Fight with demons

In 1948 the parish of Meilen decided to build a church. The project was entrusted to Otto Glaus (1914-1996), an architect close to Mario Comensoli. The church was inaugurated on 10 June 1951 and Comensoli painted a wall in the following weeks. The painter had previously asked for the support of an important figure from the world of culture: in November 1950, in a letter in which he had presented his project accompanied it with a “badly-taken photograph” “as he defined it in his writing. To Birchler, a professor at the Federal Institute of Technology and a prominent member of the Society for the Protection of Historical Monuments, Comensoli explained that he intended to paint a painting of the baptism of Christ and place a one-metre high sculpture of St. John the Baptist next to the baptismal font. Birchler could put in a good word to the parishioners, being a native of the region. Comensoli’s interlocutor, who knew the painter and apparently appreciated his qualities, did not give an enthusiastic impression of the project and pointed out in a letter that the parish of Meilen did not have the appropriate funding.

A patron was found anyway. As a matter of fact, it was Glaus himself who financed the work. Perhaps following his advice, Comensoli conceived a scene (The fight against demons) that was a far cry from the initial envisaged project. And the artist gave up completion of the work with the sculpture of St. John the Baptist, which ended up in storage without the bronze figure being extracted from the plaster.

Shortly after the painting was finished, in September, the latent aversion of some parishioners turned into a violent conflict. Ferdinand Pfammatter, who had been Glaus’s assistant in the construction of the church, opened hostilities with a letter to Comensoli in which he revealed for the first time that Professor Birchler was also against the painting and he thought it “an offence to the eyes and religious sentiment”. He added that “every Sunday in Meilen the opposition of the people and the desire to eliminate the cause of widespread discontent increases.”

Under these circumstances, Professor Birchler’s reaction soon followed. When asked while he was in a congress in Lausanne without weighing his words too seriously, he gave in to a display of anger, summarised in a venomous letter: “Comensoli’s painting is the most extreme, most preposterous product made for religious purposes in a church Pay the artist, photograph the work, let Max Bill and his friends go into ecstasy in front of it – and make it disappear under the lime, but quickly, as soon as possible…”

On 4 October 1951 Mario Comensoli sent a letter to the parish authorities of Meilen protesting against the vandalism of his work. A few days later, the painting was covered with a wooden structure to avoid further outrage. It was only many years later that the opera was, as it were, revalued and the controversies were put to sleep. It must be said that in those years numerous churches were built in Switzerland and elsewhere, and that the artists who were called to decorate them often met a fate similar to that of Comensoli. The conflict between traditionalists and conservatives has not always been resolved in the best way when it comes to freedom of expression. The painting of Meilen church is emblematic in this sense.