The Archivist’s Nook: Retracing the History of Right to Life Archival Collections

Our guest blogger is Rebecca Lemon, a Library and Information Science (LIS) student at Catholic University.

Last semester, as part of my Library and Information Science (LIS) coursework, I had the opportunity to arrange and process two small, related collections, the National Right to Life News Collection and the Long Island Pro-Life Collection , housed in the university’s Special Collections. Both collections were generously donated in 2021 to CUA by the Sisters of Life, a Catholic religious institute based in New York.

Copies of the National Right to Life News from 1984. Special Collections, Catholic University.

Since I had never processed any archival collections before, sitting down to look at the seven boxes of unprocessed materials in front of me felt rather daunting. I took it slowly, though, and began by simply looking through each box and trying to get a sense of what was there. It soon became clear that processing the National Right to Life News collection would be fairly straightforward. The collection contains all the issues of the National Right to Life News published between November 1973 (when it first began) and 1999. Arranging the collection, then, would be a simple matter of putting the issues in acid-free folders according to their date. The Long Island Pro-Life collection, on the other hand, was a very different story. Since this collection documents the grassroots pro-life movement on Long Island during the 1970s-1990s, it contains a wide variety of materials like pamphlets, newspaper and article clippings, newsletters, periodicals, correspondence, books, and other ephemera. Processing this collection appeared as if it would be much more complicated, so I decided to start with the National Right to Life News collection first and then move on to the Long Island Pro-Life collection after I’d had more time to think about the best way to arrange and describe it.

One of the event flyers in the Long Island Pro-Life Collection. Special Collections, Catholic University.

It took me only a few weeks to process and describe the National Right to Life News collection. I arranged the issues in acid-free folders and then labeled them for easy access, writing the collection title, folder title, and issue dates, as well as the collection number, box number, and folder number on each one. This not only makes it easy to locate the right folder at a glance, but also guards against the rare chance that a folder is inadvertently separated from the collection. In that event, enough identifying information is written on the folder itself to be able to locate its correct place.

Successfully processing the National Right to Life News collection gave me enough confidence to begin arranging the Long Island Pro-Life collection. Unlike the National Right to Life News collection, no clear order for arrangement was immediately apparent. I spent a good deal of time sifting through the collection, trying to discover any hints as to its organization that might have been left by the collector(s) of the materials. I found that, though there really was no particular order to the vast majority of the materials in the collection, there was a series of folders which had been labeled with handwritten names. So, I needed to be sure to preserve the general order of this series, but I was free to arrange the rest of the collection in whatever way would make its contents the most accessible. I decided that the best way of striking a balance between making the materials easily accessible and not overly disturbing the collection would be to organize it by format. I created five series in total: 1) Pamphlets, 2) Newsletters and Periodicals, 3) Newspapers and Newspaper Clippings, 4) Subject Files, and 5) Books. The process of sorting the materials into these series also helped me to glean some contextual clues about the origins of the collection. Although the collection was donated by the Sisters of Life, they were not the original collectors of the materials, and we unfortunately do not have any official documentation about the original collector(s). However, while going through the collection, I discovered that several of the newsletters, periodicals, and correspondence are addressed to Mrs. Mary Brennan or her family. The collection also contains some personal papers belonging to Mary Brennan, which document her active involvement in the leadership of the pro-life movement on Long Island during the 1970s-1990s. From this, we can infer that Mary Brennan was most likely the primary collector of the materials in the collection, and so we have indicated that in the finding aid for the collection.

Direct Line: The Long Island Birthright Newsletter. The Long Island Pro-Life Collection holds copies of this newsletter that were produced between 1973-1984. Special Collections, Catholic University.

As I learned through my experience with these two collections, archival processing has a lot to do with making educated guesses about the history and previous organization of the collection. The archivist must attempt to get inside the mind of the original collector(s) and find answers to the myriad questions that arise when processing and arranging the collection. For example, why did the collector(s) keep certain things and not others? Did they use a particular method of organization? If so, how can we preserve that method and yet make the materials easily accessible now for researchers in the present day? With a little patience and perseverance, the answers to these questions can be found by retracing the collection’s history through the clues left buried in the collection. In this way, boxes of unorganized papers cease to appear quite so intimidating and become instead an exciting mystery just waiting to be solved.

Interested in learning more about the items in these collections? Make an appointment with CUA Special Collections to come view the materials in person.

Works Cited:

National Right to Life Committee. (n.d.). National Right to Life News.

Shepherd, W. J. The Archivist’s Nook: Catholic University’s Sisters of Life Collections, October 5, 2021.

 

The Archivist’s Nook: Special Collections Resources on the History of Mexico

Scattered throughout Catholic University’s Special Collections are a range of resources related to the history of Mexico. We are happy to offer a new Library Guide to those materials. Here are a few of the highlights:

The National Council of Catholic Women announce their protest of the treatment of Catholics in Mexico in this 1920s letter from the NCWC/USCCB Office of the General Secretary’s “Mexican Files.”

