It’s deceptively simple, vividly illustrative, artistically potent, it’s the last of its kind available anywhere, and it’s coming to the Diocese of Orange to become the holiest spiritual heart of the transformed Christ Cathedral.
It’s the cathedral’s tabernacle, a piece of liturgical furnishing common to all Catholic churches, but this one is far removed from a gold-plated box that can be bought from a religious supply catalog. It is the very last tabernacle designed and fashioned by the celebrated modern German artist Egino Weinert, who counted among his admirers and patrons Blessed Paul VI and Pope Saint John Paul II.
The tabernacle is “an example of the artwork of one of the most renowned 20th century liturgical artists,” says Monsignor Art Holquin, S.T.L., the Episcopal Vicar for Diving Worship for the Diocese of Orange. “And it’s utterly unique; there’s no other like it. The fact that the very first artistic item that we acquired for the cathedral is the tabernacle is very providential. It’s really quite exciting.”
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It was Monsignor Holquin who did the initial “footwork and research” to locate the tabernacle in a museum in Germany maintained by the artist’s widow. All other tabernacles in the world fashioned by Wienert had already found their way into churches. Weinert’s widow was initially reluctant to part with the treasured piece, but “when she heard it was destined for a cathedral, she agreed,” says Monsignor Holquin.
In the Catholic Church, a tabernacle is a liturgical furnishing used to reserve any of the Blessed Sacrament following its consecration at the Eucharist. The word comes from Hebrew, meaning “dwelling place”—in this case, the place where Christ in the Eucharist literally dwells.
Housing the Eucharist in the tabernacle prevents it from being stolen or defiled in any way, and also makes it available to take to the sick and infirm. The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” provides for this: “The tabernacle in which the Eucharist is regularly reserved is to be immovable, made of solid or opaque material, and locked so that the danger of profanation may be entirely avoided.”
The new Weinert tabernacle will be located in Christ Cathedral inside the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, which will be situated behind the bishop’s chair on the main level of the cathedral and will have a separate entrance apart from the cathedral. The chapel will be diamond-shaped, with the tabernacle, positioned on its pillar, in the center of the room.
The tabernacle itself is a four-sided cube, with each facing depicting “a different aspect in the ministry of Jesus,” says Monsignor Holquin. It will sit atop a pedestal of sculpted bronze, also depicting scenes from the life of Jesus.
“We’re very, very fortunate to acquire this for such an important chapel,” says Monsignor Holquin. “It’s a powerful visual catechesis of the life of Christ.”
Weinert’s life story is one of strong faith, but with many twists. Born in Berlin in 1920 to devout Catholic parents, he developed almost parallel artistic and religious vocations. He entered a Benedictine monastery in 1934, where the monks supported his art and arranged for his apprenticeship. He became a goldsmith.
“He was very much drawn to the work of the German expressionists,” says Monsignor Holquin. “His artwork eventually could be characterized as what we would call Christian naiveté, or comparable to what we would call here in the United States folk art—that is, not highly photographic in terms of trying to capture exactly human figures, but rather stylistic, with a certain refined simplicity.”
Briefly jailed for refusing to speak the words “Heil Hitler,” Weinert eventually was drafted into the German military, where he “did his best to work with other artists of that time,” says Monsignor Holquin. After the war, his right hand was damaged irreparably in an accident. He left the monastery, married and had children, settled in Cologne and concentrated on producing sacred art—left-handed.
His specialty, says Monsignor Holquin was inlaid enamel work using the cloisonné or champlevé techniques. “He developed this to such a fine degree that folks were coming from all over the world to his shop in Cologne to have plaques, chalices, tabernacles and other items commissioned and made. He captured the attention of the Italian Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, who would eventually become Pope Paul VI and who had a great love for contemporary liturgical art and had a very refined aesthetic sense.” Montini used a Weinert chalice and asked that several pieces of Weinert’s enamel art be included in the permanent exhibit of the Vatican Museum’s modern art wing.
Pope Saint John Paul II also was a Weinert fan. After the artist fashioned the enamel decorations, the tabernacle and the candleholders for the chapel of the Pontifical Academy of Sacred Music in Rome, “John Paul said that chapel was the most beautiful he had ever consecrated,” says Monsignor Holquin.
The new Christ Cathedral tabernacle is ready to be shipped from Germany, says Monsignor Holquin. When it arrives, it will be placed on public display on the second floor of the Cultural Center on the cathedral campus as part of the cathedral renovation exhibit.
The Weinert tabernacle will actually be the third such tabernacle within diocesan borders. The first was acquired by Monsignor Holquin several years ago when he was the rector of Holy Family Cathedral in Orange. It’s still there. The second was commissioned by Father Jerome Karcher for St. Vincent de Paul Church in Huntington Beach.
“It’ll be a marvelous tie-in between old and new cathedral,” says Monsignor Holquin. “It will be a beautiful element of continuity in that which is so sacred in every church.”