Hidden treasures

Four 1865 paintings are discovered during Basilica's renovation

September 29, 2005|By TYRONE RICHARDSON | TYRONE RICHARDSON,SUN REPORTER

Perched on a scaffold 50 feet high, below the top of the dome of the Basilica of the Assumption, architect Stephen F. Reilly made a fist and tapped the wall.

"Solid, solid, hollow," he said.

Behind hollow panels, Reilly found four 19th-century paintings of the Gospel evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

"It was a very exciting moment," Reilly said yesterday, describing the find he made this summer. "We knew something was back there, but nothing this big."

The distempered water-based paintings - each about 11 feet wide by 8 feet high - are believed to have been created by artists Philip Nengel and Hubert Schmidt in 1865, Reilly said during a tour of the Basilica yesterday. The paintings were discovered in late July.

The 19th-century Basilica, the first Roman Catholic cathedral built in the United States and one of Baltimore's best-known religious landmarks, has undergone more than a dozen renovations, including one in 1870. It was then that the paintings of the evangelists were masked and preserved under layers of wood, church officials said.

Reilly is one of the contractors conducting the current $32 million restoration project of the Basilica, which is expected to be completed by 2006, in time for its 200th anniversary.

Reilly and an archdiocese spokesman said the paintings were well-preserved.

Sona Johnston, senior curator of European paintings and sculptures for the Baltimore Museum of Art, said neither Nengel nor Schmidt was found in their artist databases.

She said their fresco paintings - the technique of painting on wet plaster - can stand the test of time; the same technique was used by Michelangelo in the Vatican's Sistine chapel.

"It's made to stand up for years and is a durable way of architectural decoration," Johnston said. "It can flake and be compromised by water, but in a stable environment, it can remain for some time."

Plans are to keep the paintings in original condition as much as possible, hidden behind a shroud until the restoration is complete.

"We've been carefully trying to figure out what's the best method to restore them," Reilly said. "There is a proposal from one of the contractors to preserve what is there and restore the surfaces. Many are largely intact, but they have streaks and gouges, and they need to be fixed."

The paintings depict some of the evangelists as animals, symbols taken from visions of the prophet Ezekiel, and list their Latin names in gold. Mark is a winged lion, Luke a bull, John an eagle and Matthew a human.

Sean Caine, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, said no monetary value has been placed on the paintings, but he described their historical and religious value as priceless.

Cardinal William H. Keeler was also informed about Reilly's find. "I know he was excited to see it discovered," Caine said.

Church officials hope the paintings will add to the Basilica's history and draw attention from its visitors, possibly even Pope Benedict XVI, whom Keeler invited to attend the Basilica's rededication ceremony in November 2006.

"It is just another reason for people to be excited about the basilica," Caine said.

Reilly hesitated when asked if more treasures might be found in the church, formally called the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

"We think we've seen pretty much everything that we are going to see, but something might pop up," he said.

tyrone.richardson@baltsun.com

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