The National Catholic Welfare Conference, forerunner of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, became involved in U.S.-Mexican affairs just after its founding in the early 1920s. Mexico-related records can be found throughout this enormous collection, partly due to the migration of Mexican Catholics into the U.S. at the time, but also because the bishops were concerned with the unstable political conditions in that country leading to persecution of Catholics in the 1920s. The archives, which holds the NCWC/USCCB records, contains a series of records known as the “Mexican Files,” Subseries 1.4, of the NCWC/USCCB Office of the General Secretary, which document the precarious position of the church in Mexico and attempts by U.S. Catholic authorities to stabilize such conditions. The Office of the General Secretary files also contain various materials throughout related to Mexican relations and migration which one can find by doing a simple search of the finding aid.

Established in 1920, the NCWC Press Department provided the Catholic press, radio, and eventually, television in the United States and other countries with news, editorial, feature, and picture services gathered and prepared by professional journalists and released under the names NCWC News Service and Noticias Catolicas (in Spanish and Portuguese for Latin America). Both services were designated by the abbreviation (NC) and the former later known as the Catholic New Service (CNS). Administrative files include correspondence, general subscriber files, obituary files for prominent Catholics, and miscellaneous publications and press releases. The NCWC/CNS finding aid can be found here.

La Esperanza. La Esperanza, Los Angeles, 11/3/2022, from The Catholic News Archive

Hosted by the  Catholic Research Resources Alliance the from The Catholic News Archive contains more than 30,000 issues of digitized Catholic newspapers comprising over 600,000 pages of news.

Included are digital copies of the Catholic News Service Press releases, La Esperanza of Los Angeles (ca. 1929-1954), The Monitor of San Francisco, and several other publications publishing Mexico-related articles.

Agustín Iturbide y Green (1863-1925), grandson of Emperor Agustín Iturbide I (1783-1824), was born in Mexico City during the French occupation of the country in 1863. Desiring a Mexican heir, Emperor Maximilian I, an Austrian by birth, arranged to adopt the younger Iturbide, then two years old, in 1865. Following the collapse of Maximilian’s regime in 1867, young Agustín was reunited with his birth parents in Havana, and resided with his mother in the United States until 1875 before leaving to study in Brussels. Agustín remained in Europe for many years before returning once again to attend graduate school in Washington, D.C. He was awarded a master’s degree in Linguistics from Georgetown University in 1884.

Iturbide returned to Mexico in 1887 to enter the Military Academy in Chapultepec. Although he had aspirations for a storied military career, his criticisms of the Porfirio Díaz regime in both a New York newspaper and in personal correspondence resulted in his being court-martialed in 1890. Convicted of insubordination, he was sentenced to one year in prison and was subsequently exiled.

An undated photo of Agustín de Iturbide y Green, image taken by a student at Georgetown University.

Financially ruined and grieving for his mother, who passed away during attempts to salvage the family fortune, Iturbide moved to Rosedale to teach Spanish and French at Georgetown University. It was there, that he met Louise Kearney, who would become his wife in 1915. The Kearneys were a prominent Washington family whose ancestors had emigrated from Ireland in the late 1700s.

Iturbide continued to teach until his death from tuberculosis in 1925. Louise Kearney lived the rest of her life in a small P Street apartment and became friends with Catholic University procurator Msgr. James Magner, to whom she entrusted this collection in 1957.

This collection contains original documents from the Iturbide family from Emperor Agustin Iturbide I’s reign until the death of his grandson, Agustín Iturbide y Green, including correspondence, Mexican governmental documents, military medals and coins, newspapers, magazines, and portraits. The Kearney section contains correspondence and portraits from Louise Kearney, Iturbide’s wife from 1915 until his death.

Note that this collection is digitized and all of the links to the digitized documents are in the finding aid.

A link to the Iturbide-Kearney papers’ finding aid can be found here.

The  National Council of Catholic Women (NCCW) was established in 1920 as an initiative of the Lay Organizations Department of the NCWC. One to three women represented each of the 114 dioceses of the time.  As the first federation of Catholic women’s organizations, the NCCW was able to provide a unified voice for the thousands of independent Catholic women’s organizations that existed in the United States, to offer resources for united actions, to ensure official Catholic representation in national movements, and to stimulate the local efforts of the women’s organizations.

The NCCW records span 1917-2000 and consist of administrative records and minutes, correspondence, national and international project notes, publications, photographs, and scrapbooks. While there are over 200 boxes of records in this collection, one can do a search for Mexico-related materials; specifically, series 7 (International Organization Affiliations, 1919-1984), boxes 111-142 (especially 115-116) contain materials related to the NCCW’s involvement with international organizations. A link to the NCCW finding aid can be found here.

A selected list of texts from our Rare Books collection related to the history of Mexico can be found here.

A full list of Mexico-related resources from Special Collections can be found in this Mexico-related Library Guide.

The Archivist’s Nook: “God’s Litigator,” Disability Rights, and Religious Education Freedom

William Bentley Ball (1916-1999), subject of a previous blog post and whose papers reside at Catholic University, was a Pennsylvania based constitutional lawyer and devout Roman Catholic, dubbed “God’s Litigator” and “Religious Freedom Fighter” by the Catholic Press (1). Ball argued nine cases and advised on more than two dozen others, primarily related to religious freedom and the First Amendment, before the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). Ball was also an artist, poet, and author.

William Bentley Ball with his law books, n.d. William Bentley Ball Papers, Special Collections, Catholic University.

