Category: Archive

Exhibits of faith

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

At the very least, in that regard, the museum has history on its side. Visitors must find their way to a block as important as any other in the history of Catholicism in New York and the nation.
Fifty years ago, Our Lady of Mount Carmel church next door was drawing up to a half million pilgrims annually on or about July 16. They were going to venerate the Madonna of 115th Street at the Italian “festa” or feast.
Back before that, in the opening years of the 20th century, Pope Leo XIII and Vatican officials were unhappy with the disdain with which Irish- and German-American clergy treated Southern European immigrants in places like East Harlem. Nonetheless, they were rather more concerned with the threat of “heresy” and “Protestant deceit,” and so considered carefully the New York archbishop’s support for a plan to “crown” the Madonna, who had been brought from Polla in Italy in 1880. The church took coronation seriously — indeed in Europe, it had always required an “antiquity of cult” of several centuries. In the end, however, the New York campaigners won out, as did supporters of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in New Orleans and the Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.
Today, atop the altar in Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the Madonna and the baby Jesus have beautiful gowns, embroidered with ancient brocade and designs in gold. Their long, dark hair is real, and so are the crowns, studded with precious emeralds sent by the Vatican in 1904
The coronation helped put East Harlem on the map and for almost another 50 years, it was home to the largest Italian community in the United States.
Then, with the large-scale Puerto Rican migration after World War II, it evolved into El Barrio or Spanish Harlem. And in recent years, it’s been transformed again by the influx of Mexicans and other new immigrant groups. The next change is likely to be in the direction of gentrification.
“As curator, my responsibility is to involve the community,” said Hammerle-McGuire, a Queens native with roots in Counties Cavan and Down. “And we must attract, more generally, the museum-going public of New York.”
She joined the organization two and a half years ago from the Staten Island Institute of Art and Sciences. “When I heard about a Catholic museum in New York, I thought: ‘How unusual.’ It sounded like something I could get involved with ” said Hammerle-McGuire, who has worked in the field for 25 years and has degrees in art history and arts administration.
A good deal of the publicity the museum has attracted over the years, though, has been negative. After an investigation in 2002, the New York State attorney general, Elliot Spitzer, ordered founder and then-executive director Christina Cox to pay back to the NMCAH $86,328 that she spent on “improper” expenses. There were accusations in the press, too, that it was a “museum without art.” There were even rumors that the archdiocese was unhappy that it might be linked in the public’s mind to the NMCAH and its problems and that it wanted “Catholic” taken out of its title.
“That issue has been resolved,” said John Hennessy, the acting executive director.
And the depth and range of what’s on view at this early stage go some way towards dealing with the skepticism about its collection.
“Peggy has set up a wonderful program of shows into 2006,” said Lewis P. Johnson, the marketing director.
With a resume that includes 40 years of experience building and developing museums — the Intrepid Sea-Air-Museum among them — Johnson helped restore confidence in the NMCAH ahead of its official opening on the July 16 feast day.
“The nine galleries, which are state of the art, are very well done,” he said. “We’ve put together a good team. With six people, we’ve accomplished so much.
Perhaps the standout exhibit in the spacious three-story building is Franklin McMahon’s “This Church, These Times,” a series of watercolors done by the Illinois artist and filmmaker on his several visits to Rome during the Second Vatican Council from 1962 through 1965.
“At the Altar of the World” looks at the Pontificate of Pope John Paul II through the lens of L’Obsservatore Romano, the Vatican’s official newspaper. It’s the first of a four-part series on loan from the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, Washington, D.C.
Also on loan from the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center is “God’s Women: Nuns in America.”
The exhibit’s artifacts, art and photographs tell a 300-year history that begins in1704 with Lydia Longley, the first American-born woman to take religious vows.
One interesting aspect of the exhibit is the Mrs. Alex R. Kirschling Collection, 70 nun dolls first assembled in the 1950s. Green Bay, Wis., native Kirschling provided dolls for various orders, insisting that the fabric used was authentic.
A rather different facet of the exhibit is its examination of the “nun” in popular entertainment and advertising in the 20th century, and what that says about how Catholicism has been viewed in America.
Their involvement in the Civil War proved a turning point for female religious orders, as was arguably the case for Catholics in general in the United States.
Abraham Lincoln said: “Of all forms of charity and benevolence seen in the crowded wards in the hospitals, those of some Catholic sisters were among the most efficient. I never knew whence they came of what was the name of their Order. How many times I seen them exorcise pain by their presence, by their word!”
“Icons: Windows into Heaven” displays examples, from private collections, of an art form that’s intimately associated with Eastern Orthodoxy, and which the program notes say, “is as essential to its theology and dogma as scripture.”
“Viva Mexico” features the work of a New York-based photographer Daniel Nadler, who says “it has been my challenge to capture the contrasts and enchantment this kaleidoscopic country presents.”
The Egyptian-born Nadler — who first became interested in photography while serving in Japan as an officer of the U.S. air force — has traveled to Mexico 10 times with his wife. He says in a statement accompanying the exhibit: “I am drawn to individuals who are characteristic; representing a nugget of life that still has not been not been homogenized into the industrialized world. I single them out at random and they are flattered when asked to pose. Normally, they respond warmly, as you can you see by their smiles, with pride of identity.”
“Contemplations of the Spiritual: Site Projects” is a series of photographs of on-site work by five artists in 13 locations, usually cathedrals in North America and Europe.
One of the most fascinating exhibits is “Angels in the Wind,” three-dimensional surrealist sculptures, made from cloth and resin, by the 75-year-old New York artist Muriel Castanis.
Looking around inside the lobby, the visitor can see, too, an eclectic mix: “The Betrayal,” attributed to Flemish artist Anthony Van Dyke, and probably completed members of the Van Dyke school; replicas of five of Salvador Dal

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