The Attack of the Hummel Figurines

Life-size reproduction of a Hummel figurine, "Merry Wanderer", at the entrance of the Goebel company in Rödental, Germany.
Life-size reproduction of a Hummel figurine, "Merry Wanderer", at the entrance of the Goebel company in Rödental, Germany. (photo: Image Credit: Störfix, CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

I have friends of all sorts. Different ethnicities. Different religions. No religion at all. Men and women from different walks of life. I enjoy knowing people who see the world differently than I do. It's great training for the virtue of patience and it also rounds out one's education.

There are, however, limits to open-mindedness and liberality.

One such obstacle for me is Hummel figurines and those who appreciate them.

I'm unsure what drives me mad about them. I find their chubby cheeks, large doe-eyes and whimsical expressions, saccharine.

I also don't like the statues.

I've often wondered if I might be the only human being on the planet who can't stand the statues' cuteness and annoying schmaltziness. Their cloying sentimentality can only be best described as "nunnish."

I recall not too long ago being invited to the office of a Franciscan religious sister colleague. I stepped inside to find it was positively overrun with Hummels. Not a square inch of barren space was apparent from my vantage point (or even God's for that matter.) It was a veritable horror vacui sentimentalis, the likes of which reminded me of several nightmares I hadn't had for many years.

I felt my breath getting shorter as all of their large, watery eyes looked at me begging me to fawn over them. I felt the perspiration gathering on my forehead and neck. I was suddenly both hot and cold in this dizzying display of sappy, sentimental ceramics.

The good Sister noticed my apprehension. "Are you OK?"

Perhaps it was the tight quarters or the fact that Sister was a sister but I was overcome with the desire to tell her the truth which is generally contraindicated when dealing with religious sisters.

"What don't you like about them?!" she asked in that tone that Catholic children who've had the good fortune to be taught by the good sisters, know all too well.

"Well…Sister…I think they're…a bit…corny."

The look Sister gave me made me immediately fear she was going to call my mother and that was sure not to end well. She looked at me as if I had just blasphemed after having eaten pork on a Friday and then having dropped my rosary on the ground.

I was bit worried that Sister wanted to slap my hand for uttering such opprobrium but instead, her personal sanctity overtook her and she gently and generously explained to me why I was wrong.

"You should reconsider your opinion about these statues," she said sweetly…as sweet as the statues bearing down on me from around the room. "There's a long history of these figurines and the Church…and Hitler."

Imagine my surprise, and consternation, when the good Sister told me that Hummel figurines were based on the art of Sr. Maria Innocentia Hummel, a German Franciscan sister, artist and anti-Nazi crusader.

I sat down to listen to Sister as the glazed eyes of a thousand children frozen in the most perfectly adorable poses stared at me from around the room like so many taxidermied mountings. I figured that if Hitler disliked Sr. Hummel's figurines, I should at least give them the benefit of the doubt. Also, it promised to be a pretty good tale considering both Nazis and Franciscan nuns figured prominently in it—sort of a religious version of Raiders of the Lost Ark—or like The Sound of Music but with less synchronized dancing. I would have been content if some of the ceramics were destroyed in the storytelling but I'd be happier still if the story didn't end with these little ceramic gnomes coming to life and attacking me right in the good Sister's office.

Berta Hummel (May 21, 1909 - November 6, 1946) was born in Massing in Bavaria, Germany—one of Adolf and Victoria Hummel's six children. Even as a child, Berta showed great creativity and talent. Considering the expression on the figurines, she was, unsurprisingly, a cheerful, active girl, who loved the outdoors. Her family encouraged her art and, at the age of 12, they enrolled her in a boarding school of the Sisters of Loreto in Simbach am Inn not too far from their home where she continued to draw those infernal figures.

When Berta graduated in 1927, she entered the Academy of Applied Arts in Munich, a very prestigious German school for the arts. Instead of living in the standard student housing, which seemed to have been a bit wild for her tastes, she chose to live in a nearby residence run by religious sisters. There, she met women from the Congregation of the Franciscan Sisters of Siessen in Bad Saulgau who were also studying at the Academy. Their congregation focused on teaching with an emphasis on art education.