As a young man, Ball was a devout Catholic, anti-New Deal activist, and U.S. naval officer in World War II. After the war, he studied law at the University of Notre Dame, taught at Villanova, and served as general counsel for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference. His first case before SCOTUS was in 1967 when he entered a brief on behalf of U.S. Catholic bishops supporting the overturn of prohibits on interracial marriage in the celebrated Loving v. Virginia case. Ball achieved national attention with the 1972 Wisconsin v. Yoder case in which that state tried to force Amish children to attend high school when the latter’s belief system found that unnecessary. Ball represented the family in question, the Yoders, pro-bono, arguing before SCOTUS that this prevented defendants from performing their religious obligation, and the justices agreed 7-2.

Honorary Degree in Latin from Catholic University to William Bentley Ball, 1989. W. B. Ball Papers, Special Collections, Catholic University.

Ball’s other most famous case was in 1993 with Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District in Arizona. James Zobrest (b. 1974) and his family were Pennsylvania transplants and Catholics who had moved to Arizona seeking the best possible education for the hearing impaired. Although many in the Deaf Community favor separate schooling, the Zobrests sought to mainstream their son, which required a daily on site sign language interpreter in the school to facilitate young James’ communication and learning. Public funding of these interpreters was not a problem so long as James attended public schools but when he transferred to a Catholic High School, Salpointe in Tuscon, said funding was denied by the Catalina Foothills School District,  believing that it was a violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which generally prohibits the government from establishing, advancing, or giving favor to any religion. Arguing this was religious discrimination, the Zobrest family went to court.

Legal Brief, SCOTUS, Zobrest vs. Catalina Foothills School District, 1992. William Bentley Ball Papers, Special Collections, Catholic University.

The federal district court in Arizona held that furnishing a sign-language interpreter violated the First Amendment the interpreter would via sign language promote James’ religious doctrine at government expense. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s decision, stating that the interpreter would have been the instrumentality conveying the religious message with the local school board, in effect, sponsoring the religious school’s activities. The court admitted that denying the interpreter placed a burden on the parents’ right to free exercise of religion, but it was justified to ensure that the First Amendment was not violated. The Zobrests engaged the services of the progressive Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest. Their lawyer, Thomas Berning, teamed up with the Conservative Catholic litigator, Ball, the latter working again on a pro bono basis, to take the case to SCOTUS. Incidentally, Ball’s daughter had been young Jim Zobrest’s first sign language interpreter before the family had left Pennsylvania. In their landmark case, Ball and Berning were supported by the Department of Justice on the basis of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, the Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), Missouri Synod Lutherans, Southern Baptist Convention, National Council of Churches of Christ, and the National Association of Evangelicals. In opposition, were the ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Jewish Committee, and the Anti-Defamation League (2).

On February 24, 1993, the case was held before the Supreme Court. Ball argued that the school district’s refusal was a violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, as well as the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.  Chief Justice William Rehnquist authored the majority’s 5-4 opinion, ruling that the service of a sign-language interpreter in was part of a government program distributing benefits neutrally to disabled children under the IDEA regardless of whether the school was public, private, or religious.  Rehnquist further held that the only economic benefit the religious school might have received would have been indirect and that aiding the student and his parents did not amount to a direct subsidy of the religious school because the student, not the school, was the primary beneficiary.  The Supreme Court thus ruled that there was no violation of the establishment clause, and the decision of the Ninth Circuit was reversed. Zobrest vs. Catalina is a significant case because it  marked a shift in the court toward interpreting the establishment clause to allow government-paid services for students who attend religiously affiliate nonpublic schools and was notably followed by Agostini v. Felton (1997), in which the court held that remedial services financed by federal funds under Title I could be provided in parochial schools.

The academic study and best account of the Zobrest case, The University of Illinois Press, 2020.

Although Jim had graduated before the SCOTUS decision the family was nevertheless compensated for the thousands of dollars a year they had scraped together for his sign interpreters. For Ball, this was perhaps his finest victory in the twilight of his notable career. The definitive account of this notable piece of legal history is Bruce J. Dierenfield and David A. Gerber. Disability Rights and Religious Liberty in Education: The Story Behind Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2020. Much of the source material is available in the aforementioned papers of William Bentley Ball at Catholic U. For access questions, please contact us at lib-archives@cu.edu.

Endnotes:

(1) Bruce J. Dierenfield and David A. Gerber. Disability Rights and Religious Liberty in Education: The Story Behind Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2020, p. 104.

(2) Ibid, pp. 131-132.

(3) Thanks to HK for her assistance.

The Archivist’s Nook: Frances Nevins – Gifted Academic, Loving Wife, Carmelite Nun

Cover image, Frances Nevins: Mid-Twentieth Century Carmelite by Joan Ward Mullaney, published 2009. F Nevins Papers, Special Collections, Catholic University.

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.

F. Nevins Connecticut College Yearbook Photo, 1951. F Nevins Papers, Special Collections, Catholic University.

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.

Gifted Academic

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.

Loving Wife

F. Nevins and her husband, Paul Cawein, 1954. F Nevins Papers, Special Collections, Catholic University.

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.

Carmelite Nun

F. Nevins (Sr. Christine Marie of the Holy Spirit, OCD) on the day of her final vow profession, Carmel of Schenectady, Oct. 8, 1965. F Nevins Papers, Special Collections, Catholic University.

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.

