Rediscovered paintings to go on display at nation's first cathedral
BALTIMORE -- A simple "knock knock" on the wall led an architect to discover four 140-year-old paintings that have been unveiled at the National Shrine of the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, America's first cathedral.
Steve Riley, project architect, was credited with discovering the distempered water-based paintings of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, about 60-feet high on the wall near the Basilica's main dome.
"We are lucky. What we have left to restore is in excellent condition," says Riley, who made the discovery two months ago while performing a routine tapping check of the panels. "I was pretty excited that this was the way it is."
Each painting is approximately 11 feet wide and 8 feet high, dates back to 1865 and bears two pencil-written names, Philip Nengle and Hubert Schmidt, which are reported to be the artists.
The paintings were believed to be covered with wood during a redecoration of the Basilica's interior in the 1870s. The early redecoration portrayed the four Evangelists in a circular fashion as opposed to the rectangular style of the recovered paintings.
"The Basilica went through at least 14 major redecoration campaigns, top to bottom" Riley says. "As a result there are many layers of history to be exposed." He does not expect to find more paintings.
Knocking is an unsophisticated method of determining a wall's material, he says. There was some inclination that something could be behind the wall, but he didn't know just what.
"A very simple way of determining what is hollow and what is solid is to knock on the wall," says Riley, who described slowly finding the edges of the murals until they were completely exposed.
The paint is similar to pastels and could come off very easily, he says. "Whoever covered over them in the first place was very careful to do it in a way to protect those paintings."
The Basilica, constructed in stages during the early 19th century, was closed in November 2004 for restoration and is scheduled to reopen in November 2006. The paintings will be covered with construction fabric while restoration work continues. They will be retouched with matching paint and then framed.
"It's tough to put a monetary value on the paintings," says Mark Potter, executive director of the Basilica. "They have a historic value that will be here for generations to enjoy."