In July 11, 2012, painter Constantino Brumidi was honored in Washington, when House and Senate leaders awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously.
At the presentation, House Speaker John Boehner started his remarks by saying: "‘An answer to a prayer’ is how the curator for the architect of the Capitol has described Brumidi’s arrival in this city at the end of 1854. And rightly so."
Italian immigrant Brumidi arrived to decorate the interior of the Capitol. He did so with a flourish, creating colorful, detailed frescoes in the congressional space, from the Rotunda to the "Brumidi Corridors."
But part of the story of this artist — who is sometimes called the "Michelangelo of the Capitol" — was forgotten. He didn’t just decorate a famous political building.
Brumidi also painted magnificent religious murals and frescoes, including several of the largest Crucifixion scenes in the country in Manhattan. The Church of St. Stephen/Our Lady of the Scapular has 45 Brumidi works, which makes for the largest number by this artist in a single church.
The story starts back in Rome, where Brumidi received private commissions and did work in the Vatican Palace for Pope Gregory XVI before a cardinal commissioned him to paint a full-length portrait of Pope Pius IX in 1847. It was to be a personal gift to the new Holy Father.
Brumidi next painted a number of portraits of previous popes as well. While in Rome, in the early 1850s, Archbishop John Hughes of New York saw his work and invited Brumidi to do frescoes in some churches in New York City.
While he did a major mural for a Jesuit church in Baltimore and another in Washington in the 1850s and later was to do murals in the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter & Paul in Philadelphia, Brumidi also answered the invitation of the new pastor of St. Stephen’s Church on East 28th Street in New York. Brumidi’s paintings in this church became the high point of his religious art in the United States.
Behind the new marble altar, the artist painted the monumental Crucifixion, dated to 1868. The painting remains a moving interpretation of Christ’s suffering and death on the cross: Mary is standing by his side, and Mary Magdalene lays prostrate at the foot of the cross, with the women of Jerusalem lamenting, angels watching and God the Father and the Holy Spirit receiving the sacrifice of Jesus.
There are plans for his works’ major restoration, including the scene of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Stations of the Cross and portraits of various saints.
Brumidi’s skill is evident in all of these works. His talent with trompe l’oeil — the effect of fooling the eye by making people and "architecture" on flat walls look 3-D — is still apparent.
How grand all the murals will look once they are restored. The same goes for the Crucifixion Brumidi painted only a few blocks across town at the Church of the Holy Innocents on West 37th Street. This edifice was finished in 1870, and Brumidi painted the Crucifixion scene over the altar the same year.
The mural was painted over in 1900 by another artist, following Brumidi’s pattern, and now the church is in the process of restoring the mural to its original state. There’s a hint of the process, even though scaffolding and a thin, gauze-like drape shield the restorers, who are specialists in conserving Brumidi’s work. If all goes well, this mural will be restored before the end of the year.
Joseph Pronechen is the Register’s staff writer.
Visit ChurchofStStephen.com and Innocents.com.