June 19th, 2022 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the first Encuentro and, as it’s currently Hispanic heritage month, we’d like to take a moment to reflect on one of the events that have held an important part in shaping the modern Catholic Hispanic and Latino communities.
The word encuentro means ‘meeting’ in Spanish, but the Encuentros that have taken place periodically in the last fifty years have been far more than just a simple meeting. Leaders of the First Encuentro interpreted the word to mean a ‘coming together’ and this is exactly what they hoped to do for Hispanic and Latino Catholics. Initiated in part as a response to Vatican II reforms by a community that felt they were not being heard, the Encuentros were meant to provide a way to amplify the many voices, by combining them into one.
The First Encuentro (or Prima Encuentro) was held at Trinity college in 1972. Its results were encouraging. The Ad Hoc Committee charged with accessing the Encuentro document approved (at least conditionally) 50 of the 74 recommendations, with all the social concerns being accepted. According to Luis A. Tampe, “The First Encuentro viewed the Church as a work in progress and envisioned the Holy Spirit as guiding the Hispanic faithful so that the First Encuentro could be considered an expression of the sensus fidelium Hispanorum (the sense of the Hispanic faithful) and their reading of and responding to the signs of the times.”
The Second Encuentro, which took place in 1977, built upon many of the themes and resolutions of the First Encuentro, while also looking for ways in which to improve and grow its vision. Some notable additions to the Second Encuentro were the creation of a Youth Panel, to address concerns of the younger generation falling out of the faith, and discussions over how to ameliorate the plight of migrant workers, who were given little to no protection from U.S. law.
The Second Encuentro has been criticized by some as being somewhat chaotic and disorganized. However Pablo Sedillo, the head of the Secretariat of the Spanish Speaking of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, pushes back on this claim, saying of the disarray caused by so many unregistered people deciding to attend, “ I don’t attribute that to a lack of organization. I attribute that to just a community that was absolutely hungry to participate and tell [Church leaders] in a public forum how they felt about the Church. I really don’t see anything wrong with that.” Even disorganized as it was, the Second Encuentro provided an opportunity for Hispanic Catholics to have their voices heard by the Catholic Church.
In 1985, after many months of pre-planning, the Third Encuentro took place at Catholic University. Its focus was on growing inclusion, which sparked some fairly controversial debates. There were even discussions on whether or not women ought to be ordained. Excitement for the event sparked many other activities around which people could celebrate their faith, such as a pilgrimage to Guadalupe, which took place in 1984. Additionally, several smaller meetings were held after the Encuentro to insure that goals were being met and themes stayed relevant.
Continuing the prior themes of growing inclusion, the fourth Encuentro (or ‘Encuentro 2000’ as it was referred to due to its falling around the millennium) was designed as a means of increasing solidarity amongst other minority groups within the Catholic Church. Encuentro 2000 was as much a celebration of culture as it was a call to action.
The Encuentros are still happening; the last one was as recent as 2015. For many, they represent a unified effort for Hispanic and Latino Catholics to come together and make their voices heard. They brought out leaders in the community, and gave the people a sense of empowerment. They are a testament to a community committed to their culture and their faith, and to making sure others are admitted to it as well.
Have you ever thought about who programmed the first modern computer? Kathy Kleiman would like to introduce us to the six women who programmed the ENIAC, the first modern computer, at the end of World War II, in her book, Proving Ground: The Untold Story of the Six Women Who Programmed the World’s First Modern Computer. Check out our other scientific works in our Popular Reading collection. Titles range from commentary, fiction, historical fiction, mystery, suspense, non-fiction, current affairs, science, social issues, and politics. Happy Autumn!
Provost Aaron Dominguez is pleased to announce that Livia Lopes, JD has been appointed the new Director of the Oliveira Lima Library of The Catholic University of America beginning July 1st, 2022. On August 1st, Livia’s appointment as the Director of the Institute for Latin American and Iberian Studies (ILAIS) also began. She will serve in these positions concurrently.
Livia Lopes graduated from the Rio de Janeiro State University’s Law School (Brazil) with J.D. and M.A. (summa cum laude) degrees. She also attended the University of Coimbra (Portugal) and the University of Salamanca (Spain) as a visiting student with academic distinction; the Ohio State University (USA), and Georgetown University (USA) as a visiting researcher. Before joining Catholic University, Livia served as an Assistant Director and Visiting Scholar at the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs, affiliated with the Brazil/Latin American Program. She came to Catholic University in 2020 to lead the Latin American and Iberian Initiatives in the Office of Global Strategies. OGS advances academic programs, projects, and partnerships related to Latin America and the Iberian Peninsula. Livia Lopes is a Brasilianista, a researcher on Latin American and Brazilian studies, with concentrations in law, politics and public policy.