For more information, or to learn more about how to access the Frances Nevins collection, please email Special Collections at lib-archives@cua.edu. 

The Archivist’s Nook: How the Terracotta Madonna and Child Taught Me About the Renaissance

Terracotta Madonna and Child, Antonio Rosselino, 1550-70. Catholic University Special Collections.

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.

Antonio Rosselino

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.

Madonna and Child with Angels, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (left), and Madonna and Child, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (right).

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.

Duccio’s Madonna and Child Enthroned with Angels.

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.

Basilica of San Marco, Venice.

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.

Works Cited

“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 Archivist’s Nook: Ivory Triptych – Renaissance on Display

Ivory Triptych, France, 16th century, New Museum Collection (NMC280), Special Collections, Catholic University.

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.

Diptych with Scenes of the Life of Christ and the Virgin, Saint Michael, John the Baptist, Thomas Becket, and the Trinity. Special Collections, Catholic University.

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 Ivory Triptych would be on the altar for viewing with its imagery highlighting Gospel stories for a mass audience that was not literate.

Betrayal of Christ and Carrying of the Cross. Special Collection, Catholic University.

Other French ivory objects from the same period include plaques, diptychs, triptychs, and polyptychs. For example, the Diptych with 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.

Christ with Mary and Saints. Special Collections, Catholic University.

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.

Bibliography

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.

Chapuis, Julien. “Gothic Art,” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2002.

‘Diptych with Scenes of the Life of Christ and the Virgin, Saint Michael, John the Baptist, Thomas Becket, and the Trinity,’ The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2022.

Guérin, Sarah M. “Ivory Carving in the Gothic Era, Thirteenth–Fifteenth Centuries,” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010.

‘History of the University Museum Collection: Rev. Arthur T. Connolly,’ University Libraries, Washington DC: The Catholic University of America.

‘Ivory Triptych,’ ACUA Museum Collections: New Museum Collection, Washington DC, June 1995.

‘Remarks, No. Museum 1292,’ Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America, October 17, 1927.

 

 

The Archivist’s Nook: A Tale of Two Artists – A Traditional Attribution or a Forgotten Master?

The following is a selection from Catholic University student Annaliese Haman’s class paper on a piece of Renaissance-era Italian art held by Special Collections at the University. Ms. Haman’s piece was submitted as an assignment for Professor Tiffany Hunt’s course ART 272: The Cosmopolitan Renaissance and edited by Special Collection’s Dr. Maria Mazzenga. The students used art from the University collections for their papers.

When choosing a piece to research from the Catholic University Archives’ collection, I did not know where to begin. Certain pieces, such as the antique furniture, held a certain mystery and intrigue about them; they were also unique. The few triptychs available were of immediate interest as I have a fondness for altarpieces. However, I wanted to research something simple and fairly straightforward, so I looked at the few paintings available in the collection.

Figure 1: The Madonna with Child, Saints, and Angels, circa 1500-1550.

The Madonna with Child, Saints, and Angels oil painting on wood (Fig. 1) caught my attention, firstly because of its proximity to my dormitory. Having easy access to this piece immediately was a bonus. Yet as I examined the piece further, it continued to grow in its benefits. The piece needs restoration, but even with its cracks and damage, it was in very good condition and seemed worth pursuing for my projects.

Going to the Catholic University Archives for my designated research time sparked many interesting thoughts. I was glad that the archives did indeed have files on my piece. Though much of my file consisted of inventory records, there was a great deal of substance on the provenance of this painting. It originally belonged to Jeane Dixon. Dixon was a rather interesting character. She was born in 1904, and she was a devout Roman Catholic and a prophet. This was self-described but was attested to by many people around her. Her supposed psychic abilities garnered her fame and fortune. Dixon resided in Washington D.C. with her husband, who was involved in real estate and automobiles. She had many friends in high places and most importantly with respect to this painting, she was a friend of Monsignor James Magner, an administrator at Catholic University and a collector of art and historical objects. Magner donated much of his collection to the University’s Special Collections.

Ruth Montgomery’s book, A Gift of Prophecy: The Phenomenal Jeane Dixon A Gift of Prophecy: The Phenomenal Jeane Dixon notes that Dixon first saw Madonna with Child, Saints, and Angels at the 1939-40 World’s Fair. The painting later showed up in Washington, D.C. where Dixon saw it again.[1] This time, she bought the piece. She held on to it for many years, though it was kept at a friend’s house. When she began looking to donate it, Msgr. Magner leaped at the opportunity to acquire it. She agreed to donate the painting to Catholic University in her husband’s name and honor. [2] This new object of the university was a great point of pride: “Catholic University was so proud of its acquisition that it later exhibited the painting on a television program and reproduced its likeness on the school’s official Christmas cards.”[3]

Both Montgomery’s book and correspondence in the archives note the acquisition of the painting. The book notes the supposed artist of the piece for the first time: “Innocenzo da Imola’s sixteenth-century painting of the Madonna and Child in a nativity scene…” This tells us that when Dixon purchased the painting, the artist’s identity was known.[4]

Many inventory documents support Innocenzo as the artist. He was Italian, living between 1490 and 1545, and he worked primarily in Bologna, though he did spend some time in Florence.[5] His work shows this Florentine influence through his formation of composition. According to Oxford Art Online, many of Innocenzo’s works were focused on the Madonna and Child with varied saints. This painting seems to fit right in with his known repertoire. It is unknown where the initial connection to him was made; there is no signature that can be seen in the present day; perhaps it was visible in 1939-40, but no known documentation exists confirming this. How Innocenzo became connected to this piece is missing from the provenance.