After Berta graduated in 1931, she decided to join the Franciscans. On becoming a novice, she took the name Sr. Maria Innocentia. A year later, Berta began teaching art in a nearby school run by the convent. In her spare time, she painted pictures of children at play. Her superior, duly impressed with her art, sent copies to Emil Fink, a publishing house in Stuttgart which specialized in religious art.

Emil Fink was so impressed with the novel depictions of chubby, gentle-eyed, ruddy-cheeked children, that the company, printed her paintings as postcards—a popular genre at the time. They were so wildly popular that in 1934, they published a collection of her drawings entitled Das Hummel-Buch.

Franz Goebel, the owner of a local porcelain company, came across Sr. Hummel's postcards in a shop in Munich. He had been considering a new line of artwork to help drum up business and approached Sr. Hummel's community with a deal of a lifetime—making 3-D figurines of Sr. Hummel's drawings. The figurines were an immediate smash hit. (Yes…I said "smash.")

However, something as innocent and endearing as Sr. Hummel's figurines weren't without their detractors.

In 1937, after Berta made her final profession in her congregation, she released a painting entitled "The Volunteers," which, oddly enough, drew the vehement hatred of Adolf Hitler. The dictator denounced Sr. Hummel's art claiming it depicted German children as having "hydrocephalic heads." Although the Nazi authorities allowed Sr. Hummel to continue her art, they banned its distribution in Germany. The SA Man, a Nazi magazine, described her work saying that Sr. Hummell had no right to depict German children as “brainless sissies.” (The SA Man. March 23, 1937.)

Adding fuel to the Nazi anti-cuteness fire, Sr. Hummel also drew sketches of angels with Stars of Davids on their gowns. She also drew a series of Old and New Testament symbols for the convent chapel in 1938. She symbolized the connection between the Testaments with a cross before which rested a lit menorah.

When World War II broke out, the Nazis closed all religious schools in the country. In fact, they even seized Sr. Hummel's convent forcing most of the community out onto the streets. Of the 250 sisters who lived there, only 40 were allowed to remain. Confined to one small section of the convent, they lived with neither heat nor means to support themselves. Forced by her circumstances, Hummel returned to her family but, after three months, she begged her superior to be allowed to return to the convent.

Sr. Hummel was confined to a small cell which become both her sleeping quarters and studio. The Nazis confiscated half of the money generated by her work, which they had previously labeled "degenerate," but the remainder was sufficient to feed the sisters of the community.

Unfortunately, living in such poor conditions, Sr. Hummel succumbed to tuberculosis in 1944 and died two years later. She is buried in the convent cemetery.

Goebel and the Franciscan sisters carried on Sr. Hummel's legacy producing the figurines which were exclusively based on her artwork. Despite their popularity, Goebel Germany discontinued creating the figures on October 31, 2008. Hummel figurine aficionados have been up in arms ever since.

Thus, from precocious child and stalwart Catholic to Franciscan sister and anti-Nazi polemicist, Sr. Hummel is an inspiration to all—both who like her art and those who still find it annoying.

But, no matter how schmaltzy I find them, I'm glad to know that Hitler was greatly vexed by them. Perhaps it was the figurines' innocence and gentility that irked him.

All because of a tiny, little slip of a Franciscan nun.

After having had this tale recounted to me, I've somewhat changed my mind about Sr. Hummel's figurines. Only the most heartless individual could be angry at a nun. (I suspect such ire is contraindicated in The Catechism of the Catholic Church.)

And thus ends our tale, children. It was Sr. Maria Innocentia Hummel who we have to thank for the glut of these perfectly adorable statues filling up our grandmothers' curio cabinets. I no longer "hate" Hummel figurines though I still find them slightly annoying as I'm still an adult male. However, I've come to appreciate the little ways in which God makes Himself known to us. Even in maudlin sentimentality, God can show us His beauty, silence, strength and gentility.