Faculty are invited to join the Washington Research Library Consortium Textbook Affordability Working Group on Wednesday, September 28th for a brief introduction to open textbooks and a panel discussion featuring faculty members who teach with them. Attendees will have the opportunity to earn a $200 stipend by posting a review of an open textbook!
October 13th, 2022 11:00 AM Faculty Perspectives: You’ve Already Done This!: Creating and Publishing OER Courseware November 2nd, 2022 12:00 PM Faculty Perspectives: Use Only What you Want: Adapting and Remixing OER November 16th, 2022 12:00 PM Faculty Perspectives: Choosing a Creative Commons License for your OER: Where to Begin? December 6th, 2022 12:00 PM Save the Date!
Ever wonder what happened before the Big Bang? Laura Mersini-Houghton, an expert on the multiverse and the origins of the universe offers a new account of the events before the Big Bang in Before the Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe and What Lies Beyond. Check out our other scientific works in our Popular Reading collection. Titles range from commentary, fiction, historical fiction, mystery, suspense, non-fiction, current affairs, science, social issues, and politics.
As the United States Catholic population boomed between 1890 and 1920, national Catholic institutions evolved to address their needs. A key player in these developments was the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Initially established in 1917 to coordinate Catholic activities related to the First World War, the National Catholic War Council evolved into the National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC), the forerunner of today’s U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). At the heart of the story of the USCCB’s formation is a tale of how a hierarchical institution like the Catholic Church adapts itself to thrive in a pluralistic and democratic society. The archives holds the records of the USCCB, which clock in at over 1000 boxes of archival materials!
When the United States entered World War One in 1917, authorities called for volunteer participation by private individuals and organizations to support the war effort.
Among these volunteers was the Catholic Church, which was broadly perceived as an immigrant body whose patriotism was suspect and whose members were untested in their loyalties, at least from the non-Catholic perspective.
Responding to this challenge under the motto of “For God and Country,” American Catholics led by the Paulist Father John J. Burke created the National Catholic War Council in 1917. Father Burke (1875-1936) was the heart and soul of the newly emerging bishops organization. He saw a fundamental compatibility between the principles the U.S. was founded upon, and those of the Catholic Church. He believed that the principles of the Constitution would lead to Catholic truth if they were fully followed.
The War Council represented the first coming together of the American bishops in voluntary association to address great national issues affecting the Church. Burke would head the Council’s Committee on Special War Activities, which oversaw mobilization of lay men and women in the war. The War Council worked particularly with the Knights of Columbus to provide education and recreation to Catholic men serving in the war. Also, the Council set up Catholic settlement houses in cities across the country to improve the civic education of immigrants and urged every diocese and Catholic organization to set up their own “Americanization” programs.
Many in the American Hierarchy soon realized with Father Burke that this united and coordinated effort in wartime might be reorganized for use in promoting Church interests in peacetime. This resulted in the creation in 1919 of the National Catholic Welfare Council, which involved itself at the federal, state, and local levels of Catholic activity regarding legislation, education, publicity, and social action.
Monsignor William Kerby, a professor of sociology at Catholic University, was a huge advocate of the Catholic need to establish organizations parallel to those Protestant. He worried about “leakage” of professionals and intellectuals from the church into secular or Protestant society. He noted that America was a pluralistic society that offered a host of organizations competing for allegiances, but an indifference to religion might develop within such organizations. Establishing specifically Catholic versions would counter the development of this indifference, in Kerby’s view.
In 1919, the bishops met as an assembly to discuss the creation of a National Catholic Welfare Council. This was representative of the whole of the Catholic bishops. But not all bishops were on board, as they thought it might interfere with their diocesan prerogatives.
At that time, they established an administrative committee of 7 bishops, later expanded to 10, elected annually. The committee met periodically through the year, and operated a 5 branch Secretariat.
This Secretariat was initially run by Father Burke, who served as the General Secretary. Its functions were to oversee:
* An Immigration Bureau and Motion Picture Bureau to offer technical assistance to immigrants at ports of entry, and promote decency in the movie industry.
* A Social Action Department. This promoted Catholic views of civic education, industrial relations, and rural welfare through publications and speakers.
