“Everybody likes St. Francis,” says Rose DeFede with obvious enthusiasm in her voice. “The whole world likes him.”
That is just one of the reasons why DeFede, the art curator and director of communications at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, has no doubts the school’s new, permanent art exhibit focusing on St. Francis and on Franciscan spirituality will be a hit.
At the Pax et Bonum display — named for Francis’ famous greeting, Latin for “Peace and Goodness” — students, faculty, staff and campus visitors can now visually acquaint themselves with the life of this celebrated saint and the spirituality he inspired by viewing more than 70 paintings, prints, etchings and sketches.
An array of styles is represented. One series of prints, completed in 1924 by the artist Dom Pedro Subercaseaux, turned out to be a hidden treasure complete with a touch of “Antiques Roadshow” about it.
DeFede, a principal player in the drama, remembers every detail. A Steubenville student in the late 1950s, she worked in the school’s business office. She was often puzzled by a large, unopened crate in the storeroom.
“I used to ask, ‘What’s in the box?’” she recalls. Since nobody knew the answer, she made practical use of it.
“I used it for a stepping stool for many years; it was such a handy thing to stand on,” says DeFede. She recalls it had been given to the university president sometime in the 1950s from a source now forgotten.
DeFede graduated in 1960 and began working full time for the school. In 1961, when the university was moving from the town to its present campus, she ordered the box to be shipped to her new room there. The day came at the new campus when someone listened when she said, “I wish somebody would open this box and see what’s inside.”
Someone finally did. Inside was the treasure of rare prints: 50 scenes in the life of St. Francis captured by Subercaseaux. They’re thought to be the only set in the United States, with a few others possibly scattered throughout Italy. Eventually they went on display in 1987 in the library and another location before becoming a prominent part of the permanent exhibit in the school’s new Tony and Nina Gentile Gallery.
“Now we really have a Franciscan art collection,” says DeFede. “Visitors are going to see from St. Francis’ birth to his death right across the hall. This is going to give them a whole insight of the history of St. Francis and bring it to life.”
Franciscans have summed up Francis’ message with the words: “Go out and witness the Gospel of Jesus. Only use words if you must.” This exhibit gives those marching orders a whole new interpretation.
Subercaseaux highlighted 50 turning points in the life of Francis, from birth to death. Here is Francis trading clothes with a beggar. There he is before the Crucifix at San Damiano. Over there he’s adoring at the Christmas manger at Greccio. And here he’s receiving the stigmata.
“This exhibit shows stages in the life of St. Francis people might not have known before,” says Franciscan Father Dominic Scotto, university chaplain and theology lecturer. “The pictures always illustrate a wonderful aspect of St. Francis’ life. They capture the charisms — his poverty, chastity and obedience.”
“St. Francis is at the heart of this university,” the priest continues. “When students see these beautiful paintings on aspects of the life of St. Francis, it brings to life for them what we talk about in homilies.”
“Obviously this painter had a great devotion to St. Francis, as he really captured the life and times of St. Francis in his paintings,” adds Father Scotto. “They seem very accurate as far as background. I’ve been to Assisi many times and they really capture the flavor of the times as it must have been in the 1200s and 1300s.”
In fact, Subercaseaux, who often did murals in Chile and worked in Rome and Paris, lived in Assisi because he wanted to capture the feeling of the place — the terrain, the life of the people, explains DeFede. The artist walked in the footsteps of St. Francis, from Umbria to Rome to the Holy Land.
Following in Francis’ footsteps led the artist on another path, too. DeFede says it directly led him to become a Benedictine monk himself — Dom Pedro Subercaseaux.
There are two other main segments to the exhibit. One consists of seven antique prints and lithographs on Francis and his order donated by the Association for Catechumenal Ministry in Maryland. The rarest, dating to 1712, depicts St. Francis receiving the stigmata.
The third major part is the Stations of the Cross by American impressionistic painter and lithographer Ted DeGrazia. They were donated by two Franciscan University alumni, John Browning and Stephen Nagy, in connection with an alumni reunion held in Phoenix.
“We wanted to give something that connected to the university and to the Franciscan tradition and something from the Southwest to give to Steubenville,” Nagy explains. These limited reproductions of the Stations painted in 1968 by DeGrazia, who died in 1982, fit all their criteria. Nagy had been involved in the fine arts while at Steubenville and, like tens of thousands of others, was a major fan of the artist’s.
The Stations of the Cross is a major part of Franciscan spiritually. The order introduced and perpetuated the devotion shortly after friars arrived in Jerusalem in 1222 and were named official custodians of the Holy Land in 1242.
“Up to just a little while ago, it was only Franciscans who could install the Stations in churches,” reminds Father Scotto. “It was so much a part of the Franciscan legacy, only Franciscans could do that.”
What of these Stations? Curator DeFede calls them “the most unusual stations you ever saw.” First, they’re done in pastels. Next, they’re set in the Southwestern United States, the artist’s home region. And they’re unique in depicting Christ dying for all mankind.
For this lesson, the artist shows Jesus as a different race in each fall. And the artist added a 15th Station — the Resurrection.
For Nagy, the vibrant colors and simplicity bring a sense of majesty and the ethereal.
“I was schooled in the devotion to the Stations because of the Franciscan Sisters in Mingo Junction,” says Nagy, describing his 1970s experiences in his Ohio hometown. He vividly remembers one version from then called “The Stations of the Cross for Today.” “They related to the plight of the poor and for concern for the world,” he says. “You could see that in these Stations by DeGrazia.”
The artist saw something for himself, too.
“DeGrazia said he had never been so caught up in a project before,” points out Nagy. He didn’t feel worthy enough to paint the Stations. But he experienced a transformation, returned to practicing his Catholic faith and built an adobe chapel to Our Lady of Guadalupe on his property in Tucson, where he had earlier built his adobe studio.
Exhibit organizers hope the permanent exhibit of Francis and the Franciscan charism will go beyond enriching viewers and reach directly to their spiritual hearts.
Says DeFede, “It’s a way of evangelizing.”
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen
writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.