On her first visit to campus as a graduate student in art history in 2008, Sophia Meyers was surprised to see such massive murals in the Basilica and the Main Building, the work of Italian artist Luigi Gregori, who taught and painted at Notre Dame from 1874 to 1891.
While she was earning her master’s degree on another subject, the Venetian fresco artist Giovanni Tiepolo, with adviser Robert Coleman, Meyers researched the Gregori murals on the side.
Now she is guest curator for “Artist in Residence: Working Drawings by Luigi Gregori, 1819-1896,” at the Snite Museum of Art through March 11. Myers will give a lecture on the exhibition at 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 26, during the museum’s public reception for the winter exhibitions.
“It’s not just about exhibiting the works. It’s about adding the scholarship on this man,” she says. “It’s a very compelling story that’s unique to the Notre Dame campus.”
Meyers served as the Snite’s Bock Family Graduate Intern during her final year in the two-year art history master’s program, and prepared for the first exhibition of Gregori’s drawings while her husband Tim Casper finished his degree.
Meyers completed the catalog of Gregori’s drawings that he gave to Notre Dame more than a century ago—only about one-fourth of the nearly 500 Gregori pieces in the Snite’s collection had been cataloged in projects in the 1930s and 1970s.
Gregori, who had worked for Pope Pius IX, did paintings in churches in Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia and came to Notre Dame to decorate the Basilica, including the Stations of the Cross.
When the earlier Main Building burned and the new one was built in 1879, Gregori decorated the interior – including “Religion Surrounded by the Arts” inside the dome as well as the Columbus murals – then went back to work on the Basilica. He returned to Italy in 1891.
Gregori was painting as the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage approached, and U.S. Catholics eager to demonstrate their place in American history were highlighting the Catholic explorer’s role – there was even a movement to canonize Columbus.
One of the murals, “The Reception at Court of Barcelona,” was reproduced as a commemorative stamp for the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1892.
While other painters’ murals of Columbus, including one in the Rotunda in the Capital, depict a secular discoverer, Gregori filled his paintings with religious symbolism, including a cross erected upon landing in the New World, where Columbus is depicted in a prayer position.
“Each of the images was designed to focus on Catholicism and emphasize his position as a Catholic hero,” Meyers says.
With no historical images of Columbus available, Gregori modeled his portrait on Father Thomas Walsh, the president of Notre Dame, for scenes in the Spanish court and the New World. Gregori used Father Edward Sorin as the model for Columbus on his deathbed.
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