Friday, December 15, 2023

An Historic Painting by Guido Reni Enshrined in Covington Cathedral

Thanks to our good friend Fr Jordan Hainsey of the diocese of Covington, Kentucky, for sharing with us this item about a painting recently put on display in Covington Cathedral.

A painting of St. Philip Neri was enshrined at St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption in Covington, Kentucky, in late July. Visually framed by the vaults and pillars of a side aisle, it hangs above the west portal door at the cathedral’s narthex. While it is new to the Cathedral, its history stretches back to one of Rome’s greatest painters and the earliest days of the German presence in Covington.

The Covington copy of Guido Reni’s St Philip Neri
The painting was brought from Rome to the United States in 1839 by Fr. Ferdinand Kühr, the first pastor of Mother of God Church in Covington. Fr. Kühr was born in Eslohe, Prussia on August 25, 1806. An early history by Mother of God Church relates: Having lost his parents at an early age, the boy was forced to work in the fields for a living. A priest uncle, noticing his inclination toward the ecclesiastical state, sent him to the Gymnasium of Paderborn. After two years, the benefactor died, and the boy was again left destitute. Ferdinand was determined to become a priest – money or no money. Hearing that poor boys might be educated for the missions gratuitously at the college of Propaganda Fide, he set out on foot for Rome with one companion. By the time they had reached the Alps, their little money was gone, and they accepted charity at Saint Gotthard, where they were advised to turn back to Germany. The two youths, however, proceeded to Rome; and according to Fr. Kühr’s own description, arrived, footsore, hungry, and in tatters. On the outskirts of the Eternal City, they knelt to beg God’s blessing on their future and trudged on to the first church in sight. Here they fell asleep, only to be awakened by a confused lay brother, who, not being able to understand them, conducted the two “urchins” to a German priest. They were presented to the Propaganda by their newly-found friend and were enrolled at the College.