One document in the archives contains an appraisal. Here we get a name for the piece, The Madonna with Child, Saints and Angels. It is rather generic for a work of art, but many Renaissance pieces followed this type of structure of a Madonna and Child in a nativity scene surrounded by either the shepherds or various saints depending on the purpose of the painting. This appraisal helps provide many details about the piece, and gives weight to Imola’s name. “If it is, indeed, a work of Imola, it is an important find.”[6] This appraisal also notes the date of the gift, the Summer of 1956.

A 2016 letter from Christopher Daly to Archives staff member, Katherine Santa Ana, and Art Department professor, Dr. Nora Heimann, provides a great deal of previously unknown information on the painting. He references the piece as, Nativity with Saint Genesius, Saint Blaise, a Young Martyr, and the Archangel Raphael with Tobias. The three previously unidentified saints and angels are named. Their attributes are easily visible, so it is not too difficult to figure out who they are. Having a firm statement of their identities is a great addition to our knowledge of the piece.

What is most interesting about Daly’s letter is his bold claim that Innocenzo is not the artist. “As mentioned, I believe the painting is a characteristic work by Ranieri di Leonardo, formerly known as ‘The Master of the Crocefisso dei Bianchi.’”[7] Daly proceeds to give some information about Ranieri, namely, that he was Pisan and active in Lucca between 1502 and 1521.[8] In his letter, Daly explains how he connected this Nativity with Ranieri. “Although CUA’s painting is heavily repainted, the composition and stiffly-posed figure types as well as some morphological details, such as the round, fleshy faces and the bony fingers, are legible…” which he connected to Ranieri’s work.[9]

Daly wrote and published a chapter in the book Filippino Lippi: Beauty, Invention and Intelligence. Daly’s chapter is titled Filippino Lippi: Reconsidering Lucchese Painting after Filippino. What is most beneficial about this chapter is that many other paintings by Ranieri are given as examples in this chapter on Lucchese school painting. These paintings help to solidify this Virgin and Child as an Italian painting. The two attributed artists do strongly support its Italian origins, but having substantial examples of other Italian paintings from the same school helps to provide a greater understanding of how this painting fits into the style and techniques of its time. Daly gives a summary description of the painting before explaining how he connected this piece to Ranieri when it had been attributed to Innocenzo da Imola.

Not only are Ranieri’s characteristic bloated and restrained figure types clearly visible through the altarpiece’s heavily repainted surface, its unusual iconography – with a group of saints flanking a Nativity group rather than the customary Virgin and Child – allows it to be identified with the ‘Nascita di nostro Signore con l’arcangelo Raffaele e altri Santi,’ commissioned from Ranieri by the operai of San Tommaso in Pelleria, Lucca, on 26 March 1510.[10]

In his research on this piece, Daly was able to find the contract that connected it to Ranieri. The reason this piece has connections to the Church is that the Church had a chapel dedicated to St. Genesius. The Church had also previously contracted Ranieri to create another altarpiece. Contracts hold keys to discovering many of the intricacies of Renaissance paintings. They can explain the globalization of the works, along with the localization. Yet within that localization, there can still be found aspects of the globalization of the cultures of the time.

This painting was commissioned by an Italian church to an Italian artist. And to further limit the scope of this painting, it was a church local to the artist. And yet this supposed limitation does not mean the painting does not exhibit the globalization of the world. Looking at the fabrics in the piece, little details in their patterns come out. Saint Raphael (Fig. 2) has a subtle pattern of little golden dots on his clothes. His collar also sports this gilding. Yet these are not the grand patterns and designs of the Netherlandish painters. In fact, these clothes are in a contemporary style.

Figure 2: detail, The Madonna with Child, Saints, and Angels, circa 1500-1550

The setting of this nativity is not the traditional setting of Bethlehem. As the Renaissance progressed, artists began using more and more motifs and settings that placed scenes and saints in the contemporary world. Though there are only two slim windows of viewing, a lovely green countryside can be seen in the background, behind Saint Genesius and Saint Raphael respectively. Part of this countryside can be seen in Figure 2. There is also the climbing vine along the front entrance of the stable. It could possibly be native or live in Bethlehem and the surrounding areas, but it is much more likely that this was a vine native to Italy, and possibly the Lucca region specifically. That stable also has much more of an Italian style to it than something built in ancient Judea. The round arch and the smooth walls without any indication of stonework or woodwork appear to be stucco.

