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An Inside Look at the Basilica and Main Building

Brigid Mangano | Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Basilica of the Sacred Heart is undoubtedly one of the most iconic and most frequented buildings on campus. Yet very few students or alumni can recount the story of its construction or identify the Italian painter responsible for the majority of its interior decorations. “Artist in Residence: Working Drawing by Luigi Gregori,” an exhibition at The Snite Museum of Art organized by 2010 Notre Dame alumna Sophia Meyers, reveals this information and other little-known facts about the Basilica.

Born in 1819 in Bologna, Gregori moved to South Bend in 1874 at the invitation of Fr. Edward Sorin, who had traveled to Rome in search of an art professor. In addition to his teaching responsibilities, Gregori completed three major mural projects in the Basilica, the Main Building and Washington Hall. Since the murals in the latter were destroyed during renovations, the exhibition focuses on the first two decorative schemes.

Although most of the paintings in the Basilica depict Biblical scenes that are easily recognizable, some of them, by virtue of their location, are difficult to see without craning one’s neck. A prime example is the “Life of the Virgin” mural series that Gregori designed for the upper register of the transept.

At the Snite Museum, however, it is possible to see preparatory drawings for these paintings at a comfortable eye level. A drawing titled “The Marriage of the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph” is notable for its subject matter, which is underrepresented in Christian art. Mary, dressed in her signature pink robe and blue mantle, extends her right hand to Joseph, who interlocks his fingers with hers. Indeed, the whole scene is predicated on an intimate exchange of looks and gestures. The drawing also highlights Gregori’s knowledge of the Italian Renaissance, because the symmetrical composition and figure poses are strongly redolent of “The Betrothal of Mary” (1504) by Raphael.

The mural series in the Main Building was dedicated to the life of Christopher Columbus, the world-famous Catholic explorer whose discovery of America was thought to embody Catholicism’s substantial contributions to United States history. The episode titled “Father Perez Blessing Christopher Columbus before his Journey” is depicted twice by Gregori, once in watercolor and once in graphite.

These two views allow the spectator to understand the evolution of the composition. In the watercolor rendering, Columbus is seen kneeling in profile, while in the graphite version the positioning of his legs is awkward and unconvincing. Another episode in the series depicts Columbus on his deathbed, surrounded by four grieving figures and a cleric. A globe and traveling trunk adjacent to his bed make pointed reference to Columbus’ historic voyages. This drawing is especially noteworthy because the bearded visage of Columbus was based on a head study of Father Sorin.

Other drawings in the exhibition commemorate events from Father Sorin’s life, including a wedding ceremony over which he presided for the local Potawatomi tribe. The engaged couple stands outside the Log Chapel in the company of six witnesses, while in the background several cloaked figures exit or enter the place of worship. Those who are curious to see the finished canvas should pay a visit to the Gregorian Room on the second floor of Saint Edward’s Hall. Gregori’s painting was unearthed five years ago in the storage area of this dorm.

Ultimately, “Artist in Residence” offers a unique opportunity for students and faculty alike to learn about a painter whose personal history is intertwined with that of Notre Dame and whose creative vision produced some of the most stunning murals on campus. The exhibition will remain open until March 11.

On campus

What: “Artist in Residence: Working Drawings by Luigi Gregori”

Where: The Snite Museum of Art

When: January 15 – March 11

How Much: Free

Learn More: sniteartmuseum.nd.edu