Chapter 4,  p. 2

 

   The changes this Cincinnati church has undergone since 1862 began in 1869.  During the summer of that year, Johann Schmitt and the German-American painter-decorator M. Geiger worked in the sanctuary to complete its decorative scheme. Geiger's name is listed as a member of the Covington Altar Building Stock Company without any information about his background, training, and/or specific tasks within the Company. The 25th Jubilee edition of the history of St. Francis Seraph, published in 1884, mentions that Geiger painted decorative frescoes of neo-classical design on sanctuary columns and arches.[7] This information leads one to believe that M. Geiger and Wenceslaus Thien were employed as specialists in non-figurative designs, thus freeing Schmitt, Lamprecht, Duveneck, and a handful of other academically trained German-American artists, to contribute figurative compositions. Johann Schmitt's 1869 commission at St. Francis Seraph church included four large paintings in the arch of the ceiling above the windows. They represented The Stigmatization of St. Francis, St. Clare repulsing the Saracens, St. Elizabeth and the Poor, and The Death of St. Francis. These murals were replaced in 1917 when the entire sanctuary was redecorated. Thus Schmitt's works can no longer be enjoyed. The 1862 original altars by Cosmas Wolf were removed in 1914. Such church alterations were common before the possibilities of preservation or restoration occurred to local administrators.

   It is a known fact that the Covington Altar Building Stock Company was a Benedictine organization and that its director, Brother Cosmas Wolf, had come to Northern Kentucky from the Benedictine college of St. Vincent in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. There were close links between a few other German-American church artists and a specific religious order. Johann Schmitt, for instance, was a member of the Third Order of St. Francis for thirty-five years of his life in America. This membership obliged him to adhere to certain moral and ritual activities, such as a monthly pilgrimage from Covington to St. Francis Seraph church in Cincinnati, and the study of biblical texts on a regular daily basis. The painter designed his own burial monument, a massive sandstone pedestal, surmounted by an imported statue of his favorite patron, St. Francis of Assisi.[8] Because of his personal veneration of St. Francis, Schmitt left a legacy of many interesting images of the saint in American churches.

    The Cincinnati Franciscan brothers erected a monastery in the city's neighborhood of Mt. Airy in 1889 and commissioned Johann Schmitt to decorate the chapel, dedicated Figure 40 to St. Anthony of Padua. All of the murals in the chapel have been painted over, but archival photographs and earlier detailed descriptions convey a sense of the visual and emotional impact of Schmitt's work. The largest of the murals was located behind and above the chapel's central altar. (Figure 40, Johann Schmitt, Reception of the Franciscans into Heaven). The following description by a visitor was printed in a commemorative publication for the monastery's St. Anthony Shrine Society: "High above the main altar of the chapel is a half-dome, in the middle of which is a niche that holds a statue of St. Anthony. Above the niche, painted on the half-dome itself, many Franciscan saints are grouped around their Queen, our Blessed Mother. On the wall below this painting, and looking up at the Paduan with hopeful eyes, are clients of St. Figure 41 Anthony - bishops, priests, religious men, women and children - all going to Anthony. This painting is indeed an inspiration."[9]

    Schmitt painted two additional murals in the side chapel of Mt. Airy's Franciscan monastery. They portrayed The Death of a Franciscan Brother (Figure 41) and St. Francis visiting Purgatory (Figure 42). They differ significantly from the accepted vocabulary of Figure 42 nineteenth century religious themes in their almost morbid portrayal of suffering and sorrow. These two paintings also demonstrate the German-American artist's ability to explore unusual and disturbing images in a sacred setting.

There is one nineteenth century church in Cincinnati that still stands as a historical monument for the impact the ethnic German population had on religious architecture and decoration. The church in question is Holy Cross-Immaculata, situated on Mt. Adams, the highest point in Cincinnati, with a breathtaking view of the Ohio River below. The Immaculata church was erected in 1859 for the German congregation in the city's Figure 43 Mt. Adams neighborhood. It has served since 1860 as a pilgrimage church, where on Good Friday the faithful ascend eighty-nine steps from the level of the river to the front door of the church. [10] (Figure 43). In 1871 the Passionists took over the Mt. Adams parish. The Passionists are men and women, who make vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, with a special promise to promote the memory of the passion of Jesus. The original congregation of the Passionists was founded by the Italian Paul Francis Danei, who lived between 1694 and 1775, and had his headquarters in Rome. His followers became missionaries in many parts of the Old and New World. In 1852 four Passionists landed in the United States, and in 1871 a larger group settled in Cincinnati. They remodeled the old Cincinnati observatory on Mt. Adams into a monastery for their Order and added a frame church on the north side of their new home. In 1873 the church and monastery were given the name of Holy Cross. They served the English-speaking people on the hill, while the Immaculata was allotted to those residents who spoke German.[11]

