by Alistair Highet
The 13th-century beech wood carving of Virgin and Child that sits against the wall in the new Meditz Gallery shows the stresses of the years, but the figures remain remarkably fresh in their simplicity – the faces of both mother and child gaze through the viewer toward a distant horizon, serene and assured in their role in the grand scheme of things, drawing the viewer into a powerfully intimate contact with the religious sensibility of the Medieval world.
This work is one of 20 objects from the early Christian, Romanesque, and Celtic periods loaned to Fairfield University by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s (MMA) Department of Medieval Art and the Cloisters, and it joins a host of other work – including 10 Renaissance and Baroque paintings and eight plaster casts from the Acropolis Museum in Athens – as the highlights of the collection in Fairfield University’s Bellarmine Museum of Art, which formally opened its doors to the public on Oct. 25.
With the opening of the museum, Fairfield now has a home for its permanent collection of art, which had hitherto been spread about the University. It includes a collection of plaster casts from the Classical world on loan or gifted to the University by the MMA, a small collection of Asian, African, and pre-Columbian artifacts, and the Samuel H. Kress collection of Italian paintings, which were given to the University in 2002 by The Discovery Museum in Bridgeport. The paintings include a “Madonna and Child” attributed to Pietro degli Ingannati (c.1530s), two striking egg-gilded tempera panels, “St. Anthony Abbot” and “St. Andrew,” attributed to a follower of Pietro Lorenzetti (1280-1348), and the dramatic and sweeping “Andromeda on the Rocks” by Paolo de Metteis (1662-1728).
In creating the museum space, Centerbrook Architects of Centerbook, Conn., managed to transform what had been a storage space in the lower level of Bellarmine Hall into a remarkably elegant, thoughtfully scaled exhibition and teaching space. The main exhibition space, the Frank and Clara Meditz Gallery, is entered through a door and down a small flight of stairs. The original concrete support arches of the building have been used to create an adjacent gallery where highlights from the plaster casts are exhibited. The result is a space that is intriguing to the eye, and designed for meditative reflection.
Along the central corridor of the museum are seven of the eight casts that have been recently donated to Fairfield by the Acropolis Museum. An exhibition featuring these casts, Gifts from Athens: New Plaster Casts from the Acropolis Museum and Photographs by Socratis Mavrommatis, opened on Nov. 2 and continues through Dec. 17.
The total cost of building the museum was $3.2 million of which $500,00 still remains to be raised. The lead donor was alumnus John Meditz ’70, a University trustee and Vice Chairman of Horizon Asset Management Inc. of New York, who gave $2.5 million to launch the project. Other donors have included The Samuel H. Kress Foundation, and the Charles and Mabel P. Jost Foundation, among others. In April 2009, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded the University a prestigious $500,000 challenge grant to endow the Museum. Under the terms of the grant, the University must raise $2 million by 2013 in order to receive all of the NEH funding. Half of that sum has been raised to date. Once in place, the endowment will help to ensure that the museum continues to grow and achieves its goal of serving as a teaching tool for the University community, as well as for elementary and secondary schools in greater Fairfield county, and as a cultural resource for the tri-state area.
On Oct. 7, Fairfield opened the museum for a special reception for the University’s Board of Trustees and other invitees, including Emily K. Rafferty, president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and curators from MMA. The loan of works from the MMA to Fairfield is the largest of its type that the museum has made in the past decade, and there is hope that the relationship will be ongoing.
“Obviously, the museum serves a number of purposes,” said University President Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J. “First and foremost, it is a teaching facility, and it is part of our outreach to the local community, and it has helped us to connect with one of the most important cultural institutions in the world.”
Dr. Jill Deupi, director of the museum and assistant professor of art history in Fairfield’s Department of Visual and Performing Arts has expansive educational plans and calls the museum a “laboratory for learning.” The museum includes a multi-media classroom for students. Plans in the works include integrating the exhibits in the collection into the teaching of other disciplines: Faculty from the English Department and the School of Nursing are in discussions about how to use what is on display in the museum as teaching tools. There are plans for K-12 programming with the neighboring schools. There will also be three temporary exhibits put on by the museum each year. Talks are currently underway to have an exhibit of the works of contemporary, Connecticut-born artist and naturalist James Prosek, best known for his comprehensive watercolor studies of trout, and author of Trout: An Illustrated History and most recently, Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World’s Most Amazing and Mysterious Fish.”
“The Jesuits have always been strong supporters of the arts,” noted Fr. von Arx. Indeed, the goals of the Bellarmine Museum are consistent with a very long tradition in Ignatian education that has recognized the power of the visual arts as a means of communication, and as a way to impress upon people certain truths about the human condition, the natural, and the spiritual world, that are most easily grasped by the imagination when they can be visualized.
Indeed, The Spiritual Exercises – the foundation of all Ignatian pedagogy in the end – calls upon those who are engaged in the process of the exercises to use their imaginations and reconstruct various scenarios in the life of Christ and to place themselves within those scenarios. According to one early chronicler, when Ignatius was about to meditate “he looked at the pictures that he had collected and displayed around his room for this purpose.” St. Ignatius commissioned an illustrated book of gospel meditations, a book eventually published in 1594. While the book was published after his death, it would come to be used in the formation of the early Jesuits. Matteo Ricci, S.J., (1552-1610) carried along a copy of the book during his mission in China, and said of it: “This book is of even greater use than the Bible in the sense that while we are in the middle of taking it (to potential converts) we can also place right in front of their eyes things that with words alone we would not be able to make clear.”
Within a few years, as Jesuits began their missions to China, Japan, and what is now South America, they brought with them the understanding that visual representations of their message were one of the most effective means of communicating with these newly encountered cultures. Churches were built, and paintings were commissioned. Sometimes Jesuits with artistic gifts were sent to these missions specifically for the purpose of creating works. In other cases, as in Manila in 1581, the Jesuits set up a school to train Chinese artists to create work in the Western devotional manner.
More familiar to most of us are the Jesuit-inspired artists of the Baroque period, many of whom were deeply influenced by the Ignatian emphasis on the power of images in religious education and devotion. Of these, one thinks of Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), responsible for the Vatican Colonnade in front of St. Peter’s in Rome, among other monumental works. Bernini regularly entered into the Spiritual Exercises and the specifically Jesuit emphasis on concrete visualization is certainly reflected in his best known work, “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila” in the Cornaro Chapel in Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. Here, a profound religious sensation – a heart pierced by Divine Love – is made comprehensible through Bernini’s empathic imagining of the experience, no doubt a skill honed through the Ignatian Exercises. The most influential painter of the period, Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), was a graduate of a Jesuit school in Cologne, and worked with the Society extensively as a collaborator on many projects.
This is not to overlook the history and influence of Jesuit drama, music, literature, or architecture. But as Fr. von Arx noted, the Jesuits have always appreciated the power of art to deepen and enrich the human imagination. With the Bellarmine Museum of Art, Fairfield has begun a new chapter in its educational mission, now having an appropriate exhibition space where these fine works of art can inform and inspire the imagination for future generations of students, patrons, and visitors.
The Bellarmine Museum is open to the public and is free of charge. Hours are Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. while the University is in session. For more information go to www.fairfield.edu/museum.