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.
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.
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.
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. 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.  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.”
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.
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. 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.” 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.’” Daly proceeds to give some information about Ranieri, namely, that he was Pisan and active in Lucca between 1502 and 1521. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
 Ruth Montgomery, A Gift of Prophecy: The Phenomenal Jeane Dixon (New York: Bantam Books, 1965), 137.  Montgomery, Gift of Prophecy, 138.  Montgomery, Gift of Prophecy, 139.  Montgomery, Gift of Prophecy, 137.  Any information about Innocenzo da Imola comes from The Getty website and Oxford Art Online.  Unknown author, inventory document from approximately 1981.  Christopher Daly, “Letter to Ms. Katherine C. Santa Ana and Dr. Nora Heimann,” (letter, collection of The Catholic University of America Archives, 2016).  Daly, “Letter to Santa Ana and Heimann,” 2016.  Daly, “Letter to Santa Ana and Heimann,” 2016.  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.  Daly, “Letter to Santa Ana and Heimann,” 2016.
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.
Father Gilbert Vincent Ferrer Hartke, O.P., founder of the Drama Department at Catholic University (CU) in 1937, is a campus legend who casts a long shadow. His legacy includes his archival papers that reside in Special Collections, ongoing stage productions including Shakespeare, and above all the long list of stage, film, and television luminaries taught or mentored by CU’s B.M.O.C. These include Jon Voight, Helen Hayes, John Slattery, Ed McMahon, Philip Bosco, Henry Gibson, Susan Sarandon, Lawrence Luckinbill, and Robert Moore. Moore (1927-1984) was a multiple Tony Award nominee director and actor who often collaborated with Neil Simon. Like Hartke, Moore also has a presence on campus, where his small collection, mostly entertainment industry related photographs, is housed in our Special Collections.
Moore was born in Detroit and grew up in Washington. He attended public schools and graduated from Roosevelt High School where he was heavily influenced by drama coach Pauline Eaton Oak. He served for six months in the United States Navy in 1945, and then studied drama sans degree under Fr. Hartke at Catholic University. His first acting gig, to limited success, was in Jean Kerr’sJenny Kissed Me in 1948. He also worked as typist for the United Nations and at Catholic University. In the 1950s, Hartke invited him to direct summer productions, at least twenty each, at Olney Theater in Maryland and Winooski, Vermont.
Moore made his New York directing debut in 1968 with The Boys in the Band, written by CU classmate Mart Crowley and which won Moore the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Direction of a Play. It ran for three years, simultaneously with Promises, Promises and Last of the Red Hot Lovers. His later stage directions, which garnered five Tony Award nominations, included Deathtrap, They’re Playing Our Song, Woman of the Year, and My Fat Friend.
He also directed many episodes of the television situation comedies, Rhoda, starring Valerie Harper, and The Bob Newhart Show. He also directed three films written by Neil Simon, Murder by Death, The Cheap Detective, and Chapter Two, as well as a television version of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and made for television film Thursday’s Game.
As an actor, he played a disabled gay man opposite Liza Minelli in the 1970 drama Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon. He also appeared in episodes of the aforementioned Rhoda, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Diana Rigg’s Diana. He died at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York of pneumonia, due to AIDS complications, one of the early celebrity casualties of that dreaded malady.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
(1) See also Churchill by Himself (2013), Chapter 10, Russia, page 143, Broadcast, London, 1 October 1939.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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)