Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 762
Munich is alive and radiant with life and art, energy, and enthusiasm. Young and old, Germans and foreigners, all feel at home in the city. Indolence and leisure—the basis of all culture and civilization—are the characteristics of the lifestyle of the citizens of Munich, especially in the streets of the northern quarter. Handsome men and beautiful women saunter by; both the rich and the poor patronize art and literature.
This pleasant atmosphere is nowhere more evident than on the Odeonsplatz, in front of the large windows and glass showcases of the big art shop owned by Herr Bluthenzweig. There are antiques, modern art, art books, bronze nudes, original paintings, and especially reproductions of masterpieces on display. One large picture, a fine sepia photograph of a sensuous Madonna in a wide old-gold frame, displayed in the first window, is the center of attraction to the art lovers of Munich; the original of this picture was the sensation of the year’s great international exhibition, an event well advertised all over town by means of effective and artistic posters.
A young man with hollowed cheeks, wrapped in his own thoughts, covered in a black cloak, with the hood drawn over his head, walks hurriedly. Oblivious of the sun-drenched, fun-loving city, he arrives at a dark church, which is empty except for an old woman on crutches. After genuflecting, the frail young man looks straight at the crucifix on the high altar. He seems to be seeking answers, strength, and reassurance from his God.
After praying and meditating for a little while, the young man leaves the church to go to the Odeonsplatz. Studying the faces of the people staring at the pictures displayed in the showcases in the windows of Herr Bluthenzweig, he concentrates his gaze on the picture of the Madonna. He can hear two university students admiring the sensuous beauty both of the photograph and of the model. Though offended and scandalized, Hieronymus stands staring at the picture for a quarter of an hour, fascination and repulsion revealed in his distraught face.
In fear and trembling, Hieronymus leaves the spot. He cannot understand why the picture of the sensuous Madonna goes wherever he goes. His soul is outraged; no amount of prayer and fasting can exorcise it.
On the third night after his visit to the art shop, Hieronymus receives a command from Heaven: “Speak out against frivolity, blasphemy, and the arrogance of beauty that flaunts itself naked; sacrifice yourself amid the jeers of your foes; you are My martyr and prophet; be not fainthearted; I am giving you the gift of tongues.”
Obedient to the unshakable will of God, Hieronymus retraces his steps to the art shop and demands to see Herr Bluthenzweig. No one pays any attention to the poor young man as all the shop attendants are busy waiting on their wealthy clientele. Finally, as Herr Bluthenzweig approaches Hieronymus, the young man demands that the photograph of the Madonna be removed from the showcase in the window and never be displayed again. The picture is a scandal—it ridicules the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. The world, Hieronymus says, is a valley of tears, corrupt and contemptible, sinful and miserable. This real world cannot and should not be camouflaged by the unreality of art and passing beauty. Art that extols the temporal mocks the eternal God. Genuine art does not lead humankind to sin; genuine art teaches humankind to hate the world and love God. Hieronymus charges the dealer to burn the picture and throw the ashes to the four winds. His voice reaches the crescendo of a scream: “Burn, burn, burn everything—all these antiques, statues, busts, and volumes of erotic verse; these are remnants of accursed paganism.”
Herr Bluthenzweig loses his patience. When he asks Hieronymus to leave, the young man does not budge; peremptorily, Bluthenzweig orders his servant Krauthuber, a big, burly human hulk, to throw Hieronymus out.
The next minute, Hieronymus finds himself in the street—exhausted, weak, and powerless. He does not see the jeering, amused people around him. He sees in the mosaic square in front of him the vision of an auto-da-fe—vases, busts, erotic books, pictures of famous beauties, and nude statues, all heaped in a pyramid and going up in flames as a result of his burning words and to the exultation of his followers. He sees the sword of God (gladius Dei) rising in splendor, quick and fast (cito et velociter), above the doomed city. In peace and serenity, Hieronymus lowers his eyes and covers his head.