At this point is it worth noting that Daly commented that this painting had been repainted and reworked.[11] These details could have been added later, to achieve this same effect of bringing the Holy Family and the Nativity to Italy. This possibility cannot be fully answered without an x-ray look at the painting and a more detailed study by experts. And yet this painting exhibits a beautiful and traditional scene that shows how the Renaissance and its artists recognized the importance of seeing day-to-day settings in the context of important events. And how fitting that this piece would be found at a World’s Fair, a modern example of the great global exchange that the Renaissance began in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

 

Notes:
[1] Ruth Montgomery, A Gift of Prophecy: The Phenomenal Jeane Dixon (New York: Bantam Books, 1965), 137. [2] Montgomery, Gift of Prophecy, 138. [3] Montgomery, Gift of Prophecy, 139. [4] Montgomery, Gift of Prophecy, 137. [5] Any information about Innocenzo da Imola comes from The Getty website and Oxford Art Online. [6] Unknown author, inventory document from approximately 1981. [7] Christopher Daly, “Letter to Ms. Katherine C. Santa Ana and Dr. Nora Heimann,” (letter, collection of The Catholic University of America Archives, 2016). [8] Daly, “Letter to Santa Ana and Heimann,” 2016. [9] Daly, “Letter to Santa Ana and Heimann,” 2016. [10] Christopher Daly, “Filippino Lippi: Reconsidering Lucchese Painting after Filippino,” in Filippino Lippi: Beauty, Invention and Intelligence, ed. Paula Nuttall, Geoffrey Nuttall, and Michael Kwakkelstein, (Leiden: Brill, 2020), 316. [11] Daly, “Letter to Santa Ana and Heimann,” 2016.

 

Bibliography
Daly, Christopher. “Letter to Ms. Katherine C. Santa Ana and Dr. Nora Heimann.” Letter, Collection of The Catholic University of America Archives, 2016.
Daly, Christopher. “Filippino Lippi: Reconsidering Lucchese Painting after Filippino.” In Filippino Lippi: Beauty, Invention and Intelligence, edited by Paula Nuttall, Geoffrey Nuttall, and Michael Kwakkelstein. 297-321. Leiden: Brill, 2020.
Montgomery, Ruth, A Gift of Prophecy: The Phenomenal Jeane Dixon. New York: Bantam Books, 1965.

 

The Archivist’s Nook: “A Puzzle, Wrapped in a Conundrum, inside a Perplexity” – Papal Relief to Russia

Winter in Russia. Fr. Edmund Walsh with two assistants and a Russian boy being fed by the Papal Mission. 1922. NCWC/USCCB OGS Papers, Special Collections, Catholic University

As explained in a previous blog post, Special Collections at The Catholic University of America consists of four departments: rare books, museum, university archives, and the manuscript collection, otherwise known as The American Catholic History Research Collection. Although ‘manuscript’ literally means handwritten, ‘manuscript collection’ is used by archivists, curators, and librarians to refer to collections of mixed media in which unpublished materials predominate, including correspondence, meeting minutes, typescripts, photographs, diaries, and scrapbooks. This describes personal papers but also the institutional records of our outside or non-Catholic University donors such as Catholic Charities USA, National Catholic Education Association (NCEA), and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), including their earlier incarnations like their World War I era National Catholic War Council. Among the USCCB records the most important are those of the Office of the General Secretary (OGS), sometimes called the Executive Department, and these contain the American Catholic Church’s involvement in almost every major issue of the twentieth century.

Food Remittance slip in both Russian and English, 1922. NCWC/USCCB OGS Papers, Special Collections, Catholic University.

One of the most fascinating episodes recounted and inventoried in the OGS records, replete with detailed documents and photographs, is that of the American Catholic participation in the Papal Relief Mission to Russia, 1922-1923. Churchill’s famous 1939 quip defining Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” (1) could be aptly paraphrased as “a puzzle, wrapped in a conundrum, inside a perplexity” when applied to the Papal Relief Mission of a decade and a half earlier. This was the first international aid mission of the Roman Catholic Church, undertaken to alleviate the starving children of Bolshevik Russia, the core of the nascent Communist Soviet Union, the emerging archenemy of the Catholic Church. The Famine of 1921-1923, focused in areas of the Volga, Ukraine, and northern Caucasus afflicted as many as 16 million people, perhaps killing as many as 5 million. It is with bitter irony that we mark this one hundredth anniversary with a renewed war with attending death and destruction, not to mention looming hunger, in this same sad corner of Eastern Europe.

Food Kitchen in Krasnodar, Russia, 1922. NCWC/USCCB OGS Papers, Special Collections, Catholic University.

Prior to the famine, Russia had suffered three and a half years of World War I and the Civil Wars of 1918–1920 with millions of casualties, both military and civilian. The various warring elements arbitrarily seized food from civilians to supply their armies and deny it to their enemies. The Bolshevik government requisitioned supplies from the peasantry offer little in exchange, prompting peasants, especially the more wealthy ones, called Kulaks, to reduce crop production and sell any surplus to the Black Market. Initially aid from outside Soviet Russia was rejected. The American Relief Administration (ARA), formed to help victims of starvation of World War I, offered assistance to Lenin in 1919 on condition that they hand out food impartially, but Lenin refused this as interference in Russian internal affairs. He was, however, convinced by this as well as other famines and unrest to reverse policy and permitted relief organizations to bring aid. The ARA had an organization set up in Poland relieving famine that had started there in late 1919.

Vatican pamphlet describing the Papal Mission’s work, 1922. NCWC/USCCB OGS Papers, Special Collections, Catholic University.