* A Department of Education that informed the public on Catholic education and dealt with educational matters, which were actually in ferment at the time, as there were many attempts to abolish parochial schools.
* A Legal Department to study state and federal legislation with a view to either removing anti-Catholic aspects, or making the Catholic position known.
* A Press Department provided subscribing newspapers, such as Catholic diocesan newspapers with a weekly set of articles covering national and international events from the Catholic angle.
* The Department of Lay Activities organized Catholic people across the country into the National Conference of Catholic Women (NCCW) and National Conference of Catholic Men (NCCM).
At this point, however, there was a problem with the emerging organization that illustrates its uniqueness. One of the members of the hierarchy, Cardinal William O’Connell of Boston, did not like this new organization. He and several bishops feared that it would impinge on their local authority. Though O’Connell temporarily stalled the evolution of the organization, by 1922 a clarification in the name entailing a shift from the word “council” to “conference” satisfied the authorities involved, and the name was changed to the National Catholic Welfare Conference. The organization had another name change and reorganization in the 1960s, and as of 2001, it has been known as the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.
From 1922 through to the 1960s, this organization addressed a range of matters related to American Catholic life. A few examples of their influential work:
Catholic Social Justice. Just after the war, the Bishops’ Conference issued the Bishops Program for Social Reconstruction (1919). This was a plan for social reform written by Father John A. Ryan, a professor of Sacred Theology at Catholic University. Combining Progressive thought and Catholic theology, Ryan believed that government intervention was the most effective means of affecting positive change for his church as well as working people and the poor. The program advocated minimum wage legislation, the elimination of child labor, state-run insurance for the sick, unemployed, and elderly, and housing for returning veterans, among other things. Labeled “socialistic” by its critics in the 1920s, much of the Program was implemented during the New Deal years.
Monsignor Ryan himself was appointed the head of the NCWC’s Department of Social Action (or SAD). This department employed staff to travel the country and educate Americans on how Catholic social teaching spoke to industrial matters, living wage issues, and other economic and social issues. The Social Action Department became a kind of national Catholic information clearing house on matters of Catholic social justice as applied to American life.
Catholic Education. You may or may not know that the 1920s saw a national upswing in anti-Catholic activity. The KKK, for example, had millions of members and, in addition to being anti-Black, they focused their hate on Catholics and Jews. The KKK and other groups of anti-Catholics sought to abolish Catholic parochial schools in many states. The Education Department raised funds, hired lawyers, and mediated such cases successfully in the 1920s, ensuring that parochial schools could exist.
Immigration and Americanization. As you might imagine, the church was very interested in the immigrant population. By 1920, there were about 20 million Catholics in a total U.S. population of just over 106 million. Many of these were immigrants and the children of immigrants–over 3.5 million Catholics migrated to the United States between 1900 and 1920. Catholic immigrants created communities that differed considerably from the established Anglo-Protestant pattern. Few spoke English, and many were impoverished working-class laborers. Immigrants tended to congregate in urban areas with others from their country of origin, creating ethnic neighborhoods in the cities. These neighborhoods were shunned by the Protestant majority, who viewed them as breeding grounds for illiteracy, disease, immorality, and un-Americanism. The Catholicism practiced in these ethnic communities also drew suspicion, as it looked very different from the practices established by earlier Catholic settlers in the U.S. These immigrant Catholics focused on creating vibrant parish networks built around ethnic group identification.
Priests and religious orders were brought from European countries to minister to the new parishes. As these ethnic communities grew, churches, schools, charitable organizations, newspapers, hospitals, and other institutions sprouted around them. For example, in 1880, there were 2,246 parochial elementary schools with 405,234 students in the U.S.; by 1910 there were 4,845 parochial elementary schools and 1,237,251 students. A Department of Immigration was soon established to address issues related directly to immigration as well.
Media and popular culture. The NCWC established a Press Department specifically devoted to Catholic information.
Established in 1920, the National Catholic Welfare Council (NCWC) Press Department provided the Catholic press, radio, and eventually television in the United States and other countries with news, editorial, features, and picture services prepared by professional journalists and released under the names NCWC News Service. Most dioceses had their own newspapers, focused on local Catholic affairs. But the NCWC Press Department covered issues of national significance, which the local papers ran as subscribers. This meant that Catholics could tell their own stories about themselves, rather than simply absorbing a Protestant dominated narrative. Hence, this organization helps generate a national Catholic and American identity.