Fr Ferdinand Kühr
The college Kühr found himself in was the Pontifical Urban College for the Propagation of the Faith. Founded in 1627, this institution prepared young men for holy orders and missionary work in their homelands. Italians were not admitted; instead, it welcomed students—like Kühr—from the Balkans, Northern Europe, and the Middle East. At the time of Kühr’s arrival, Karl-August Graf von Reisach, one of the most influential churchmen of the 19th century, was rector. A native Bavarian, Reisach enjoyed a close friendship with several popes and was a well-respective churchman known for his cultured diplomacy. Reisach would eventually be named Bishop of Eichstätt, later Archbishop of Munich-Freising, and, eventually, a Cardinal. Decades later, when Pius IX began preparations for Vatican Council I, he called on Reisach to begin preparations and went on to name him council president.
The Painting Travels From Rome to America
Divine providence not only carried the poor boy from Prussia across the Alps and brought him to ordination day, but it gave him an education and formation by Reisach, who ordained him on the feast of St Lawrence, August 10, 1836, in Rome by Reisach. The Holy Spirit and the imposition of Reisach’s hands not only conferred Holy Orders upon him, but seemingly passed on a missionary zeal that would carry Kühr to the shores of America.
Cardinal Reisach
Following ordination, Kühr became professor of Theology at the Propagation of the Faith from 1836-39. According to The Centenary of Catholicity in Kentucky, he was said to be an “energetic and faithful priest highly esteemed to the clergy to whom he was known. He was a holy man unpretending in his ways, and deeply pious.” Gaining the affection of many, sometime during these three years the Cardinal Archbishop of Cologne (likely Clemens August Droste zu Vischering) gifted Kühr a painting of St. Philip Neri purported to be one of six created by the Baroque Master, Guido Reni. Where he got it and how it was chosen to give to Kühr is unknown.
Almost immediately though, Kühr felt an interior voice say, “Go to the new world and build a church in honor of the Mother of God!” As the story goes, when he told the cardinal friend that he would take his treasured painting with him to America, his eminence replied: “You dare not; the Pecci Law is written forbidding masterpieces to be taken from Rome.” What exactly the cardinal meant by the Pecci law is unclear, as no historical record of such law exists as we know it. However, beginning during the reign of Pius VI in the 18th century, strict regulations about exporting artworks from the Pontifical States were enforced. Such regulations would have later been incorporated bodily into the legal code of the Kingdom of Italy, particularly after the so-called Unification. Whatever the case, Kühr found a loophole. As tradition relates, “Knowing that the law is not in force until duly promulgated, Fr. Kühr left Rome quietly at night, and took his Saint Philip Neri with him.”
The Painting Arrives in Covington and Mother of God Parish is Established
Covington’s “St. Mary’s Mission,” served a congregation of both English-speaking and German-speaking Catholics, most of them immigrants, in the early 1830s. For the first three years of its existence, it had no resident priest. “One of the Reverend clergy of the Cathedral of Cincinnati,” noted the Catholic Telegraph, “celebrated ‘Holy Mass’ on two Sundays (second and fourth) of every month.” The “Reverend clergy” mentioned in the article was Fr Stephen Montgomery.
Soon though, Fr. Kühr was drawn to this growing congregation. In the spring of 1839, he arrived with the painting in the United States and began ministry. Beginning in Cincinnati, he eventually traveled to Pennsylvania, before offering his service to Bishop Flaget for ministry to the growing German faithful who had settled in the city of Covington. By the time he arrived, the number of German-speaking families at St. Mary’s had increased to nearly 40, which warranted the creation of a new parish church. With the Bishop’s permission, a new congregation was organized under Kühr, who at first rented a hall in the Old National Hotel Building on Scott Street in which to have Mass. Then in the spring of 1841, he bought a piece of property a block from St. Mary’s on Sixth Street upon which the new German church was erected. Contractors, builders, and labors were generous, donating both their time and materials. The church was under roof by August, and dedicated shortly thereafter, on October 10, 1842 as Mutter Gottes Gemeinde (Mother of God Parish).
While it seems likely the Kühr’s painting of St. Philip Neri would have been enshrined in the church, no photographs exist to prove this; where it hung in these early years is a mystery. What is clear though is that Kühr had kept his promise to “go to the new world and build a church in honor of the Mother of God!”
What makes the story of the painting’s arrival in America even more intriguing though is its purported artist. Oral and written provenance by the Sisters of Charity in Cincinnati, relate that the painting is one of six painted by the very hand of the Baroque master, Guido Reni.
Guido Reni, The Painting’s Artist
Reni was the most celebrated painter of seventeenth-century Italy. He was famous for the elegance of his compositions and the beauty and grace of his upturned heads and entrancing eyes; these were his religious zeitgeist. In 1608, Pope Paul V made him his court painter. Already popular, Reni could now barely keep up with commissions; the powerful Borghese dynasty, centered around Pope Paul V, and several other patrons, demanded a stream of new works from the star painter.
Self-portrait of Guido Reni, ca. 1602
To keep up, the artist ran a huge studio in Bologna, employing at one time up to 80 assistants; this studio even became an attraction for visitors to the city. A constant stream of art dealers, cardinals, and ambassadors dropped by. Whether altarpieces or devotional pictures, mythological scenes or portraits, Reni’s art remained highly sought after, and his studio assistants produced countless copies of his most popular paintings. For example, more than 50 workshop copies of the “Penitent Magdalene” are known today. But Reni himself is said to have held the firm opinion that it didn’t matter who executed the paintings or, indeed, how many times they were repeated. What counted was the brainchild behind them. In that vein, every workshop copy was an original Reni.
