Sharing ‘the beauty of holiness’ through art

The oldest pieces of art in the Saint Vincent Gallery at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, are pre-Columbian stone figures from Central America (circa A.D. 600-800) and ancient Roman bronze pendants (A.D. 100-300). The newest acquisitions include computer-generated art.

In between that nearly 2,000-year span are about 4,000 pieces of art, mostly from the 17th to 21st centuries and even a couple from the Middle Ages.

It’s a collection that would have made Saint Vincent founder Boniface Wimmer proud.

“I think that one of the impacts of the art in our collection is that it reflects the beauty of holiness,” gallery director Ann Holmes said. “Art reflects the greater truth, and beauty is definitely a path to spirituality. You can look at a beautiful painting and be moved and changed.”

Wimmer thought so, too.

Gallery’s origin

He arrived in 1846 from Bavaria with 18 aspirants to the Order of St. Benedict. They came to serve German immigrants on the frontier 40 miles east of Pittsburgh, where they founded a monastery that grew into the American-Cassinese Congregation of Benedictine Confederation.

Wimmer, later named archabbot, wanted the monks to be well-rounded in their education and also be familiar with the beauty of the arts.

“Art must go hand in hand with religion,” he wrote in one of his many translated letters. “I am absolutely persuaded that a monastic school which does not give just as much attention to art as to knowledge and religion is a very imperfect one, and that a deficiency in scholarship at the beginning can be more readily excused than a neglect of art.”

He pledged to “not spare expense to teach the students first the necessary, then the useful and finally the beautiful things, as long as they contribute to their refinement.”

Wimmer’s friend, King Ludwig I of Bavaria, a patron of the new monastery and a lavish patron of the arts, agreed, and over the years sent hundreds of paintings. Since then, thousands more pieces have been added through donations and purchases. There are oil paintings, watercolors, drawings, photographs, prints, stained glass, sculptures and a framed page from an illuminated medieval manuscript from the library’s collection of antique books.

Renowned artists represented include, among others, Mark Chagall, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Rembrandt, Pierre-August Renoir, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Andrew Wyeth and Paul Warhola, brother of Pittsburgh-born artist Andy Warhol.

Gallery founder and former director Brother Nathan Cochran, OSB (1957-2014), once described Saint Vincent’s art as western Pennsylvania’s most extensive collection of European art from the 17th to 19th centuries.

St. Vincent
Saint Vincent College students view a painting at the Saint Vincent Gallery. Courtesy photo

Pieces on display

Brother Nathan, an artist himself, was involved in revising and developing the college’s arts department. He converted an unused space for a special exhibit marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of King Ludwig I, and that space became the gallery in 1986.

“At all times, the gallery has a portrait of Ludwig and 20 to 30 oil paintings from his original collection that run the gamut of subjects,” Holmes said. “There are landscapes, a big portrait of a cardinal and a painting of a skull, called Vanitas (vanity) that’s signed by F. Friderich and dated 1774. Those paintings, called memento mori — ‘remember, you will die’ — were a fairly popular way to remember that life is short and you will eventually die and face judgment. The one we have has a skull and a candle that has just been snuffed out, like a little wisp of a soul leaving the body.”

Some of the best pieces are on permanent display, as are artifacts from Boniface Wimmer. Special exhibits are scheduled periodically, too. One focused on the work of female artists from the collection and the community. Another was an exhibit of drawings by Benedictine Brother Cosmas Wolf, a sculptor, designer and architect who came to the monastery in 1852. He taught art at Saint Vincent, carved statues and designed and built at least 35 Neo-Gothic altars.

National competition

Brother Nathan believed that contemporary artists have much to add to traditional sacred art and that their work should be considered for places of worship and contemplation. Ordering prints from a catalogue, he often said, was not very inspirational.

That led him to organize the first Nationwide Juried Catholic Arts Competition in 2001. The exhibits, now scheduled every two years, have grown in size and popularity with artists, patrons of the arts and gallery visitors. Jurors have included art historian Sister Wendy Beckett and Janet McKenzie, whose work focuses on multi-cultural and feminist images.

Those exhibits attract entries from all over the United States and abroad, with work representing a wide range of media and style from traditional to contemporary. One digital photograph by Christopher Ruane of Pittsburgh recreates the Nativity in a city street scene. Mary is sitting on the hood of a car, the shepherds are street people, the three wise men are gathered around a burn barrel, and people can be seen committing the Seven Deadly Sins in the windows of a sleazy hotel in the background.

“It’s a very powerful piece,” Holmes said.

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Japanese artist Osamu Tanimoto entered one of the shows with a painting of the prodigal son shirtless and wearing jeans. McKenzie’s renowned “Jesus of the People” used a black woman for the model.

Saint Vincent’s purchased several pieces from the exhibits for the permanent collection and to hang around campus, giving students an exposure to many generations of artistic expression. It’s a continuation of Archabbot Wimmer’s vision for the students and for the community.

“There are some paintings in the gallery that students can really learn from,” said Brother Mark Floreanini, OSB, assistant professor of visual arts and an artist in multiple media. “The students comment on how fascinating it is to see different styles when they’re learning to paint, and they get to talk to current artists at opening receptions. Then when students have their own shows, that brings in their friends, family and other students.”

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.

Read more articles from the Fall college section here.