Fairfield Now - Winter 2008
The Bellarmine Museum
Treasures from the Metropolitan Museum and The Cloisters will join the University's own collection in a new fine arts museum at Fairfield
By Alistair Highet
|Saint Barbara, North French, ca 1500.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Solomon R. Guggenheim (50.102.2), 1950. Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Legend of St. Barbara
Saint Barbara's feast day was removed from the revised Roman Catholic calendar in 1969 because of doubts about the authenticity of the story surrounding her, but she was a very popular saint in the Middle Ages, beginning in 7th century when accounts of her life began to circulate. Her feast day, December 4, is still observed in some fashion by many artillery regiments because of her association with lightning.
According to the story, Barbara was the daughter of a non-Christian, Dioscorus, near Nicomedia in Asia Minor circa 250 A.D. She was imprisoned by her father, during which time she became a Christian, and a bathhouse that was built for her was made with three windows, as a symbol of the Holy Trinity. When her father learned that she had become a Christian, he beheaded her, whereupon he was struck by lightning. Hence, St. Barbara is typically depicted holding a tower, and was often invoked as a protection against lightning and fire. St. Barbara continues to be venerated in the Orthodox Church.
We don't know much about the limestone statue of St. Barbara that will be the focal point of the new Bellarmine Museum planned for the lower level of Fairfield's Bellarmine Hall, except that she stands about 46 inches high, is probably French, and was carved sometime in the 15th century.
In the legend, St. Barbara was imprisoned in a tower by her father and during her confinement she became a Christian. When her father found out, he had her beheaded (whereupon he was struck by lightning). So we know the statue coming to Fairfield is of St. Barbara because she is depicted as she is usually is, holding a tower aloft.
The statue is one of 30 objects that will come to Fairfield on loan from the Medieval Department and the Cloisters Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for installation in a new museum on campus. Planning and preliminary work on the museum has begun and it is expected to open in late 2009 or early 2010 as fundraising for the project and endowment of its program continues.
Among other pieces coming as part of the loan are three small Flemish statues in oak from the early 16th century - perhaps once part of a single altarpiece, and a late 12th century engaged capital from the top of a pillar that was once a part of the abbey church of St. Guilhem-le-Désert, near Montpelier.
The objects on loan will join the University's Kress Collection of 10 Italian paintings from the Renaissance and Baroque periods; non-Western artworks from a collection donated to the University by Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Fass in 2002 and from the bequest of Mrs. Erna Manderman; and plaster casts of Ancient Greek, Roman, and medieval statuary - to form the body of the collection.
The result will be a small but exciting fine arts museum, part of the University's commitment to strengthen its teaching of art history and the humanities.
"Fairfield University is thrilled with our partnership with The Metropolitan Museum of Art which will be lending us some of its collection," said University President Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J. "This partnership will enable us to continue in our effort to make Fairfield University a center for arts and culture, both for our students and for the wider Fairfield County community."
|An architect's view of the interior of the main exhibition space featuring the statue of Saint Barbara. Image courtesy Centerbrook Architects and Planners.|
The museum is being designed by Centerbrook Architects and Planners of Centerbrook, Conn., designers of the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College, the Williams College Museum of Art and the Fairfield Museum and History Center among other projects.
The new museum is due in large part to a donation of $2.5 million from University trustee John Meditz '70, vice chairman of Horizon Asset Management Inc.
"To the extent the Bellarmine Museum will augment the greater goal of more fully integrating life and learning on campus, I believe it represents a great milestone for Fairfield," he said at The Magis Dinner honoring his donation earlier this year. "I can't wait to be there on opening day."
Virgin, Flemish, early 16th century, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1916 (16.32.263), image copyright the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Currently, Fairfield is also seeking a matching grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Two other foundations have stepped up to support the project: the Charles and Mabel P. Jost Foundation has pledged $125,000, and the Samuel H. Kress Foundation has made a grant of $50,000.