The national idea is crucial here. There was no national and Catholic institution in existence that covered so many different facets of American life, prior to the establishment of the NCWC. And its creation was a product of the church’s adaptation to democratic life, with political institutions that required participation and advocacy of one’s view in a pluralistic society to survive.
Douglas J. Slawson, The Foundation and First Decade of the National Catholic Welfare Conference (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University Press, 1992).
Elizabeth McKeown, “The ‘National Idea’ in the History of the American Episcopal Conference,” in Thomas J. Reese, S.J., Editor, Episcopal Conferences; Historical, Canonical & Theological Studies (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press).
A Finding Aid to the Records of the NCWC/USCCB housed at The Catholic University of America:
Our guest blogger is Sarah Zentner, a doctoral student in English at the Catholic University of America. She is researching the sacramental imagination in 19th-century British and American fiction, as well as the best chai tea latte in Washington, D.C.
Good news for first-year students (and upperclassmen, graduate students, and faculty) who feel they don’t have their lives “figured out” just yet: you’re in good company. Frances Nevins (1930-1980), later known as Sr. Christine Marie of the Holy Spirit, OCD, lived several callings during her short life: gifted academic, loving wife, and finally, Carmelite nun.
After Nevins’ death in December 1980, her longtime friend Joan Ward Mullaney, former Catholic University professor and Dean of the National Catholic School of Social Service, began gathering materials for a biography. But her quest to tell the story of Frances’ life didn’t end with the book’s publication in 2009.In August 2012, on the strength of the numerous personal testimonies, documents, correspondence, and spiritual writings she’d spent the last three decades collecting, Mullaney formally opened the petition for Frances Nevins’ beatification and canonization in the Catholic Church.
In this blog, we offer a brief sketch of the “very unusual holy person” that was Frances Nevins, as an encouragement for all those who don’t know what they want to be when they grow up.
Nevins graduated from Connecticut College for Women in 1951. Professor Edward Cranz, who supervised her honors thesis on Nicholas of Cusa, called her “the most brilliant student I encountered in a lifetime of teaching,” while the former president of the American Cusanus Society, Gerald Christianson, declared her “clearly gifted” and apt for academic life. After earning her master’s degree in 1952 from Radcliffe College at Harvard, however, Nevins ceased her academic pursuits.
Frances Nevins married Paul Cawein in an Episcopal ceremony in 1953. In a 1954 letter to friend Joy Nicholson, Paul writes that “…we are very happy. I just read back over the letter you sent to me before our wedding telling me of the fine wife I was getting. When I read it the first time, I thought that you were right, but now I can only say amen.” Shortly after their marriage, however, Frances claimed the Catholic faith in which she was baptized, while Paul refused to have their marriage blessed in the Church and would not agree to raise their future children as Catholics. Citing their “irreconcilable” religious differences, the couple split in 1955. Frances sought (and was granted) a divorce and an annulment in 1958.
Drawn more and more to the Catholic faith, Frances felt a spiritual calling to consecrate her life to God after her divorce. Thinking at first that she wanted to use her intellectual gifts in the service of others, she sought admission to the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in New York, but soon realized she preferred a contemplative vocation to an active one. She entered the Schenectady Carmel in 1960 and professed her final vows in October 1965. For the next fifteen years, she lived a quiet life dedicated to prayer and the service of her community. She died on December 16, 1980, leaving behind a trove of spiritual writings that attest to a life of great virtue and love.
It may be many years before Frances Nevins is declared a Catholic saint, but in the meantime, she is a kind of “patron” for everyone who feels discouraged by a future that seems unclear, and an inspiration to those of us who still aren’t sure of what we’re called to do with our lives.
The following is a selection from Catholic University student Alessia Pecorella’s class paper on the terracotta Madonna and Child, a piece of Renaissance-era art held by Special Collections at the University. Ms. Pecorella’s piece was submitted as an assignment for Professor Tiffany Hunt’s course ART 272: The Cosmopolitan Renaissance and edited by Special Collections Archivist Shane MacDonald. The students used art from the University collections for their papers.
Before ART 272 Cosmopolitan Renaissance, I thought the Renaissance was just a definition in my high school history textbook. But throughout the semester, I have realized there is more than meets the eye during this influential period. The object I picked to study this semester was the terracotta Madonna and Child, created by Antonio Rossellino.
