Bluegrass State Honors Mary, the Mother of God
Marking the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, a virtual tour of a Covington, Kentucky church showcasing Marian art.
The large inscription proclaims, Mutter Gottes Kirche, German for “Mother of God.”
In September 1871, with their new church completed, parishioners in Covington, Kentucky, immediately felt at home.
When these parishioners emigrated from Germany to settle in this city across the Ohio River from Cincinnati 30 years earlier, they formed the second Catholic parish in Covington, Mother of God Church.
Officially named the Annunciation of the Ever Virgin Mary, Mother of God, today’s parishioners enjoy the same liturgical artistry for the glory of God and the Blessed Mother that was done in the 19th century and early 20th century.
And the church benefited being in the center of German culture, art and artistry, from painting to woodworking. Several of the parishioners were among the finest of German artists working for the Covington Altar Building Stock Co. (also known as Institute for Catholic Art) and the Art Joinery Co. of Cincinnati. Several had studied in Munich. Thus, this church had a who’s-who team beautifying its edifice.
Then, 20 years later, in 1891, the sanctuary was renovated to harmonize with the overall style. Mother of God Church became and remains “one of the finest examples of Italian Renaissance Revival architecture worship places in the United States,” according to lifelong parishioner and church historian Vincent Canfield.
Into the 20th century, steamboat captains on the Ohio River relied on the church’s towering, twin 200-feet steeples as guides while navigating toward the river’s bridges. Today, the towers draw tour groups stopping at the local hotels. Also, since 1875, townspeople have been checking the time on the towers’ eight clocks, each 8 feet in diameter and 110 feet from floor level, found on each tower’s four sides.
Beautiful liturgical art is everywhere, from the soaring stained-glass windows to the 150-foot dome to the astounding sanctuary and side shrines, from highly detailed symbolic and floral panels to lifelike carved statuary. The Communion rail itself is a masterful work of carved art.
In the sanctuary, the wood reredos carved with columns and four shrines is of lower proportions to provide the base for the life-size Crucifixion scene presented with statues, which are hand carved of wood and meticulously painted to highlight details with three-dimensional effects. Jesus on the cross was hand carved by German-American artist Ferdinand Muer in 1871. Then, in 1884, the statues of Mary, John and Mary Magdalene, by Mayer & Co., arrived from Munich.
The curving apse wall behind this scene is masterfully painted in trompe l’oeil style with a view of Jerusalem framed within neoclassic arches and fluted columns. Appearing as “engraved” above the arch and the Crucifixion, where Jesus is depicted looking at his Mother, are the words Ecce Mater Tua — “Behold Your Mother.”
Mother Mary is honored in many ways in this church. To either side of this scene appear large paintings of the Annunciation and Visitation in Old Masters style. Above, a colorful mural of the Nativity fills the apse’s curved ceiling. To complete the Joyful Mysteries, a very large mural of the Presentation appears over the St. Joseph altar, while a matching mural of Finding of Jesus in the Temple graces the shrine altar dedicated to the Blessed Mother. The colorful statues of Mary and Joseph are hand carved, as well.
These Joyful Mysteries murals date to 1890-91, when the edifice was 20 years old, and were painted by parishioner Johann Schmitt. Already recognized in Munich for his fine artistry, German-American artist Schmitt became the principal altar painter at Covington’s Institute of Catholic Art. He worked his whole life painting for churches throughout the Midwest.
“Much of the interior artwork of Mother of God Church refers to the Rosary,” Canfield pointed out to the Register. When the church was complete, there were only the traditional 15 mysteries. Aside from the Crucifixion scene, the other Sorrowful Mysteries, along with Passion symbols, appear in symbolic form on the arch of the apse. They were painted by another parishioner, ecclesiastical artist Wenceslaus Thien, who, early on, worked at the same company as Schmitt. The paintings of Church Fathers and doctors of the Church on dry plaster — four from the West and four from the East — in the monumental 150-foot dome of the church are also by Thien. They were carefully restored after damage from a dome fire some decades ago. In trompe l’oeil style, they stand in arched shrines.
Liturgical beauty flows everywhere in this monumental paean to the Mother of God. In 1890, the renowned Mayer & Co. of Munich installed two transept windows. Then nave windows were added from the early 1900s to 1920. Beginning with the transept window of the Immaculate Conception on the east side, they following Mary’s life chronologically around the church to finish on the west side with a rendering of the Assumption.
