Piety, reaction and renewal

Habsburg rule was intimately connected to its status as a defender of Catholicism. Its demise is often presented as accompanied by a rise in secularism and a freeing up of other religious groups and denominations. In Hungary, for example, Calvinism enjoyed a resurgence after 1918, while in Czechoslovakia the Hussite church was created by the new state as a sign of political and religious independence.

The old order was not so quickly overturned, however; a crowning moment in Czechoslovak political symbolism was the 1929 completion of St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague. After toppling the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919, the regime of Admiral Horthy saw itself as an upholder of the Catholic faith. In Austria, clericalism became central to the political culture, culminating in the Austro-Fascism of the 1930s. This political climate shaped artistic life, too. One of the most lauded interwar Austrian painters was Herbert Boeckl, renowned for his pious religious imagery. There was also renewed interest in the Baroque artistic and architectural heritage, previously a sign of the Counter-Reformation credentials of the Habsburgs; in Vienna the Baroque Museum was set up in 1923.

Yet such piety was not just conservative reaction. Some major examples of modernist architecture were churches. Equally, artists such as Oskar Kokoschka proudly evoked their putative Austrian Baroque heritage; the Salzburg Festival was founded in 1920 to revitalise Austria’s Baroque heritage by two of leading modernist critics: Hermann Bahr and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. In Hungary, ‘neobaroque’ modernism appealed even to functionalist architects, while in Prague, the Adria Palace (1924), an important example of the interwar ‘national style,’ recalled the city’s Baroque (and Habsburg) past.

This theme examines not only the legacy of the Baroque as a signifier of the Habsburg past, but also religious imagery and buildings in contemporary art and architecture. It considers how Catholic ideology was mobilised in the visual arts but also how it was challenged, both by other churches and by secular groups. It thereby revises the traditional image of a simple opposition between a secular avant-garde and a religious establishment, pointing, instead, to the frequent intertwining of the two.


Jože Plečnik: Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord, Prague, 1929-1932 – photo: Petr Šmerkl, Wikipedia