In September of 2011, the archives of liturgical artist Ernst Schwidder arrived at Valparaiso University, after hitchhiking all the way from Seattle/Tacoma in the back of a semi-trailer loaded with organ pipes. The archives consisted of 240 three-foot mailing tubes filled with rolled-up architectural drawings and sketches, plus boxes of files, records, photos, and slides. Since Schwidder’s art is installed in approximately three hundred churches across the United States, the only actual work in the collection was a six-foot crucifix of carved mahogany, a gift of his daughter, Anna, to the University’s Brauer Museum. This arrival at Valparaiso University was actually a homecoming of sorts, for in 1958 Ernst Schwidder became the first head of the university’s Department of Art.
Schwidder’s arrival at Valpo amounted to a serendipitous convergence of creativity. He had achieved acclaim as a painter with gallery representation in Seattle, where he had earned an MFA at the University of Washington. His father had been pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Seattle; in fact, there had been Lutheran pastors in his family since the days of the Reformation. As a student he went through an agnostic phase, but could not shake the impact of late French Romanesque and early Gothic architecture. He loved music, architecture, drawing, and drama and was looking for a way to put it all together when he met Charles Stade, the campus architect and designer of the Chapel of the Resurrection, which was dedicated in 1959, the year after Schwidder’s arrival on campus.
Slowly it came to him that in the cathedral environment there could be a fusion and stimulation of all the senses: the visual impact of sunlight through stained glass windows, the lively presence of sculpted figures and fascinating architectural detail, the sound of chanting floating through the soaring vaults, the smell of incense, the taste of bread and wine, and the brilliant sound of the organ. It dawned on him that there was a way to combine all of his interests: religion and theology, the visual arts, architecture, music, theater, and even writing (despite his dyslexia). The creative opportunity of teaching art, planning the art curriculum, exhibiting his own work, along with designing vestments, banners, and graphical symbols for worship services in the Valparaiso University chapel became the impetus for his lifelong career. Records indicate that he designed a maquette (scale model) for the Christus Rex sculpture over the high altar in the chapel.
Stations of the Cross, St. Joseph Catholic Church, Summit, IL.
Free-Standing Chancel Crucifix. Magnolia Lutheran Church, Seattle, WA.
Altar Carving (detail), Our Savior Lutheran Church, Naperville, IL.
Processional Cross and Torches. St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church, Seattle, WA.
Stations of the Cross. St. Yves Catholic Church, Mosseyrock, WA.
Chancel Cross. St. Matthew Lutheran Church, Beaverton, OR
Chancel Reredos. Spannaway Lutheran Church, Spannaway, WA
Reredos. Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Rockford, IL
Dove and Font. Lutheran Church of the Resurrection, Huntington Beach, CA
Narthex Wall Sculpture. Phinney Ridge Lutheran Church, Seattle, WA
Bronze Dove. Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Rockford, IL
Narthex wall sculpture. St. Matthew Lutheran Church, Renton, WA.
The start of Ernst Schwidder’s career as a liturgical artist coincided with the great post-World War II church building boom. Taking a leave from Valparaiso University, he went to work as a designer of chancels and chancel furnishings in the Charles Stade workshop. In 1963, he gave up his chairmanship to work fulltime with Stade. The Schwidder family moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1964, but Schwidder continued to consult, carve, and work for Stade from the West Coast. During this transition, he shifted his methods from those of a painter to those of a sculptor; he worked first with repoussé copper and later with wood carving. He preferred roughhewn surfaces with chisel marks, textured for touch. On more than one occasion, he humorously called himself a “chiseler.”
Describing the developmental shift of his artistic vision from painting to sculpture, from oil paintings of mystic landscapes to the hard and heavy weight of a sculpted crucifix anchored to the ground, Schwidder wrote:
“As I reminisced about those early years, a critic’s appraisal of my work came to mind, describing my paintings as 'quiet, poetic... in which vague images seemed to float in diffused moonlight-pictures which embody a personal somber dream world.' For a while this was enough, to retreat from a noisy, bloody, dirty world into a pantheistic fantasy.“
“As conditions and circumstances began to change, I reacted with increasingly explicit images, particularly with regard to a deepening religious concern. The crucifixion became the seeding dandelion and the resurrection replaced “solar fertility” in my pictorial vocabulary. A greater empathy for people and an almost evangelistic desire to share my beliefs led me into the field of liturgical art. My work progressed from the painted image to sculptural forms and then to architectural sculpture and finally to the design of the entire building and its furnishings.“ (Unpublished essay in papers of Ernst Schwidder)
Most often a Schwidder crucifix contains the corpus of a dead Jesus, head bent to the side, seemingly resting on his shoulder. This lifeless body which paradoxically brings new life seems to emerge from the wood in a dramatic hint toward resurrection. The artist makes a direct reference to Jesus’ words in John 12:24: “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” The crucifixion becomes the “seeding dandelion” which the anti-religious culture cannot eradicate, even though it in itself is a scandal. “Cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree” (Deut. 21:23). But with Paul we are led to see that God’s foolishness is greater than human wisdom, God’s weakness greater than human strength, and, with an artist like Ernst Schwidder, God’s ugliness is more scintillating than human beauty. Ernst Schwidder sculpts the theology of the cross.
The architect Le Corbusier described worthy sacred architecture as “ineffable space,” that about which nothing can be said because it is beyond words. It results from appropriate use of materials, soaring space that uplifts vision, proportions that embrace the human person and transfigure consciousness. There is this ineffable quality in Ernst Schwidder’s work. Visit one of his installations at St. Joseph Catholic Church, Summit, Illinois; St. John Lutheran Church, Lincolnwood, Illinois; Ascension Lutheran Church, South Bend, Indiana; St. Paul Lutheran Church, Mt. Prospect, Illinois; Peace Memorial United Methodist Church, Palos Park, Illinois; St. Mary Catholic Church, Des Plaines, Illinois; Resurrection Lutheran Church, Franklin Park, Illinois; or Our Savior Lutheran Church, Naperville, Illinois among many others. Believing and seeing go together.
It has been fifteen years since the untimely death of Ernst Schwidder. It is time for a reassessment of his work as a liturgical artist, that it might once again revive, encourage, and renew the aesthetic vision of the church.
Joel Nickel is a retired Lutheran pastor and active liturgical artist living in Salem, Oregon. He served parishes in Detroit, Michigan, Chicago and Champaign, Illinois, and Stayton, Oregon. He attended the Chicago Academy of Fine Art and the Oregon School of Arts and Crafts.