The windows are brilliantly colorful and elaborately detailed. In the stunning Immaculate Conception window, the modest Virgin Mary appears before a sky-blue background and stands on the globe while shown crushing the serpent as depicted red-winged angels and cherubs on clouds surround the scene.
Enormous stained-glass windows, approximately 35-feet tall, line the nave, highlighting the life of Mary in upper panels, while lower panels show Old Testament scenes foreshadowing the Marian events. The Wedding of Joseph and Mary, depicting Mary wearing a white and brilliant blue robe and Joseph wearing a royal purple tunic, takes place in a temple setting of ornate Renaissance architecture highlighted with golden hues. In the Wedding at Cana, Jesus is shown wearing brilliant clothing of red and purple for his royalty, and Mary appears again in brilliant blue. All the windows have highly elaborate arches and Renaissance architectural qualities in stained glass, too.
Canfield drew attention to the realistic details, such as how all the people portrayed have cloaks that appear to be almost three-dimensional as sun streams through the windows. He pointed out one uncommon scene in a circa 1920 window that highlights “the Blessed Mother appearing with disenfranchised people.” She is illustrated holding the Baby Jesus in one hand and with her other hand reaches out to those in need. “These stained-glass windows are such a rich teaching instrument of the Gospels,” he said.
Arches framing the windows are decorated with golden Marian and Eucharistic symbols. The curves of the arches carry titles of the Blessed Mother from the Litany of Loreto, such as Morgen Stern (“Morning Star”).
Elsewhere, prayers in Latin honor and celebrate Mary’s life. The words of the Ave Maris Stella stretch along the ornate arched ceiling; the O Gloriosa Virginum appears over the two transept windows, and the first words of the Magnificat — Magnificat Anima Mea Dominum — appear in the dome center between renditions of the Church doctors and Fathers.
Everywhere, reverential beauty astounds visitors, Canfield said. “That feeling is intentional because Mother of God Church was designed to inspire images of heaven.”
Among all the many museum-quality paintings are the Stations of the Cross, the work of international Swiss artist Melchior Paul von Deschwanden. They were placed in the church during Lent 1872. The statue of the Sorrowful Mother, a Pietà exquisitely hand carved by Mayer & Co., draws people to prayer and quiet contemplation.
By the sanctuary, the magnificent hand-carved angels on either end of the Communion rail were done by another Cincinnati sculptor in 1890-91, and in those same years, the exquisitely carved wooden Communion rail is the work of yet another local, Carl Dannenfelser of the Art Joinery Co. An abundance of wheat and grapes, symbols of the Holy Eucharist, adorn the railing. The original central gate with the carved Lamb of God is now on the altar facing the congregation.
Canfield said that these artists, some of whom eventually went back to Europe, had international reputations. Yet they created in the Bluegrass State.
Even the fluted cast-iron columns lining the nave with their fancy Corinthian columns and sparkling gold leaf, were manufactured in Covington. However, the beautifully patterned flooring for the main and side aisles is imported German Mettlach tile, which was laid in 1921. That same year, the large Carrara marble angels that hold bowls for holy water also arrived.
Our Lady’s Aid
In the rear of the church, the Shrine-Altar of Our Lady of Perpetual Help has quite a history. Fathers William and Henry Tappert, brothers who served here as pastors a total of 50 consecutive years from 1879 to 1929, are buried at the shrine’s altar. During Father William’s private audience with Pope Leo XIII in 1882, the Holy Father presented him with an official copy of the image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help that was touched to the original and blessed by the Pope himself. This rendition is also considered miraculous, as people have reported favors, especially on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception as well as the feast of Our Lady of Perpetual.
In 1888, Father William led the building and opening of Leo House in New York City, a guesthouse for new German immigrants. (Today, Leo House exists as a Catholic guesthouse for travelers and has a chapel and priest in residence.)
In 1876 he also installed the great German-American Koehnken and Grimm organ built in Cincinnati and still in use today. In 1929 the baptistery was added, with its marble baptismal font, railings and altar, whose reredos have a bright, shiny mosaic of the Holy Trinity joined by symbols of the Four Evangelists, all highlighted with a golden arch and golden stars.
After World War II, as people moved to the suburbs and parishioner counts declined for a time, the city wanted to acquire the property for housing. The diocese considered turning over the property to the city for that purpose, but when the city ran out of funds for the proposed building, the diocese withdrew from participation. This church dedicated to the Mother of God was saved, as future parishioners began to grow again, along with all of its beauty — drawing all who worship God within it to praise the glory of the Lord and his Blessed Mother.