Christus sitzt im Flüchtlingsboot by Unknown artists

Unknown artists

Christus sitzt im Flüchtlingsboot, 2016, Installation, North Tower Hall, Cologne Cathedral, Photo: © Dr Evan Freeman

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Loving the Stranger

Commentary by

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).

 

References

2016. ‘Christus sitzt im Flüchtlingsboot, 20 May 2016, www.erzbistum-koeln.de [accessed 13 August 2020]


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