The terracotta Madonna and Child, according to the Catholic University Special Collections, is a plaque of the Madonna and Child in terracotta, encased in a tabernacle frame. Antonio Rossellino created the object between 1540-70. The object’s current location is in a Curley Hall Annex stairwell chapel. According to the object’s file, Frederick Jambes donated the piece, although there is correspondence with a Miss Jessie Jebiley as the potential donor. Based on the provenance history explained in the object file there is a lot of information of how the object got to campus, but not a lot of information about how the piece made its way to America in the first place.
The object’s creator, Antonio Rosselino, was born in Florence, Italy and is a “notable and prolific Italian Renaissance sculptor who was the youngest brother of the architect and sculptor Bernardo Rossellino” (Encyclopædia Britannica). Rossellino’s expertise was in portraits and combining architecture and sculpting. His greatest accomplishment is the Chapel of the Cardinal of Portugal in San Miniato al Monte, located outside of Florence. The figures Rosselino formed over time are recognized for their “strong form and intense characterization” (Encyclopædia Britannica) He is known for his recurring depictions of Madonna and Child, with examples displayed in museums all around the country.
One example is his marble Madonna and Child with Angels, located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Another is Rossellino’s marble Madonna and Child, located in the National Art Gallery in Washington, D.C. Comparing these two works with CatholicU’s terracotta piece by the same artist is fascinating, but by looking at another artist’s Madonna and Child piece, one can see the diverse and global influences on the Renaissance. An example of this can be comparing Duccio’s Madonna and Child Enthroned with Angels to Rossellino’s terracotta Madonna and Child.
The significant difference between these two pieces is that one is a painting, and another is a sculpture, but let us compare how Mary and Jesus are depicted in these pieces. In Duccio’s piece, Mary and Jesus, he “imitated two different tiraz textiles and the drapery of the back of Mary’s throne reflect contemporary Islamic fabrics used to furnish palaces and tents” (Mack, 2002). Tiraz is a line of Arabic calligraphy on the top sleeves of a robe or a hat. Duccio’s depiction of Mary and Jesus was rare in Italian art and caught positive attention in decades to come. While in Rossellino’s piece, Mary and Jesus are sitting in a very similar position, but their clothing is different. Their clothing has no tiraz, and it utilizes three primary colors of red, blue, and gold and is more simply draped. Mary and Jesus’ facial expressions are alike in these two pieces. Both figures express a sense of peace and calmness. Even as far as the detail of Mary looking over her left shoulder down at Jesus and Jesus looking into the distance is significant – it shows the artists may have been trying to create the same perspective. These two pieces are Renaissance art with elements of humanism and Catholicism represented, but also express the diversity of cultural influences on art in this period.
To dive even further into why The terracotta Madonna and Child is defined as Renaissance art is to explain what materials make up the piece. The object’s material is terracotta. When I initially thought of Renaissance sculptures, I thought only marble was used, but that is wrong. Various materials were used throughout the period to create beautiful sculptures. Terracotta is ceramic pottery used to make pots, pipes, bricks, and sculptures created by baking clay. The word terracotta in Italian means “baked earth”. Terracotta is thousands of years old, and one of its famous examples is the Terracotta Army in China. Classical antiquity was a favored trait of the Renaissance, and terracotta was a way to represent it. Italian sculptors in this time were known for using marble and bronze, but when demand for commissions increased, artists needed to produce artwork quicker and turned to terracotta. Specifically, Florentine artists like Rosselini were fond of utilizing this material. When using it, artists shape a three-dimensional form with their hands and instruments that is made hard and brittle when cooked in a kiln. The terracotta can be modified after drying by carving or engraving. Such works can range in color from dull ochre to a bright red, and were often painted to look like marble or bronze. These techniques traveled, and people all over Europe began to utilize terracotta for works of art.
Finally, the terracotta Madonna and Child has a tabernacle frame around the sculpture. This frame’s design is one of the many details that define the terracotta Madonna and Child as a Renaissance object. A tabernacle frame is a form of an architectural picture frame that emerged in Venice and Tuscany in the fifteenth century. It was composed of a pair of pilasters that bordered the picture aperture, supported a frieze and pediment, and rested on a base. Even though tabernacle frames have similar shapes, I think the shape of the dome-like top of the tabernacle frame reminds me of the architecture of the Basilica of San Marco located in Venice. The design similarities are a connection I believe makes sense because tabernacle frames originated from Venice. In my opinion, the pillars of the frame invoke the columns of the Basilica. The tabernacle frame of the terracotta Madonna and Child is an identifiable feature of the object that connects it back to the Renaissance.
