Wander through Vienna’s Volksgarten park and you’ll encounter a little bit of Greece among the roses and memorials: the early 19th-century Theseus Temple.
- Built in the image of a Greek temple as a home for a Canova sculpture
- Now used for temporary free exhibitions of a single work of contemporary art
- Good place for shade and a seat in summer
- See also:
- The Volksgarten Park
Temple or art gallery?
To answer the question posed in the headline: both, actually.
The Theseus Temple represents history going full circle. What once was, is once again. That sounds a little abstract, so let me explain…
The Theseus Temple went up in 1829 to a design by Peter Nobile. He had his hand in a fair few bits of architecture in Vienna and elsewhere, including the monumental Äußere Burgtor gates at the main entrance to Heldenplatz square.
The neo-classic building mirrors a Doric temple in Athens completed in around 415BC and dedicated to the Greek God, Hephaestus. The original is still around today:
(The original “Theseus Temple” in Greece. Image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum)
Which begs the question why it bears the name, Theseus Temple and not Hephaestus temple.
Well, the original Greek building also carried the name Theseum or Theseion, based on the belief in later centuries that the bones of Theseus (he of Minotaur-killing fame) were buried within.
The name also relates to the Viennese version’s original purpose as an exhibition hall designed for a specific sculpture by Antonio Canova: the Theseus Group. Completed in the second decade of the 1800s, the statues depict Theseus battling the centaur, Eurytus.
(Theseus and the Centaur. Joseph Steinmüller, after Antonio Canova, 1805 – 1841. Image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum)
The Theseus Temple continued its role as exhibition site intermittently until wear and tear sort of put an end to that. However, after extensive renovations returned the building to its full glory in 2010, this art venue came back to life under the auspices of the Kunsthistorisches Museum (KHM) group.
(Incidentally, you can view Canova’s sculpture in the main building of the KHM, where it graces the beautiful main staircase.)
The Kunsthistorisches Museum now uses the Theseus Temple for a series of exhibitions of single works of contemporary art, harking back to the original purpose of the building. One artwork appears each year for a limited time.
(George Nuku, exhibition view, Theseus temple, Vienna © KHM-Museumsverband)
I await details of the 2023 exhibition, but the 2022 one was Bottled Ocean 2122 by George Nuku (with the help of assorted volunteers from Vienna). This complemented a major exhibition by the Maori artist at the nearby Weltmuseum.
The installation was quite astonishing: an underwater vista made of plastic waste. Ocean deities covered the walls, with bottle top encrustations and sea anemones made from severed plastic bottle rings.
Swarms of ocean life created from bottles hung from the ceiling. And a coral reef stretched across the floor, shimmering in azure light. And all to the backdrop of an ancient Polynesian chant.
The 2021 exhibition featured a work by Viennese artist, Susanna Fritscher; a parcours of silicone threads created a remarkably immersive environment to pass through. The KHM commissioned the installation specifically for the temple.
No exhibition took place in 2020, but the 2019 exhibition showcased the work, Turisti (Tourists), by the Italian artist, Maurizio Cattelan.
This loan from the Collezione Prada featured fifteen stuffed pigeons perched on the decorated cornices of the temple’s interior: a witty allusion to the tourist invasion of Venice and related issues.
How to get to the Theseus Temple
Follow directions for the Volksgarten and then, frankly, just keep your eyes open. The temple is pretty much slap bang in the centre of the park; watch for the obvious white columns. The building looks particularly fine when lit up at dusk.
Address: Volksgarten, 1010 Vienna