St Mary Magdalene, by Guido Reni, 1633
After Reni’s appointment in 1608 to the Papal Court, the Oratorians of Santa Maria in Vallicella (Chiesa Nuova) commissioned the famed artist to create a new painting of St. Philip Neri to hang in the chapel which housed the saint’s moral remains beneath the altar. The painting was slated to be the centerpiece of the 1615 beatification ceremonies.
Known as the third Apostle of Rome, St. Philip Neri was born on July 22, 1515. He lived during the Renaissance—a period of resurgence in learning, affecting philosophical thought, science, and art. At a time when the Catholic Church was embattled in the Reformation, Neri achieved a spiritual renewal in the Church’s capital city of Rome. He was gentle, kind, and had a warm personality, as well as a wonderful sense of humor. His two favorite books were the Bible and a joke book. He used charm and humor to teach others about Jesus and he shared joy and kindness with the poor. By the time he died in 1595, Neri’s popularity had skyrocketed; now part of Heaven’s cloud of witnesses, he was on par with Rome’s greatest patrons, Sts. Peter and Paul. The new painting then would become the focal point of devotion for Rome’s newest saint.
The chapel of St Philip Neri in the Roman Oratory church.
In 1614, Reni completed the commissioned painting of St. Philip Neri to the delight of the Oratorians and the lay faithful. Executed in his typical style, it depicts Neri’s ecstatic encounter with the Madonna and Christ Child. Employing those hallmark eyes, Reni has depicted Neri kneeling, with his hands outstretched in prayer, alluding to the mystical experience which St Philip had in the Catacombs of St. Sebastian. In that vision, a fire from the Holy Spirit settled in his chest and expanded his heart to the point that ribs were broken—a physical reality corroborated by doctors upon examination after his death. He is dressed in a rich red brocade “Neri Chasuble”— a vestment whose distinct, ample cut was popularized and codified at the Council of Trent and is now synonymous with Neri himself. The pairing of an ecstatic moment and the use of Mass vestments (which allude to Eucharist itself) create a picture of anamnesis—a Jewish and Christian concept that says what we are doing and experiencing is not simply a passive process, but one by which one can actually enter into now. Reni wanted to create a work that would draw the viewer into a transcendent encounter with the Divine who is ever-present. His success is undeniable.
Attribution and Provenance of Covington’s Painting
The fact that Reni’s studio was known to have created as many as 50 copies of a work lends credibility to the provenance of Covington’s St. Philip Neri painting as originating from it. It is also likely that the 19th century clergy and connoisseurs took to heart Reni’s own view that since he was the brainchild, every copy from his workshop was a true original. With that in mind, it is absolutely plausible that Covington’s painting is one of six executed in Reni’s workshop. The canvas was relined at some point with the surface showing considerable areas of inpainting and infilling. Varnish over time has yellowed, darkening the surface. While the coloration may differ from the original in Rome, and the hand of the painter or painters appears to be less accomplished than that of the master, it still lives and breathes, encompassing the same forms, style, execution, and emotion one can expect from a work by Reni’s very hand.
A chalk sketch of the St Philip painting, used by Reni’s workshop in the production of copies.
The church that Kühr built lasted through the late 1860s until overcrowding became a problem. The original structure was demolished, and ground was immediately broken for a newly planned Italian Renaissance Revival structure. The cornerstone was set on July 3, 1870 and the building dedicated on September 10, 1871. Unfortunately, Fr Kühr did not live to see its completion, having died on November 29, 1870 after an injury suffered from a shying horse. Following his death, at his month’s mind Mass (30 days after) his personal effects were sold at auction, the Neri painting among them. It was bought by a Fr. Hundt of Aurora, Indiana, and later sold in 1883 to Fr. Thomas S. Byrne (then Chaplain to the Sisters of Charity, and later Bishop of Nashville), who in turn gifted it to Mother Regina Mattingly for the sisters’ art gallery.
The Cathedral Basilica — A New Home for St. Philip Neri
The painting became the centerpiece of the Bishop Byrne Art Collection at the Sisters of Charity Motherhouse from 1883 until May 5, 2022, when much of their collection was de-accessed and sent to auction. It was at that time that Bishop Roger Foys of Covington was apprised of its existence. Considering the painting’s historical significance for the diocese, Bishop Foys obtained the painting at auction and donated it to his cathedral as a votive offering to Our Lady and gift to the people of Covington. Hung near the confessional, the life size 65.5 x 43 inch oil on canvas work has become a focal point of devotion for faithful and visitors to the Cathedral Basilica.
It is unclear if Bishop Maes or the cathedral architects ever planned artwork for the space where the painting now lives, but it now feels like it has always been there, gives testimony to the ancient and sacred idea that a cathedral is never finished, and that each generation is called to leave it better and more beautiful than they found it.
Art history and criticism will always fall short in grasping or dissecting the true meaning of this painting without the lens of faith. It is only with faith that the painting receives a pulse and becomes what the iconographers call “a window into Heaven”—meaning, what we are viewing is also viewing us. Perhaps that’s why Kühr ushered it so quickly and secretly out of Rome. For him, it was not a masterpiece for a gallery wall or palace adornment, but a sacred work that would console the German faithful in the new and unfamiliar land of America, for all good art heals and consoles.
When the painting left Covington in 1870 at Kühr’s death, its story was eclipsed. Now, 153 years later, the painting, its story, and the memory of the faithful missionary who carried it here come back to life. It remains for us to consider what it says to us, and what we will carry away from it.

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