The terracotta Madonna and Child is one of the thousands of pieces of art created during the Renaissance. Through this one object, one can learn more about the Renaissance. The use of terracotta, the humanizing of Jesus and Mary, and the architecture behind the tabernacle frame all play a role in connecting this piece with the broader Renaissance. Created in sixteenth century Florence, it eventually was donated to the Catholic University in the twentieth century. And while displayed on the campus, it taught me about the Renaissance and I hope it can teach everyone else a little bit about it too.
“Antonio Rossellino.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. Accessed March 31, 2022. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Antonio-Rossellino.
Belting, Hans, and Deborah Lucas Schneider. Essay. In Florence & Baghdad: Renaissance Art and Arab Science, 41–43. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University,2011.
Farago, Claire J. “Chapter 3.” Essay. In Reframing the Renaissance: Visual Culture in Europe and Latin America, 1450-1650, 69–70. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
Fliegel, Stephen N. “The Terracottas of Renaissance Florence.” La Gazzetta Italiana. Accessed April 3, 2022. https://www.lagazzettaitaliana.com/history-culture/7845-the-terracottas-of-renaissance-florence.
Mack, Rosamond. “Oriental Script in Italian Paintings.” Essay. In Bazaar to Piazza: Islamic Trade and Italian Art, 1300-1600, 56–59. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
Magner, James A. Letter to Mr. Leon Medina. Washington, D.C: The Catholic University of America, January 17, 1961.
McLeod, Alice H. Letter to Mr. Leon Medina. Washington, D.C: The Catholic University of America, December 28, 1960.
Ousterhout, Robert. Journal. “Flexible Geography and Transportable Topography,” The Real and Ideal Jerusalem in Jewish, Christian and Islamic Art, 393-404. (published as Jewish Art 23-24 [1997-98])
Rosselino, Antonio. “Madonna and Child with Angels.” Metmuseum.org. Accessed April 1, 2022. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/192716.
Rossellino, Antonio. “Madonna and Child.” Art Object Page. Accessed April 1, 2022. https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.469.html.
“Tabernacle Frame.” Oxford Reference. Accessed April 3, 2022. https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803101822637.
The Terracotta Madonna and Child. “ACUA Museum Collections New Museum Collection.” Washington D.C, 1960.
“What Is Terracotta?” Wonderopolis. Accessed April 2, 2022. https://www.wonderopolis.org/wonder/what-is-terracotta.
The following is a selection from Catholic University student Christopher Vitale’s class paper on the Pieta, a piece of Renaissance-era art held by Special Collections at the University. Mr. Vitale’s piece was submitted as an assignment for Professor Tiffany Hunt’s course ART 272: The Cosmopolitan Renaissance and edited by University Archivist William J. Shepherd. The students used art from the University collections for their papers.
I was a little anxious at being informed that I would be required to select and study an object of Renaissance art from the Catholic University Special Collections. I reflected that I am a studio art major so maybe it would be a good idea to choose an object that relates to my artistic practice. I strongly identify as a painter, and specifically as an oil painter, as it is truly my passion. I also realized the spiritual nature of this project. Before all else, I am a Roman Catholic. Expressing and engaging with my religious beliefs is both the foremost joy and the pinnacle duty of my life. A marriage between my artistic attractions and my religious objectives yielded the ultimate result of my selection: the late 15th or early 16th century Pieta by Quentin Metsys (or Massys), a stunning work of Christian-based Northern Renaissance oil on wood painting.
The accession file from Special Collections reveals the historical information relating to the Pieta’s provenance. Of particular interest is a handwritten letter addressed to Bishop Thomas J. Shahan, the fourth rector of the University and an auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese of Baltimore, sent by Rev. Arthur T. Connolly on December 17, 1919. Connolly assured Bishop Shahan that he would send “the painting of the Virgin [and] dead Christ by Quentin [Metsys]” shortly. Five days later, on December 22, the Bishop’s secretary returned a letter confirming that the Bishop’s office had received Connolly’s note and would “look out for the shipments referred to.” These details help us answer fundamental questions that should accompany any inquisitive mind when viewing or thinking about a historical piece of art, such as, “Why is this Renaissance painting here? How did it get here? Where did it come from?”