     In the 1970's a downsizing of religious communities began throughout the United States. The Holy Cross monastery was closed in 1977, and in 1996 the Passionists were told to depart Cincinnati after a 125-year presence in the city. Holy Cross church was closed, and the parishioners joined with Immaculata to become the Holy Cross-Immaculata parish. The Immaculata church, as one of the most famous visual landmarks in the city of Cincinnati, was entered in the National  Register of Historic Places in 1979. In 1981 the Mt. Adams Preservation Association erected a Figure 44 bronze marker on the church grounds with a brief history of the parish and a tribute to the German-American church artist Johann Schmitt who decorated its interior [12] (Figure 44). The involvement of parish members in this process demonstrates that a concerted effort of local lay groups can forestall the closing of a historic religious building and breathe new life into its artistic heritage.  The Mt. Adams Preservation Association raised enough funds to have Johann Schmitt's paintings in the Holy Cross - Immaculata restored to their original brilliance. He had created seven paintings over the main altar and side altars between the years 1863 and 1870. They depict The Annunciation (Figure 45), The Birth of Mary (Figure 46), The Immaculate Conception (Figure 47), The Sacrifice of Isaac (Figure 48), The Garden of Eden (Figure 49), and The Assumption of the Virgin (Figure 50).

Figure 45 Figure 46 Figure 47 Figure 48 Figure 49 Figure 50
A painted scroll stretches across the main altar's painting of The Immaculate Conception. It reads:
O Maria, ohne Suende empfangen, bitte fuer die Bekehrung dieses Landes, Amerika.
(Oh Mary, conceived without sin, pray for the conversion of this country, America.)
This prayer reminds us that the first parish on Cincinnati's Mt. Adams was composed mostly of German-speaking immigrants and that in 1860 the Catholic newcomers regarded themselves as missionaries in their new homeland. [13]

    Johann Schmitt's depiction of the child Mary, ascending the steps of the Temple Figure 51 where the chief rabbi awaits her arrival, (Figure 51, The Presentation of Mary in the Temple), is one of the most charming visual images by the German-American church artist. The little girl's long brown hair is crowned with a wreath of white flowers and cascades down to her waist. A bright halo illuminates her sweet profile, and a small foot in a sandal peeks out from underneath the long red gown over which she wears a blue mantle. Such an image is not based on studies of Western European prototypes, but rather on an immersion by the artist in the human content of apocryphal writings. We learn from Schmitt's biographer that the painter used the lovely features of his adopted daughter Mary, who died at the age of twenty-three in 1885, for his many depictions of the Virgin Mary.[14]

    Since Cincinnati was the birthplace of the Society of Christian Art and was located just across the Ohio River from Covington and its Institute of Catholic Art, there were of course many other works by German-American church artists created in the Queen City. Some of these artists are difficult to track. Not many nineteenth century church archives included the names of the painters, altar builders, or sculptors, who had beautified their buildings. It is only very recently that local historians and archivists of religious institutions have begun to research the story of nineteenth century American mission churches. A Cincinnati group of dedicated lovers of religious art is engaged in documenting church murals in their city. The name of the painter Gerhard Lamers, who was born in Cleves on the lower Rhine in Germany, crops up frequently in their discoveries. The church of The Annunciation is graced by the artist's beautiful mural Figure 52 depicting the meeting between the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary in the dome above the main altar (Figure 52). Quite in contrast to the Nazarene style of Johann Schmitt and Wilhelm Lamprecht, Gerhard Lamers leans heavily on Byzantine prototypes. His angels, saints and apostles, surrounding the Virgin Mary and the Archangel Gabriel, are elongated, archaic bodies, reminiscent of mosaics in Eastern European churches of the tenth and eleventh centuries. Gerhard Lamers also painted murals in Cincinnati's Holy Family Church and St. William Church and chapel. [15]

<< previous page   next page >>


Return to Table of Contents
Return to Top of Page

Notes:

[7]  Parish History of St. Francis Seraph, 25th Jubilee edition, Cincinnati, 1884,  p. 200.

[8]  Diomede Pohlkamp, O.F.M., "A Franciscan Artist of Kentucky,"  p. 168.

[9]  St. Anthony National Shrine Society, 25th Anniversary (1928-1953), Cincinnati, OH (1953)  p. 12.

[10]  Kathleen Hueneman, Immaculate Church Guide Book, Cincinnati, OH: Holy Cross-Immaculata Parish, (1993)  p. 2.

[11]  Conleth Overman, C. p., Stories of the Mt. Adams Passionists, Chicago, IL: Congregation of the Passion (1996)  pp. ix-x.

[12]  Kathleen Hueneman, Immaculate Church Guide Book,  p. 8.

[13]  Ibid.

[14]  Diomede Pohlkamp, O.F.M, "A Franciscan Artist of Kentucky,"  p. 167.

[15]  Sheree Mancini Brown, "One man's quest to preserve beauty," The Catholic Telegraph (April 18, 1997)  p. 25