In 2016, a wooden boat was installed inside the main entrance of Cologne Cathedral in Germany. A projector shone a slideshow of photographs of refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea onto the north wall of the church directly above the boat. A second projector shone the installation’s title onto the floor in front of the boat in several languages, beginning with German: Christus sitzt im Flüchtlingsboot; in English: ‘Christ sits in the refugee boat’.
This installation was part of a series of initiatives of the Archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, and his staff. These initiatives blurred the lines between art, performance, and liturgy, and aimed to raise support for refugees. In June 2015, the bells of 230 diocesan churches tolled 23,000 times for the number of refugees who had died in the Mediterranean between 2000 and 2015. In the following spring the archdiocese collaborated with the humanitarian organization Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) to bring a refugee boat from Malta to Cologne. In May 2016, the archbishop celebrated the Corpus Christi Mass on the boat outside the cathedral. During the Mass, the archbishop alluded to the Last Judgment described in Matthew 25 when he preached: ‘Whoever lets people drown in the Mediterranean lets God drown’. It was following this Mass that the boat was installed inside the cathedral’s entrance.
Combining the relic-like wooden boat with projected text and photography, Flüchtlingsboot is unapologetically postmodern in format, and well-suited to a church that boasts both ancient relics and a ‘pixillated’ stained-glass window designed by contemporary artist Gerhard Richter.
Flüchtlingsboot’s location at the western end of the cathedral is significant: images of the Last Judgment frequently adorned the western walls and facades of Byzantine and western medieval churches. Like the cardinal’s words, the Flüchtlingsboot installation evokes Christ’s words in Matthew’s Last Judgment: ‘As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’ (Matthew 25:40).
While the title of the installation urges the viewer to look for Christ in the boat, he is nowhere to be found. Instead, churchgoers and tourists are confronted by pictures of contemporary refugees and encouraged to seek God by helping those in need: the strangers in their midst.
In Deuteronomy 10:19, Moses presents just such hospitality to foreigners as a central tenet of God’s Law: ‘You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’ (NRSV).
2016. ‘Christus sitzt im Flüchtlingsboot, 20 May 2016, www.erzbistum-koeln.de [accessed 13 August 2020]
10 “At that time the Lord said to me, ‘Hew two tables of stone like the first, and come up to me on the mountain, and make an ark of wood. 2And I will write on the tables the words that were on the first tables which you broke, and you shall put them in the ark.’ 3So I made an ark of acacia wood, and hewed two tables of stone like the first, and went up the mountain with the two tables in my hand. 4And he wrote on the tables, as at the first writing, the ten commandments which the Lord had spoken to you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly; and the Lord gave them to me. 5Then I turned and came down from the mountain, and put the tables in the ark which I had made; and there they are, as the Lord commanded me.
6 (The people of Israel journeyed from Be-erʹoth Bene-jaʹakan to Moseʹrah. There Aaron died, and there he was buried; and his son Eleaʹzar ministered as priest in his stead. 7From there they journeyed to Gudʹgodah, and from Gudʹgodah to Jotʹbathah, a land with brooks of water. 8At that time the Lord set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the Lord, to stand before the Lord to minister to him and to bless in his name, to this day. 9Therefore Levi has no portion or inheritance with his brothers; the Lord is his inheritance, as the Lord your God said to him.)
10 “I stayed on the mountain, as at the first time, forty days and forty nights, and the Lord hearkened to me that time also; the Lord was unwilling to destroy you. 11And the Lord said to me, ‘Arise, go on your journey at the head of the people, that they may go in and possess the land, which I swore to their fathers to give them.’
12 “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I command you this day for your good? 14Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it; 15yet the Lord set his heart in love upon your fathers and chose their descendants after them, you above all peoples, as at this day. 16Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. 17For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the terrible God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. 18He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. 19Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. 20You shall fear the Lord your God; you shall serve him and cleave to him, and by his name you shall swear. 21He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and terrible things which your eyes have seen. 22Your fathers went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now the Lord your God has made you as the stars of heaven for multitude.