Looking more closely at those handwritten letters reveals additional clues, though it is nearly impossible to recognize every word due to Arthur Connolly’s scribbled handwriting, akin to cracking the code of ancient hieroglyphs. In a secondary letter dated June 1, 1924, Connolly explained that he would again send art objects, among these “an ivory figure of St. Ann and the Blessed Virgin, an Irish made silver crucifix and pedestal… and, interestingly, “a very fine painting of Saint Peter by Guercino” (i.e. the distinguished Italian Baroque artist Giovanni Francesco Barbieri). By encouraging Shahan to use the Pieta as a point of measurement, Connolly underscored his perception of the elevated nature of the Metsys piece and demonstrated that he was intent on presenting Shahan, and the wider University community, with ‘the cream of the crop’ in respect to historical artworks. The fact that Connolly and Shahan were writing and sending successive, handwritten notes to each other, and that Connolly addressed Bishop Shahan with affectionate language suggests that the pair were friends, which is why these sorts of objects wound up at Catholic University.
After all, that is precisely what friends do-they send things to each other. Today, of course, we have text messages, phone calls, emails, and Amazon delivery services that enable us to exchange conversations, information, and gifts with one another instantaneously, but in the early 20th century, a prime way to maintain friendships was by swapping physical correspondence letters and gifting things the other might care about or which might be useful towards a more ambitious end, such as amassing a University collection. Bishop Thomas Shahan was also the founder of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, an influential American house of worship and a monumental sanctuary for religious artworks (today it holds the largest collection of contemporary ecclesiastical art in the United States). Donating art objects would fuel the archives, libraries, collections, and exhibits of the University, which in turn serve to strengthen the institution as a center for research, academic discourse, and historical preservation. It’s benefactors like Connolly who were responsible for filling the catalogs with objects and artworks which increase the University’s visibility within Academia.
Documents and memos in the accession file disclose that the painting was moved around a couple of times, it eventually found a home in Nugent Hall, which is both the private residence of the university president as well as the headquarters for his offices. It is currently displayed in a spacious and finely decorated sitting room complete with couches, armchairs, and coffee tables. Also featured in that room is a small portrait etching by Rembrandt. Since Rembrandt is among the most honored and influential figures in art history, my theory is that the Pieta functions, like the Rembrandt, to impress visitors of the president, serves as a testament to the University’s academic and historical legitimacy, and underscores both the theological roots and artistic strengths of the institution
What the object file also includes is a short biography of Metsys by Stanley Ferber from the McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Art. Ferber wrote that Metsys employed “a conscious archaism, both sensitive and perceptive, which he ultimately synthesized with late-15th-century Italian developments, especially those of Leonardo.” Though the Pieta depicts a moment of violence and sorrow as a bloodied Christ has been removed from the Cross and placed in his Blessed Mother’s arms, there is an undeniable sense of peace and a visual softness in the rendering of the figures and the overall composition. This accompanies the attention to detail characteristic of Flemish art, as articulated by the three crosses on the hill far in the distance behind the Virgin, with tiny figures standing at their base, as well as the crown of thorns, the nails, and the sponge soaked in wine that appear in the foreground of the piece. In addition to helping me better conceive of the nature of Renaissance art, my research into the object and its file has allowed me to develop a deeper appreciation for the application of historical artworks in a modern context
The following is a selection from Catholic University student Katie Coyle’s class paper on the Ivory Triptych, a piece of Renaissance-era art held by Special Collections at the University. Ms. Coyle’s piece was submitted as an assignment for Professor Tiffany Hunt’s course ART 272: The Cosmopolitan Renaissance and edited by University Archivist William J. Shepherd. The students used art from the University collections for their papers.
To understand the Renaissance and its global connections, one should look at a specific period object and its cultural influences. Although focused in Italy, the Renaissance encompassed cultural influences across the Mediterranean, Northern Europe, Africa, and the East and involved a combination of materials, styles, and images from various cultures and artistic traditions. The Ivory Triptych found in the Catholic University Special Collections is a visual representation of important elements of this global Renaissance. It is large at 42 ¾ by 33 ⅝ inches, depicting various Gospel scenes. Special Collections notes indicates it to be one of the largest known ivory triptychs. It is made of wooden panels covered with carved ivory elements displaying scenes of Christ, Mary, and various saints. Two small side panels in the front are fastened by two locking devices to keep them shut when necessary. Metal pieces are attached on the back wood panels to attach the piece to a wall as a hanging decoration. The artist and creation date are unknown, but it has been identified sixteenth century French. The donor, Rev. Arthur T. Connolly, an avid traveler and one of the most prominent benefactors represented in Special Collections, gifted it to Catholic University on May 5, 1917.