The idea began as a need to find a permanent home for the Kress Collection, given to the University in 2003. As the idea matured, discussions about a loan of additional works from The Cloisters began between The Met and Dr. Jesús Escobar, a former associate professor of art history at Fairfield. When Dr. Escobar left Fairfield this fall, Dr. Marice E. Rose '92, assistant professor of art history, and curator of the Medieval collections became the faculty liaison for the project.
Dr. Rose noted that the museum will be a place where many areas of study can be integrated and cross-referenced.
Students will be able to come to the museum to see, for instance, a Merovingian 7th century copper "Chatelaine Plate," a buckle-like piece with the form of a horse and rider in its center that would have been worn on a belt to hang keys, scissors, or other personal objects.
"Basically, a key ring," explained Dr. Rose, who described this modest bit of copper as one of her favorite works in the collection.
"What I'm excited about is that here is a perfect example of integrated learning," said Dr. Rose. "A religion professor can come to the museum to talk about sacred imagery and objects. There is a beautiful portrait of a Renaissance woman in the Kress Collection - a history professor could talk about women's roles then. That is its main function," she said of the museum, "to serve as a teaching tool."
"From a teacher's perspective it will be invaluable to be able to just walk with students up the hill to Bellarmine Hall and experience works of art created in the very culture being taught," Dr. Rose continued. "From a student perspective, such a moment will bring their classroom and book learning to life."
Rustic Scene (Landscape with Figures), Basilio Lasinio (c. 1770s), The Samuel H. Kress Collection of Italian Painting
Finally, the museum underscores the University's Jesuit and Catholic roots. Most of the work in the collection is of a religious nature, relics from ages of faith far removed from ours, carrying with them the resonance of the tradition on which the University's mission depends.
The Keystone, John Meditz
The idea for a fine arts museum at Fairfield University may have been on the table for a number of years, but it wasn't until University Trustee and alumnus John Meditz '70 spoke up and expressed his passion for the idea that the earnest planning for the museum began. His donation of $2.5 million is the foundation on which the project is being built. "Expressing an interest in it," he joked, while discussing the museum during a telephone interview. "Any time you show an interest in something, you literally end up paying for it." He laughed.
But the Middle Ages, and its art and architecture have always been a passion for Meditz, who is the Vice Chairman of Horizon Asset Management Inc. in New York, and was recently named as the "Outstanding Philanthropist of the Year" by the New Jersey chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. Growing up as boy, he recalled, he would visit his aunt and uncle who lived in the north end of the Bronx. "We would visit The Cloisters, and I was always impressed with the place, and with the art, with the content." He said, adding. "In part, I'm a frustrated architect."
And so Bellarmine Hall with its Tudor and Norman elements is a building that Meditz also has an affection for. Bringing the art of The Cloisters to Bellarmine, further enhancing Bellarmine Hall's character and appeal is also part of what attracted Meditz to the project, as well as the enhancement of the University's teaching capacities where the Medieval period is concerned, an area that remains a period of fascination for Meditz, who describes himself as a history buff. "The Middle Ages is a particularly interesting time frame."
The lead donation was announced in June at the University's Magis Dinner in New York honoring Meditz for his support of Fairfield and the museum in particular. In making the announcement, Fr. von Arx said: "John has been a longtime and loyal supporter of Fairfield. His selfless generosity has had a profound impact on countless lives. He truly reflects the Jesuit teaching of ‘being men and women for others.'"
As well as serving as a Trustee to the University, Mr. Meditz is the Vice Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Palisades Medical Center in North Bergen, N.J. and Chairman of the Palisades Medical Center Foundation. He is a trustee and Treasurer of the Weehawken High School Scholarship Committee, Chairman of the Weehawken Planning Board, and the Vice Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Xavier High School, as well as a volunteer and supporter of other agencies and projects.
As for the future of the Bellarmine Museum, Mr. Meditz hopes that the the first phase of museum construction will only mark the beginning of a growing and expanding collection. "It might be nice to have an extension on Bellarmine at some point," he mused, and laughed, "and for someone to get interested in that."