Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


Rainer, Arnulf - VM - Jérome Cottin


Arnulf Rainer: Moses before the Burning Bush

Veiling and Unveiling

by Jérôme Cottin

Arnulf Rainer (b. 1929) is undoubtedly the most important living Austrian artist. His work is known and valued across the world. In his early years he belonged to the Austrian avant-garde and rebelled against all kinds of institutions in his country from state and school to various cultural institutions. Thanks to his encounter with the Viennese archbishop Otto Mauer he became interested in religion, the Christian faith and mysticism. The clergyman (as organizer) and the artist mounted several illustrious expositions together. In 2004 Rainer received a honorary doctorate from the Catholic Theological Faculty of Münster in Germany. His startling and sometimes provocative work is often exhibited in churches.

Here Rainer, who is especially well-known for his Übermalungen or ‘overpaintings,’ has painted with orange and yellow across a copy of an image from the 14th-century Bible of King Wenzel of Prague. The original image  portrays God as he speaks to Moses in the desert (see Exodus 3:1-11). Why did Rainer make this work? Why does he cover an old biblical motif with large colour fields?

He did this to express an idea that returns repeatedly in his work, namely that veiling unveils. By partly or completely concealing a motif the artist adds mystery and evokes a longing to see. Rainer’s veiling/unveiling consists of at least four dimensions: artistic, anthropological, biblical and theological.

By concealing Rainer hands us back our true humanity.

The artistic dimension. Rainer never totally covers the original image. He always leaves spaces uncovered, thus endowing them with extra power. The overpainted parts on the other hand are usually brightly coloured, so that they imbue the old image – which we do not really see anymore, as we think we know it too well – with new life. In this way the artist shows painting to be an art that is alive and kicking, capable of superseding older ways of representation.

The anthropological dimension. Just like Thomas we want to see. We want to see everything, even the invisible, even God. We have a hard time accepting the mystery, the not knowing, as we realize all too well that the invisible is often more important than the visible. By covering and concealing Rainer opposes this. He teases and challenges us and wants us to accept that we should not always want to look further than what is given to us to see. Because often enough it is the case that the more we see, the less we believe. By concealing Rainer hands us back out true humanity.

The biblical dimension. By covering the largest part of the old image Rainer shows himself to be a good exegete of Exodus 3:1-11. The old book illustration portrays God with a human face, with nimbus and surrounded by angels. But the God who calls Moses in the text of Exodus is a God who hides himself. He does not show his face to Moses and refuses to tell his name. He only says : ‘I am who I am.’ Just like the biblical text Rainer’s painting conceals God from us. The painting’s coloured areas look, moreover, like tongues of fire, as if the fire that veils and unveils God in Exodus flares up again, in the image but also in our heart. 

The theological dimension. Rainer does not only give us an illustration of a biblical narrative, he also provides us with a theological commentary of the God of the Bible. When God reveals himself, he does this with words or simple signs that maintain the mystery. In the painting the tongues of fire diverge for just a moment, so that we catch a glimpse of God that speaks of his presence among us as well as of his refusal to be reduced to a human being. God is always larger than we are. He is always different from us. This is what the Bible tells us in all its stories. This is also the message of the Austrian painter Arnulf Rainer.


Arnulf RainerMoses before the Burning Bush, 1998, tempera on printed paper, 46,4 x 32,4 cm.

Arnulf Rainer (b. 1929) is an Austrian painter, printmaker, photographer and collector, born in Baden, near Vienna. He had virtually no formal instruction in art and his technical procedures are often unconventional. His early works, mainly drawings and prints, were inspired by Surrealism. Later he was influenced by Abstract Expressionist and Art Informel. In the mid-1950s he began producing ‘overpaintings,’ in which he took as a basis a painting, drawing or photograph (either his own work or someone else's) and partially obliterated the image with monochromatic colour. A similar concern with reworking surfaces occurs in many of his prints, in which he sometimes uses the same plates again and again. ‘Overpaintings’ dominated Rainer's work for about a decade, until the mid-1960s. He also produced a series of cruciform pictures during this period. In 1963 he began collecting Art Brut and the following year he began experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs—indications of his interest in extreme emotional states. Thematically he has a preference for religious and mystical subjects, as well as themes related to body language and nature.

Jérôme Cottin is Professor of Practical Theology at the Faculty for Protestant Theology at the University of Strasbourg, France. He has written numerous articles and several books about Christianity and art (see and is responsible for the website  

ArtWay Visual Meditation February 16, 2014