Who brushed up Jesus' beard in paintings?

Canvases: Misguided changes to 19th-century works might have been done by a family of Baltimore screen painters.

July 23, 2005|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,SUN STAFF

Over the course of nearly 150 years, two enigmatic paintings at St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church have been treated as anything but masterpieces. They've been stashed away in closets, ripped, faded and - perhaps worst of all - touched up at the hands of a well-meaning, but ill-advised, artist.

That apparent artistic license has been particularly puzzling to current church officials and a German conservator as they worked to restore the paintings, ignored for years but now believed to be the work of 19th-century Italian master Constantino Brumidi. Who would have painted a completely different halo over Jesus' head, or given him a full new beard?

The answer, based on clues left behind on the church's paintings, might point to one of the city's best-known artistic families: the Oktavecs, of Baltimore screen painting fame.

Perette Manz-Hendrich, a fine arts conservator from Berlin, has spent more than a year working to restore the paintings, one that depicts Jesus and the other, St. Aloysius Gonzaga. They are thought to be companions to a signed and documented Brumidi painting hanging at the altar of the church in Mount Vernon. Brumidi is best known for his murals depicting American history in the U.S. Capitol.

After six months of work, Manz-Hendrich will unveil the third and final painting, which depicts Jesus holding the sacred heart, at the church's annual feast day July 31.

In a makeshift studio in a church balcony storage closet, Manz-Hendrich has meticulously replaced the paintings' brittle canvases and patched holes in them.

Perhaps her most difficult task involved removing the so-called creative changes to the third painting - which the church's pastor, the Rev. William J. Watters, says he believes were made in the 1960s when the St. Ignatius interior was repainted. The most obvious alteration was a darker and less round halo painted around Jesus' head.

There is no way to know who made the changes to the art or when they were made - Watters says the church's records are nearly impossible to search.

But a label on the back of the Jesus painting connects it to Oktavec's Art Shop, the former East Monument Street store opened in the early 1900s by the father of Baltimore screen painting, William Oktavec.

Oktavec and his sons have had a hand in numerous religious restoration projects since the elder Oktavec immigrated from Czechoslovakia in 1913. They are best known for their work on folk art screen paintings, synonymous with some of Baltimore's oldest rowhouse immigrant neighborhoods.

Grandson Chris Oktavec, who owns the latest incarnation of the family franchise in Bel Air, says his father, Albert Oktavec, could have done the work in the 1960s. When restoring projects, he either removed such artistic liberties or added them at the behest of the client, Chris Oktavec, 58, says.

Until recently, church officials say, they did not know the paintings' famous creator. They've long known that Brumidi painted the work that hangs over the altar, but little attention was paid to the others, despite their similarities in appearance. Ignored and decaying, the paintings were left to collect dust in a closet.

With church officials unaware of the paintings' origins, whoever was asked to repair them 40 years ago likely had no idea they were fixing up the work of someone held in such high regard as Brumidi. Or did they?

Chris Oktavec insists that if his father or uncles worked on the painting, they would have recognized its famous artist. They were well-versed in the painting styles of many prominent artists, having restored numerous paintings throughout city churches as well as for private collectors, such as Baltimore maritime executive Charles Scarlett Jr.

Manz-Hendrich says the changes appear to have been made by an untrained hand, though she concedes that the differences are difficult for casual observers to spot.

Chris Oktavec says he thinks it highly unlikely that one of his relatives could have done anything detrimental to the works. Though the relatives could have fulfilled a request to make certain aspects of a painting stronger or better-defined after years of wear, they were typically more concerned with restoring.

"The problem with some of these paintings, [they] ran through a number of hands," he says. "My father, when he got them, he'd try to straighten them out. Those priests, at the time, they might not have wanted to totally do the whole thing. And to correct it, it would have probably taken a lot more than they were willing to do, or they might have [given] it to someone else."

But within St. Ignatius, one more piece of evidence suggests an Oktavec made the changes. Motivated to fix more of the church's art, Watters came across a wooden statue of the church's patron saint made in 1924 that had later been painted black and gray with blue eyes at the request of the church.

Inscribed at the bottom of statue is "1962 - Stained and colored by Albert Oktavec."

Eighty-six-year-old Bernard Oktavec says he can't remember what kind of work he and his brother might have done on the St. Ignatius paintings. But he had to chuckle when told they might have unknowingly worked on a piece by such a famous artist. "Isn't that something."

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