A pop concert or a New Year’s reception in a church? Nowadays, you’d hardly think twice about that. Church congregations are shrinking fast, and have serious financial shortages. Side activities make the maintenance and management of churches possible, but often the church interior is the victim. And in Justin Kroesen’s opinion, that’s something we should take extremely good care of. Kroesen is the University of Groningen expert in the field of historical church interiors. ‘Many old churches are cultural time machines. Step into the building and history unfolds before your eyes in a kind of three-dimensional archive.’
With Easter just around the corner, more people will be visiting a church. It’s the perfect time to have a good look around. ‘People are often surprised at how much there is to see in a church, even without all those side activities’, says Kroesen. ‘Church interiors are a unique gateway to the past. Naturally churches were primarily places of worship, but they were also public space where all kinds of groups in society made their presence felt – the nobility, the public administration, trades. There is so much more to be read than just religious history. By examining the furniture and the imagery we can also learn a lot about political and social relationships, for example.’
Kroesen: ‘Take a look, for example, at the central aisle. It’s often full of gravestones. The texts you can read on them show what those people thought about life and death and the hope of a hereafter. You often also find coats of arms on these gravestones, showing which family the deceased belonged to. There is often a lot of bluffing going on, but that gives us great insight into the relationships at that time.’
An example of that are the pews in Frisian churches. ‘In Friesland, you can often see that the pews on the north side of the church are enclosed and have a book ledge, while the pews on the south side are open and plain, without a book ledge. Women had open pews so they could arrange their skirts properly. And as they were often not able to read, they didn’t need a book ledge.’
In nearly every village, the church is the oldest building around, according to Kroesen. ‘There are of course also “borgen” (castles or fortified houses in the province of Groningen) and other buildings with a centuries-old core, but there are far fewer of them preserved. In addition, church interiors are often in relatively good condition – certainly compared with a borg or a town hall in which people lived and worked, and often still do. The durability of church interiors is far greater because they were used for the liturgy – a centuries-old tradition. As a result, the interiors were not adapted as quickly as they were in a town hall, for example. Because many objects were also donated to churches, they have a certain aura of perpetuity.’
Kroesen: ‘What I think is the greatest problem is that all kinds of things are being done to churches to make them suitable for side activities. Railings and pews are being torn out so that it becomes easier to give concerts in the church. The pulpit is being pushed to one side, and before you know it, a historical ensemble has been pulled apart. In fact, what you are seeing is an entire archive being thrown out.’ A major threat to church interiors is thus from the Church authorities themselves, states Kroesen. ‘They want to change everything to suit modern celebrations and extra side activities, designed to generate more financial room. Many church administrators simply don’t know that they have a goose that could lay golden eggs in their hands, and they act like a bull in a china shop.’
‘You can’t preserve everything, and of course things can be changed,’ says Kroesen. ‘But think hard about what you’re doing. For example, make sure that whatever you do is reversible. If you simply rip out pews or railings, there’s no way back. We have to keep talking about what is worth preserving. We don’t have to preserve all churches from the 1920s in their current state, but work out which are particularly characteristic and protect them. Then you can do a lot more to the remaining churches. It’s not about preserving everything at all costs, but rather about thinking properly about which churches deserve to be protected.’
The government should take its role as protector of religious heritage much more seriously, in Kroesen’s opinion. ‘Church authorities are barely supported in managing the interiors, despite them being such major heritage guardians.’ Often the government plays the separation of Church and State card, but in Kroesen’s opinion that’s taking the easy way out. ‘Church interiors are not just religious heritage, they are also always cultural heritage. A sort of Marshall Plan for religious heritage could be the solution, but you can’t leave something like that to the Church alone as it’s becoming smaller and smaller.’
Dr Justin Kroesen (Hoogeveen, 1975) studied Theology at the University of Groningen. He currently works at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies as lecturer in Art History of Christianity. He is also the coordinator of the Institute for Christian Cultural Heritage. He is an expert in the field of historical churches and their interiors, in particular from the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period.
In February 2013 Kroesen was elected Lecturer of the Year of the university. Watch Kroesen's lecture at this competition.
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