Martin, who handed a beggar half his cloak from the back of a horse and who rides on horseback in St. Martin’s processions to this very day, none of the great Saints of the Church chose the horse as their companion.

How did it come about that these noble and stately animals don’t seem to quite fit in with Christianity? The answer is found in the writings of the Old Testament, which repeatedly testifies to the ambivalent status of horses in ancient Israel. Seen from the perspective of cultural history, the horse was a newcomer on the scene and never succeeded in replacing a much older domestic animal, the donkey. The unassuming donkey carried heavy loads, and in Palestine it was mounted with pride. Valued for their hard work, donkeys were considered rather smart, almost clairvoyant, beasts – as is proved by the tale of Balaam’s headstrong donkey, who rescues the prophet’s life because she sees the dangerous angel blocking the path (Book of Numbers 22). Horses, on the other hand, were expensive lodgers and only the royal court could afford to keep them. Only rarely were horses used for riding and then without the use of saddles; more frequently they were employed to pull chariots into battle. Because tiny Israel experienced the full force of the well-equipped armies of its imperial neighbours – Egyptians, Assyrians, and Babylonians – the horse, the tank of the antique war-machine, began to appear in a bad light to them. These animals had an impetuous character and fearless courage in the face of death. Instead of fleeing they threw themselves headfirst into battle, and their association with displays of pomp and splendour evoked fascination and distaste simultaneously. Not only were these horses armoured, but often also dressed up with the finery of status symbols. The horse stood symbolically for military might and faith in the power of weaponry. In some psalms and other biblical texts it is juxtaposed directly to the God of Israel and the true faith: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God” (psalm 20 : 7). In this context it seems self-evident why the evangelists, in accordance with the prophecy of Zechariah (9 : 9f ), had Jesus enter Jerusalem as king and prince of peace on a donkey, not a horse. The riders of the apocalypse in the Book of Revelation on the other hand maintain the forbidding and ominous image attached to the horse through the ages. Although the horse was used as a beast of toil for millennia in northern latitudes, just as the donkey was in Palestine, and although we still measure the strength of a car’s engine in horse power, these days the horse is largely a luxury animal. A horse that breaks its neck on a church spire thus becomes, far removed from Munchhausen’s silly tales, a reminder of the biblical omen.



Prof. Dr. Silvia Schroer

Prof. Dr. Silvia Schroer, Professor of Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures at the Faculty of Theology, University of Bern Reading suggestion: Silvia Schroer, Die Tiere in der Bibel. Eine kulturgeschichtliche Reise, Herder Verlag 2010 (“Animals of the Bible. A journey through cultural history”)


them in­to a political satire on the windbags in On a church spire a horse dangles with its legs the English Parliament. This became the first in the air. The installation references one of the book in the name of the Freiherr or Baron. Aumost famous adventures of the Baron of Munchthors and publishers continued to add to, renew, hausen. In 220 years, an estimated 400 different curtail, rework and translate the tales, which are book illus­tra­tions of the tale were produced. The now known in at least 65 languages. first of these was published in 1786 in England (see picture on last page). It retains its concepLet us return to the horse on the church spire tual influence on artistic representations of the and the play with the two exis­tences of the Barscene today, including the horse made from wilon of Munch­hausen, res­ low bran­c hes on the pec­tiv­ely the oscillation church spire in Wabern. It remains o­pen to question bet­ween reality and fichowever, whether the vertion. In Wa­bern somesion in Wa­­­bern is indeed thing was missing that is an illus­tra­tion. Certainly nearly always present in it wouldn’t fit between the other illustrations: the covers of a book. We may protagonist him­self was uncover the significance absent, intentionally and rightly so. Usually Munch­ of the adventure story and hausen stands below, aimthe incident in Wabern by ing for the harness. His recalling the particulariBernhard Wiebel weapon is directed at the ties and historical circumchurch, at the spire, from stances of Munchhausen’s the vantage point – mark this! – of the graveyard. tale. The unique circumstances are that there is If that is nothing but blasphemy! a lite­rary figure named Munchhausen, as well as a historical personality of the same name, whom The representational convention for this situathe literary figure was indeed based on. The facts tion is so well known and seems so “normal” of the case are as follows: in autumn 1785, the these days that it fails to induce the irritation it German scholar Rudolf Erich Raspe (1736 – should perhaps provoke. If, however, you see the 1794) then living in England, turned his conhorse while walking down the street in Wabern, temporary Hieronymus Carl Friedrich Freiherr von Munch­hausen (1720 – 1797) into the literprovided you know the story, you will be irriary protagonist Baron of Munchhausen through tated. The viewer is a physical part of the scene. the publication of a book in which the latter tells Unwillingly and by force he or she takes on the stories that have some partial connection to the role of Munchhausen, surprised at discovering biography of the historical personage. For exhis horse up in the air. ample, the historical Munchhausen was indeed famous for his talent at fabulation. A literary “I” The first depiction of the scene, in Raspe’s own tells of impossible or improbable adventures as hand, shows more clearly than the text that Munchhausen’s shot has a certain explosive char­ experienced by himself, this literary first person corresponds to a well-known contemporary figge. While in the text Munchhausen aims for the ure; that the two resemble each other in certain harness and thus only targets the church tower respects without being identical is not something implicitly and in a context that the reader may most of us, who tend to know Munchhausen no longer associate with the graveyard, the enfrom children’s books, are widely aware of. graving shows Munchhausen standing among the gravestones. He has just shot the harness; his Munchhausen was not originally a children’s first pistol is still smoking while the second is book, although there is no other “original” source aimed, seemingly coincidentally, at the entrance for the book either. The materials that make up to the church. the individual tales stem from a diversity of sour­ces, from antiquity and the early modern In order to grasp the far-reaching implications period to 18th century literature. They were trans­ of this sacrilege, it is necessary to consider the ­mitted in writing and orally until Raspe turned position of the church within society at the end

