Max Weiler as defendant in court for the supposed degrading of the peasantry, 1948

Max Weiler created a remarkably large number of works for public places. He painted the majority of them in Innsbruck, elsewhere in the Tyrol and in Linz, following commissions from the church, public entities such as theatres, clinics and schools, and private commissions. In all, he completed more than 40 such works, of which only a small sample can be shown here. Before Weiler embarked on this public activity in 1945, which he continued until 1993/94 with, among other things, the murals for the Casino in Innsbruck, he had already reflected and worked intensively on this form of representation. The idea of a reformulated mural, particularly for a modernised form of the liturgy, had arisen within the Austrian youth movement to which he had belonged. Weiler had already done sketches and developed his own idiom, but circumstances had not permitted him to realise any of them. Artistically and mentally, as well as technically, he was already prepared for large-format murals, however.

In 1945, when Weiler, shortly after his return from the Second World War, was commissioned to decorate the walls of the Theresienkirche on the Hungerburg on the outskirts of Innsbruck, he was able to carry on from his earlier ideas. His style differed significantly from that of his early religious work, however. The frescoes' pictorial themes were also religious ones, their subject matter having been specified by the parish priest at Stift Wilten, Dominikus Dietrich, who wanted the paintings to represent the tradition of the veneration of the sacred heart. That tradition had remained especially lively in the Tyrol because the whole region had, since Napoleonic times, enjoyed the protection of the sacred heart, a special relationship that was repeatedly renewed over the years. It was hoped that, with the war over, there would be a revival of that tradition, which centres on the mystically inspired "Vision of the Heart of Jesus", the exemplary goodness and compassion of which had permitted mankind's redemption, and that the tradition’s powers would be revealed to the pious through prayer. The ensemble consists of representations of the "Veneration of the Heart of Jesus", the "Scene on the Mount of Olives with St. John resting on Jesus’ chest" and "Christ's Crucifixion". The central work is the "Heart of Jesus Sun", a painting that shows the monumental crowned heart, a heavenly rose of profound power and mysterious strangeness, borne aloft by six angels against the background of a cosmic mountain scene.

Max Weiler, who developed the series of frescoes one by one, was soon subjected to harsh criticism. It was provoked firstly by his unusually colourful, Fauvist painting style, which, for example, gave him the latitude to incorporate a blue horse into a painting of the Crucifixion. Secondly, his modern treatment of the theme was felt to be offensive. He showed a group of Tyrolean peasants under the Crucifixion scene, one of whom held a lance in his hand with which Christ's side was being pierced. The storm of indignation that was unleashed led Weiler as far as the courthouse on the grounds that he had "degraded the peasantry". This Iconic Controversy, which received coverage in the regional, national and international press, was a complex event that can be seen as symptomatic of a conservative mentality, modernisation problems and ignorance of art. Weiler, who suffered greatly from what happened, also became famous as a result. He was unable to complete the series of frescoes as he had planned. His works, which were also condemned by the church, were for some time even in danger of being destroyed. He draped them with cloths to protect them and just under a decade later, by which time the controversy had subsided, he was able to unveil them again. The frescoes he painted between 1945 and 1947 have been on public view ever since. They are one of the most important works Weiler created for a public place and the clearest record of his ambivalent relationship to the Tyrol.

Interior view of the Theresienkirche in Innsbruck (left: east wall; right: west wall)
Veneration of the heart of Jesus, 1946
Fresco on the west wall
700 x 765 cm
Design (1:1) for "Veneration of the heart of Jesus", 1945
Egg tempera, pencil on paper
770 x 482 cm
Frescoes of the east wall
ca. 700 x 1800 cm
St. John resting on Jesus’ chest and the mount of olives, 1947
Fresco on the east wall (left)
700 x 595 cm
Colour design for Christ und St. John, 1946
Egg tempera on paper
102,5 x 98,5 cm
Heart of Jesus sun, 1947
Fresco on the east wall (center)
770 x 665 cm
Colour design for a deacon angel, 1947
Egg tempera, pencil on paper
111,5 x 77 cm
The lance wound, 1947
Fresco on the east wall (right)
700 x 585 cm
Design for the lance wielding peasant, 1946
Egg tempera, pencil on paper
126 x 75 cm