Under the auspices of the ARA, headed by Commerce Secretary and future President, Herbert Hoover, the Papal Relief Mission to Russia by 1922 was feeding approximately 158,000 persons a day. The pivotal figure between American Catholics and the Roman Curia, and subsequently between the Vatican and the Bolsheviks, was Edmund Aloysius Walsh, S.J., founder of the first American School of Diplomacy, at Georgetown University. (2) Walsh served as papal emissary in charge of this mission, which, among other duties, entailed liaising with the ARA, keeping the Vatican informed, and negotiating with the Bolsheviks regarding the church’s position within a communist society. Stateside, Walsh was backed by the National Catholic Welfare Council (NCWC), ably led by Paulist priest and Catholic University alum, John Burke, who helped focus American Catholic relief efforts. Overall, Walsh’s experience provides a firsthand view of the Bolshevik world view and insight into the manner in which the Bolshevik Revolution was understood, or not understood, by the Vatican. Therefore, in spite of the good will that the mission’s success earned for the Vatican, efforts to establish diplomatic relations ultimately failed because the gulf between Catholicism and Communism was too great.

For more information on how to access NCWC/USCCB records, please contact us at lib-archives@cua.edu

(1) See also Churchill by Himself (2013), Chapter 10, Russia, page 143, Broadcast, London, 1 October 1939.

(2) For more on Edmund Walsh, see also McNamara, Patrick (2005). A Catholic Cold War: Edmund A. Walsh, S.J., and the Politics of American Anticommunism. New York: Fordham University Press and Marisa Patulli Trythall, ‘”Russia’s Misfortune Offers Humanitarians a Splendid Opportunity”: Jesuits, Communism, and the Russian Famine, Journal of Jesuit Studies, 2018 (5:1), pp. 71-96.

(3) Thanks to SM, BM, and HK for their assistance.

The Archivist’s Nook: Reflecting The Renaissance – Andrea della Robbia’s Annunciation

The following is a selection from Catholic University student Moira McCoy’s class paper on Andrea della Robbia’s Annunciation, a piece of Renaissance-era Italian art held by Special Collections at the University. Ms. McCoy’s piece was submitted as an assignment for Professor Tiffany Hunt’s course ART 272: The Cosmopolitan Renaissance and edited by Special Collection’s Dr. Maria Mazzenga. The students used art from the University collections for their papers.

***

Andrea della Robbia’s Annunciation is a prime example of the movement of Renaissance art from the late fifteenth century into the present-day world. This terracotta relief sculpture, currently displayed at The Catholic University of America, has very little documentation prior to its donation to the University in 1960 by Mr. Arthur T. Roth. This piece was created for a Florentine audience, but we might ask how the message of this art piece changed throughout time and location.

Figure 1: Metal Plaque shown on the wooden shelf of Andrea della Robbia’s Annunciation as displayed at Catholic University of America.

The Annunciation’s archival file in Special Collections offers a foundation for research. Though Robbia’s Annunciation is not extremely well documented, readers do get a general idea of the artist, the donor, and other aspects through the file. There is no signature of the artist that tells us for certain that this is an original Andrea della Robbia, though the metal plaque on the bottom of the sculpture is associated with the Florentine sculptor (Figure 1). This sculpture has little known transaction prior to its donation to the University in 1960. There appears to be no documentation of how Roth, a prominent New York banker, purchased the Robbia sculpture, indicating that the piece may have itself been a gift to him.

Along with the file is information about the artist, Andrea della Robbia. His role as a sculptor under the influence of his uncle, Luca, lead us to understand that the Florentine artist’s pieces were to attract the local audience. Personal research shows that there is very little evidence of Robbia pieces in the western world today, indicating that they were primarily meant for the Italian viewers of the fifteenth century. There is no confirmed date of completion of Andrea’s Annunciation, nor is there information on this specific piece on public online sources. When viewing the object file, the date of execution is vaguely indicated as “fifteenth century (?).” Of the pieces in Florence today, there is a highly designated purpose that these pieces fulfill. Andrea della Robbia appears to be a sculptor of religious scenes primarily, as most pieces are in correlation with religious institutions. Many of these pieces remained in Florence due to the sculpture type, as they are attached to their original space, and removal would be difficult.

Figure 2: Front view of Andrea della Robbia’s Annunciation, terracotta relief, late fifteenth century, Catholic University of America.

The Annunciation appears to the viewer in a semi-circular arch with a peaked top, (Figure 2). At first glance, viewers may find this piece to have little detail due to the dominating white-blue color tones of the sculpture. The deep, muted blue provides a background to the whitened figures of Mary and Gabriel, as well as other features such as the dove, flowers and vase. This blue background is also the deepest layer of the relief whereas the white objects and figures appear in the higher relief layer. But why use these two tones as the main colors of the piece? It is believed that the cerulean blue and ivory white color scheme is a trademark of the Robbia workshop founded by Luca della Robbia, Andrea’s uncle. These colors are functional and unique colors which mark all pieces from the Robbia. In other pieces, such as Luca della Robbia’s Resurrection (Figure 3), we are sampling the earlier model of this blue-white glazing technique that is constant in all Robbia works, including a brighter green to the work for forestry and brightness. A secondary claim as to why these colors are utilized is in the remembrance of the Florentine aesthetic of the Renaissance. The memory of Florentine Renaissance leaves us with the idea of Humanism and the imagery of the Florence artists’ personal touch. Nineteenth-century essayist Walter Pater wrote on Luca della Robbia’s use of blue and white terracottas, stating that “…nothing brings the real air of a Tuscan town so vividly to mind as those pieces of pale blue and white earthenware . . . like fragments of the milky sky itself, fallen into the cool streets, and breaking into the darkened churches..” (1) which reinforces the statement that the use of these duochromatic palettes in the Robbia art space are reminiscent of the Florentine art style and appeal to the fifteenth century audience. The last claim is the significance of the subjects, and the importance of these colors in a religious sense. Though there is a paragraph on the religiosity of the scene ahead, it is important for researchers to understand how the light blue is seen in many different versions of the Annunciation pieces, from Northern territory artists such as van Eyck to the Italian Fra Angelico. The blue is often associated with Virgin Mary whereas the white is to symbolize the purity of the Annunciation scene, with iconography of white lilies and a dove. Overall, it is important to note that something as simple as the color palette connects to the location of Florence, the iconography of religious symbols and figures to the individualism of the artist.