The Horse on the Church Spire


of the 18th century, four years after the French Re­ volution. People practiced the religious confession of their choice according to the rules of the church. A shot ringing out over the graveyard would have disturbed the gravity of the setting.

The thesis about the blasphemous nature of the text as well as the illustration may seem a little far-fetched. Yet looking at the book in which the first illustration appeared, one quickly discovers several passages of anti-ecclesiastical or blasphemous character. The first and last chapters that bookend this edition can explicitly be understood in this sense. At the end of the first adventure the author lets God in heaven swear “the devil may get me …”, while the last chapter describes the Pope’s amorous adventures. There is little doubt about the skeptical stance of author and illustrator Raspe in relation to the church, particularly regarding the alliance of worldly power and ecclesiastical office. If one approaches the tale disinterestedly, it conveys the impression of an amusing sketch or ab­surd joke. If, however, one calls to mind the con­text of author and book, a more advanced understanding of the scene presents itself: the adventure story as a blueprint for the representation of a decidedly enlightened attitude. In many respects Raspe can be included among Enlightenment writers. He forcefully arraigned against the divinely bestowed power of European and Asian monarchs in his letters and publications, and used his geological writings to oppose the use of the bible as a source of explana­ tion for the history of the earth. Using this knowledge of the author’s opinions and the poli­ tical dimensions of the Munchhausen tales, we may now propose a somewhat audacious reading of the story. It is possible to regard the tale’s progression from the moment he ties up the horse to its release as a metaphor illustrating the inevitability of a violent struggle for freedom from the shackles of a patronising church authority. In need of guidance, peace and shelter, horse and rider unknowingly submit to the custodial care of the church in the moment that Munchhausen fixes his hor­ se to the salvation ‘post’ in blind trust. The snow that had obscured and covered the facts melts quickly in the rising sun, however, and the mor­

ning brings enlightenment. The blind trust in the ‘post’, however, leads to the forced separation of horse and rider. Munchhausen can only reunite with his horse by committing an act of blasphemy, a shot at the church spire. Now what does this tell us about the horse of Wabern? The book illustration is a conservative form of artistic expression: the enforced bond between illustrator and text leads to repetitive imagery over long periods of time. This process begins with the selection of illustratable scenes from among the events described in the source and ends in the view that illustration, as a specialist field with­ in visual art, has a subservient, subaltern function in relation to the arts of language. From 1786 onwards Raspe’s pictorial conception remained dominant for about 80 years; all these images show an anthropomorphic horse clinging to the weather vane. In 1862 a paradigmatic break occurred: Gustav Doré rotated the animal so that it came to rest on the spire on its back, its legs dangling in the air. This is no heroic horse but an abused creature. And Doré’s woodcut in turn is the model for the version in Wabern. If, then, it is the afflicted animal that is referenced in Wa­ bern, we cannot call it blasphemy to adorn the church tower with its image; rather this interpretation is compatible with the church’s propagation of charity. Even though the willow branch sculpture was intended to represent Munchhausen’s horse, it is not blasphemy. For what was evil about this horse? If, as we speculated above, the surprised passer-by necessarily stands in for the missing Munchhausen, he would by implication have to take the shot – only, however, if we also regard the piece by Haus am Gern as an illustration. If the passers-by were indeed Munchhausen, and began to shoot, the work would be a performance. Installation does not illustrate and it does not act. It is pure irritation. Bernhard Wiebel (*1950) lic.phil.I, is an independent art historian living in Zurich. After training as a conservator of sculpture and painting at the Swiss National Museum in Zurich he studied art history, journalism and philosophy at the University of Zurich. Exhibitions and publications on Swiss Art of the 19th and 20th centuries followed between 1976 and 1980. From 1983 to 2002 he was organisational advi­ sor and partner in a consultancy firm. Since 1993 he has been involved in the development of the Munchhausen li­ brary in Zurich, as well as research, lectures, exhibitions and publications on the phenomenon of Munchhausen. www.munchhausen.org


Credits: Host Community of Köniz, near Bern / Curator Beat Gugger / Location Church of St. Michael, Roman catholic parish of Wabern / Organisation + Support Ueli Studer, Martha Häberli, Vreni Jost, Pierre Pestalozzi, Hubert Kössler, Heinrich Röthlin / Horse Sculpture Jan Rospek, Kepsor, Odolanów (PL) / Production Management PL Rafał Rózga (PL) / Transport Zbyszek Marszałek, Ruedi Häberli, René Steiner / Installation maltech.ch AG, Bern

Rudolf Erich Raspe, The Horse On The Church Spire, etching, 1786


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