The original donation remarks include a description of the figural scenes and specific symbolic representations of the Ivory Triptych. It also contains a reference to its original placement (before being collected) as part of the back of a church altar, though the church or location in France is unknown. It was meant to be viewed most often in its open state because the elaborate and skillful decoration, including all of the ivory elements, are only visible when it is fully open. Although the Ivory Triptych originally served within a faith-based context of worship as a church altarpiece, it is now an object of curiosity and instruction. Since 2001, the Ivory Triptych has been loaned out to several Catholic University faculty members and placed in campus offices where it is a decorative object. Removing a fine art object like this from its original context presents challenges to research who made it and for what purpose. Attempting to understand its original role and placement is important to know its true context within its specific historical setting.
In the sixteenth century, African ivory was particularly rare, especially within France, making it highly desirable for religious art. During the Renaissance, an increasing desire for exotic materials like ivory helped develop a strong trade network connecting Africa, Europe, and the East. Along with this, stylistic ideas spread and deepened cosmopolitan connections. Christian elites used art objects like small diptychs and triptychs in their homes for private worship. Larger ivories like the Ivory Triptych would be commissioned by the wealthy for various churches. Commissions were a vital aspect of Renaissance-era art as a way for artists to sell their work and for patrons to demonstrate their class standing. Art selected by the wealthy and displayed for the public in an open setting like a church, the IvoryTriptych would be on the altar for viewing with its imagery highlighting Gospel stories for a mass audience that was not literate.
Other French ivory objects from the same period include plaques, diptychs, triptychs, and polyptychs. For example, the Diptychwith Scenes of the Life of Christ and the Virgin, Saint Michael, John the Baptist, Thomas Becket, and the Trinity from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, ca. 1350, depict the life of Christ and various saints. Scenes of the Annunciation, Nativity, Adoration of the Magi, Presentation in the Temple, and the Resurrection are all present in the small 10 by 8 ⅚ inch diptych. The Ivory Triptych fostered a sacred atmosphere where onlookers could participate in Gospel scenes. The Adoration of the Magi and the Flight into Egypt are located in the top of the left panel. The bottom of the left panel features Christ’s Baptism and the Agony in the Garden. The top of the right panel portrays the Betrayal of Christ and the Carrying of the Cross. In the bottom right, the Entombment and Resurrection of Christ are portrayed. All of the side panels are divided into these four sections, with a column or jardiniere (floral planter) diving the section into two halves, each with a biblical story. The center of the triptych is Christ crucified with Mary directly below the cross on a pedestal. On her left are St. John the Baptist and St. Margaret of Antioch, and St. John the Divine and Mary Magdalene are on her right. Above the carved figures are ivory stars and bishops’ coats of arms. These symbols were easily recognizable to any viewer, regardless of literacy and social class.
Symbolism within the scenes points directly to an Eastern influence as devout Christians aimed to connect with a distant land and ancient past. Artists used symbols associated with the assumed story settings. In the Flight to Egypt the Holy Family approaches a distant setting with large palm trees in a rocky desert, symbols assumed to portray Egypt. The ornamentation on the wood and the ivory elements framing the scenes also shows a distinctly Eastern influence. On the side panels above each scene, geometric shapes in curves and points are imposed, reflecting the common use of Islamic patterns where figural imagery and depiction in a religious context were forbidden. Westerners were able to partially understand the necessary concept of ornamentation for the sake of worship and fascination with these unique styles of decoration took hold in Italy and France. By the time of the sixteenth century, Islamic decorative quality combined with French architectural tradition, can be seen in the architectural elements in the central panel of the Ivory Triptych. The detailed ornate style of the pinnacles and spires surrounding Christ are representative of the Islamic tradition of decoration and geometric elements. Along with many of the other art objects in the Catholic University collection, the Ivory Triptych points to a universality of Renaissance influence that stretched beyond Italy.
Baxandall, Michael. ‘Conditions of Trade,’ Painting and Experience. pp. 1-27.
Belting, Hans. ‘Perspective as a Question of Images’ Paths between East and West,’ Florence and Baghdad, 2011. pp. 13-25; 42-54.
Brotton, Jerry and Jardine, Lisa. ‘Exchanging Identity: Breaching Boundaries of Renaissance Europe,’ Global Interests: Renaissance Art between East and West, Reaktion, 2000. 11-62.