Figure 3: Luca della Robbia, Ressurection, polychromed and glazed terracotta,1442-1445, Duomo di Firenze.

A major feature of Andrea della Robbia’s artwork and style is his material use and glazing techniques. Terracotta is a form of clay-based material that is fired under extreme heat to solidify into a ceramic texture. This clay is found in many parts of the world, such as Asia, the Mediterranean & Africa, and is used in pieces from sculptures to brick making. Its application in Renaissance art was popularized by Ghiberti and Donatello during the early fifteenth century (2). Terracotta was used for two main reasons. First, the Mediterranean region where it existed was accessible to Florentine artists. Second, the clay material was easily pliable for artists of the era. The soft shape of the material allowed artists to decorate and create free flowing shapes very different from metals, marble, and other resources. Andrea was introduced to the making of terracotta sculpture while an apprentice to his uncle Luca. Luca’s innovation of developing glazed and colored terracotta that, when fired with glazes, would fuse with the clay underneath and result in brightness and shine. Furthermore, Andrea’s improvement in the creation of these enameled figures was to leave the face, hands and other parts bare. The emphasis of polychrome, or multiple colors, on Andrea’s pieces gives the Florentine artist a sense of individuality within the della Robbia workshop.

Andrea della Robbia’s Annunciation was made as a religious motif that includes all of the classical iconography of the biblical scene of the Annunciation of Mary with Gabriel. The event takes place when Gabriel the Angel descends to the Virgin Mary and announces that she will bear the child of the Holy Spirit, reiterated in the Book of Luke. The Holy Spirit is symbolized by a dove or rays of light in these scenes whereas the inclusion of white lilies is the symbol of the Virgin Mary, indicating her purity. Specifically in Andrea’s Annunciation, we see all four of these characters. Gabriel and Mary face each other with a vase of lilies filling the space between them. Above head, a swooping dove represents the Holy Spirit. Even if the viewer does not know the name of the art piece, these subjects tell the story of the Annunciation. In the Renaissance eye, the Annunciation scene was popularized to portray the old to new transition through the world, just as the change from the Old to New Testament. More importantly, the Annunciation connects with the Renaissance ideology of a new age of religion and mankind. Appealing to the Franciscan ideals of contemplation upon art, Andrea conceived many of his pieces to the influence of Franciscans in Florence during the Early Renaissance period. Contemplation of art allows the viewer to meditate on the Annunciation scene, which can evoke the reliving of the biblical event to the viewer and give a sensational understanding of the Holy Spirit’s role during the Renaissance era. Furthermore, the role of Gabriel could be the concept of Renaissance, or rebirth, who is appointing new changes upon the Virgin Mary, symbolizing the European society of the times.

The function of this art piece is to appeal to the religious perspective of its audience. Though we do not know the original location of this piece, many parts of this terracotta sculpture tell us that this was made for a religious institution and serve the purpose as a religious piece. Other than the obvious iconographic traits of this piece, the shape also indicates an interesting aspect. The arching shape with the semi-pointed top, known as a tympanum, is noticeably similar to the shape of Luca della Robbia’s piece Resurrection, a terracotta piece that is found above the left sacristy in the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (Fig. 3). The shape of tympanums have changed drastically through time and with the ideas of reconnecting with the classical Roman features, the shapes of the Andrea and Luca della Robbia pieces act not only as a symbol of Renaissance art, but also gives researchers some insight that Andrea’s Annunciation may have been originally placed or created as a tympana for a religious site or church. What appears as a little detail actually gives lots of context to the religious function.

Andrea della Robbia’s Annunciation allows viewers to gather insight as to how important documentation is for pieces of historical artwork. With the thin file and little to no information on the actual piece itself, the interpretation of the piece relies on the audience members to recognize the iconography and biblical importance of this scene. Being able to comprehend the symbolic message of this terracotta sculpture was a task for this viewer, as it was a noticeably religious scene and would have been reinforced by the original location. The world of Florentine Renaissance highlights the importance of rebirth and return to the humanistic view of antique Greek and Roman society. The Renaissance was a new turning point for Europeans in means of politics, society, literature and philosophies and though that time has passed, the significance of Andrea della Robbia’s Annunciation has not lost its importance, but merely been lost to time and underappreciation for the original Florentine piece.

Sources:
(1) Pater, Walter The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Literature, February 1873. Page 63-72

(2) Victoria and Albert Museum, “Italian Terracotta Sculpture,” Italian Terracotta Sculpture (London September 4, 2013)