Old and New Gods

Springtime in Vienna.  The city awakens and cool air floats over centuries of architecture gleaming in the morning sun.  On the Stephansplatz, locals go about their business dodging flocks of tourists who gape at the cathedral and descend upon the cafes.  If not for the occasional modern building amid the venerable structures, a giant billboard mounted to a neoclassical facade might seem utterly out of place, as might the image it projects.  Above the crowd, the face of a beautiful woman endorses high fashion yet merges with the art world by resembling a portrait installed in a frame of decorative arches.

Coco Chanel billboard of a woman’s face across from St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna.

We could be in Paris; we could be in Prague; we could be in any number of grand European capitals witnessing similar juxtapositions.  Indeed, the urban collage of old and new is generally considered exciting and part of what makes such cities thriving and dynamic cultural centers.  We should not, however, take the diverse milieu for granted, especially when the opportunity for reflection arises.  A historic square in Vienna may be a place to appreciate both the sacred intent of Gothic architecture and the earthly delights of upscale shopping, but let us pause for a moment to consider the striking contrasts in style and ideology on offer.

On one side of the square, we have the Catholic Church cautioning against material possessions and pleasures of the flesh.  On the other side, we have Coco Chanel glorifying the body and encouraging the purchase of luxury goods.  Both utilize spectacle; both have their say.  The Church benefits from the accumulated wealth and labor-intensive projects of a former time; Chanel from the immediacy of large-scale photo-graphics and applied psychology.  In a glance we witness an epic collision of values: The Virgin Mary versus the supermodel.

Although in the West tension between religious and secular powers is largely a nonissue today, a clear synthesis of their positions has yet to emerge, and neither camp provides an entirely sufficient value system independently.  Both, however, say: Give your money to us.  Do they balance one another out, or are they instead manifestations of imbalance?  In an exponentially post-this, post-that world, the Father and the Son have been retained by Christendom, whereas Capitalism, all pervasive in its imagery, lays claim to the zeitgeist and occupies the realm of the Holy Spirit.  As a result, blaspheming against the almighty dollar constitutes the new unforgivable sin.

Coco Chanel billboard of a woman’s face across from St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna.
Cool Religion

Author: Todd Garlington

Urban spectator, Inner space cadet

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