In the early 1980s, Carl-Henning Pedersen was chosen by the Danish Arts Foundation to decorate Ribe Cathedral, one of Denmark's oldest and most beautiful churches. It would turn out to be a controversial choice. To combine modern expressionist painting with the “noblest church interior of the Romanesque period” was in itself considered problematic, and to choose an artist such as Carl-Henning Pedersen, who was not a believer in the traditional sense, did not lessen the indignation.
Photo: Sidsel Ramson
The debate began in the month of June, 1982, with the first contribution being published in the Politiken newspaper. Protests continued throughout the summer with arguments for and against having Carl-Henning Pedersen's art decorate the church walls – indeed the holiest parts of the church: the choir and the apsis. Gradually positive statements got the upper hand, and in 1983 Carl-Henning Pedersen began the five-year-long project of creating frescos, mosaics and glass paintings for Ribe Cathedral.
At his death in 2007, Carl-Henning Pedersen left behind a diary of the time in Ribe, committing to paper his many thoughts, inspirations, techniques and worries in connection with the assignment. “A church painter I shall never be”, it says on one of the first pages, but it is clearly an inspired Carl-Henning Pedersen who later relates one of the most powerful experiences he had while working on the frescos:
“There I was, standing high up, bending back my head, looking into the church interior and feeling as if I was standing under the great arch of heaven – and perhaps feeling a bit lost. Then suddenly the organ set in, the organist was playing, and it was as if the brush in my hand felt light, and I began to draw – a free composition – which I prefer to call “About the Mystery of Existence”".
Prior to this, Carl-Henning Pedersen had made more than a hundred preparatory sketches for the interior of the church, but as this quotation shows, it was not until the actual execution of the decoration that it found its final form.
Photo: Finn Roosted