NYC Church With Major Artwork Merges

The Crucifixion scene by Brumidi fills the apse in St. Stephen/Our Lady of the Scapular Church in Manhattan
The Crucifixion scene by Brumidi fills the apse in St. Stephen/Our Lady of the Scapular Church in Manhattan (photo: Joseph Pronechen)

The Church of St. Stephen/Our Lady of the Scapular is one of the nine Manhattan parishes that the Archdiocese of New York announced on Nov. 2 are among those to merge with other parishes and then, by Aug. 1, 2015, be used only for special occasions.

The decision is quite understandable yet sad, because this church is adorned with very significant artwork by painter Constantino Brumidi.

In fact, it has the largest number of Brumidi religious paintings done in a single church in the United States — 45 in all.

The major mural is the Crucifixion scene. It’s one of two he painted in Manhattan churches. Both Crucifixion scenes are more than 20 feet wide and 44 feet tall and among the biggest in the nation.

Two years ago, my wife and I visited the Church of St. Stephen/Our Lady of the Scapular, which is on East 29th St. and also has a bit of important history connected with it.

That same year, Brumidi was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for all the color frescoes he did to decorate the Capitol’s Rotunda and corridors in the mid-19th century.

He even was nicknamed “Michelangelo of the Capitol.”

But that was small potatoes compared to what he had already been doing back in his native Italy, where Archbishop John Hughes of the New York Archdiocese was in Rome in the early 1850s and discovered Brumidi.

The artist had done work in the Vatican Palace for Pope Gregory XVI; then, in 1847, he painted a full-length portrait of Pope Pius IX, commissioned by a cardinal, who gave it as a gift to the pope.

Then he painted several portraits of earlier popes as studies for mosaics for the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls.

When Archbishop Hughes, who started to build St. Patrick’s Cathedral, saw Brumidi’s work, he invited the artist to come to Manhattan and decorate some churches with murals and frescoes there.

Brumidi accepted and immigrated to America in 1852.

He wanted to decorate the Capitol in Washington too, but he turned to the churches first not only in Manhattan, but also in Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia (in the Cathedral-Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul).

The pastor at St. Stephen Church studied in Rome, so he surely knew Brumidi’s work and asked him to decorate the new building. St. Stephen’s, as it was known then, was dedicated in 1854, the same year the artist arrived on these shores.

The church was designed by James Renwick, the architect who also designed St. Patrick’s Cathedral uptown.

Brumidi got to work on a model and then finished a 15-foot high mural of The Martyrdom of St. Stephen, and, a year later, he placed it behind the altar.

Eventually, the mural gave way to the huge Crucifixion scene and was moved to the side altar, where it remains today.

Then came work after work, as Brumidi continued adding large and small works to St. Stephen’s into the 1870s between his work at the Capitol.

Thousands watched as each new mural or fresco was added;  by 1865, the parish had 22,000 members. It was one of the largest in the country at the time. The building had to be enlarged to accommodate the masses who filled the Masses and services.

But the problem is the parish no longer has nearly those numbers of parishioners.

On the weekday we visited, the church was quiet.

The monumental Crucifixion scene behind the altar immediately drew our attention, and after that, all the other murals and frescoes.

Taking into account how age had darkened what once were surely the more intense colors Brumidi used, the Crucifixion still remained a moving interpretation of Christ’s suffering and death on the cross. (Brumidi dated it 1868.)

His Mother Mary is there, standing by his side, with Mary Magdalene prostrate at the foot of the cross too. The lamenting women of Jerusalem, angels watching the scene unfold, and God the Father and the Holy Spirit receiving the sacrifice of Jesus are all part of the mural.

Other murals are still unrestored; although they don’t have the intense color they must have had during earlier decades, they still draw attention.

The next painting we saw was the tall scene of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary over a side altar. We were hoping this mural would be at the top of list after the Crucifixion for the major restoration we were told was planned back then.

Everything hinged on funds coming in. Restoration of so much artwork, especially of this significance, does not come inexpensively. And the parish had far less parishioners than it had a century ago.

That restoration would eventually include the panels around the sanctuary picturing Sts. Peter and St. Paul, as well as lunettes of the archangels Sts. Michael and Gabriel.

 Christ Teaching the Children and Christ Ascending Into Heaven are more murals in the church.

All were waiting for their glorious return to their original brilliancy.

Even though time has muted many of the murals and frescoes, Brumidi’s skill still showed. His talent with trompe l’oeil — fooling the eye by making people and designs look three-dimensional — was still apparent in three medallion-sized murals that were already restored back then.

They were brilliantly colored. In one, St. Cecilia stands inside a three-dimensional frame. Close up, the frame revealed itself as painted on the wall by the artist.

The beautiful center mural medallion shows our Blessed Mother with a happy Baby Jesus on her lap and an attentive baby John the Baptist by her side, as angels gaze upon the sight. A raised gold frame encircles this serene scene that looks to stand out from the wall.

We wondered what everything would look like if all murals and frescoes would be restored.

Now, any plans surely must be put aside, since this church will merge with the Church of Our Saviour less than 12 blocks away. A sad development, but very understandable.

On a positive note, the other Crucifixion scene by Brumidi is about a dozen blocks away, at the Church of the Holy Innocents on West 37th St. It remained untouched in the mergers.

Brumidi painted the 44-foot Crucifixion work over the altar in 1870, the same year the church was completed. The details vary slightly in the overall scene.

Just recently, the parish had internationally recognized experts in the field restore this Crucifixion mural. It was completed in 2013 and will continue to inspire parishioners and visitors.