The Basilica’s murals are the most striking feature of its interior decoration. They are fine examples of a style of art called Beuronese. More important, however, is the fact that the murals - as well as the entire interior decoration - were executed by the monks of Conception Abbey. As much as the building itself, the murals testify to the aspirations of the monastery’s forefathers. In 1892, three candidates arrived at Conception from the monastery of Beuron in southwest Germany, two of whom had studied art there. This opened the way for the Basilica’s redecoration after the damage of the 1893 tornado was repaired. Abbot Frowin wrote: “On the advice of Fr. Lukas, I am ready to paint our church with the help of our fraters and brothers ... To my regret I found out that the archabbot of Beuron could not accommodate us by lending a painter from his school.” (Diary, August 17, 1893)
Beuron was founded in 1863 by the brothers Maurus and Placidus Wolter through the beneficence of Princess Catherine of Hohenzollern. It was an active proponent and the German counterpart of the revival of monastic life, liturgy, and music initiated by Dom Prosper Guerenger of the Abbey of Solesmes in France. Much of nineteenth century Catholic Europe was experiencing a reawakening after the Napoleonic period. For many, a revival of monastic life in the pattern of the great medieval abbeys was seen as pivotal in “rechristianizing” European society and culture. Although there is no evidence that he was directly involved in the movement, Frowin Conrad was very much taken up with its ideas and ideals. Most likely he met Maurus Wolter at Engelberg well before his departure for the United States. He visited Beuron on his way to Conception in 1873 and maintained extensive correspondence with the Wolter brothers for many years thereafter. At Conception, Abbot Frowin attempted to adapt monastic life to new circumstances, often looking to the spirit and forms developed at Beuron, particularly with regard to liturgy and discipline. A small sign of the degree of Beuron’s influence on Conception is the fact that Abbot Frowin adopted the style of Beuron’s monastic habit instead of Engelberg’s.
The three main characters in the development of Beuronese art were Maurus Wolter (d. 1890), Desiderius Lenz (d. 1928), and Gabriel Wuger (d. 1892). Wolter, the first abbot of Beuron, had a keen interest in a revitalization of Christian art. One of his earliest written works is an essay on the symbolism of the Christian art which he found on his visits to the Roman catacombs. Lenz, an artist also associated with such contemporary art movements in Munich and Vienna, and Wüger, an artist also associated with such movements, befriended each other in Munich in the 1860s. Along with a disciple of Wüger, Lukas Steiner (d. 1906), Lenz and Wüger joined a group of artists in Rome called the Nazarenes. The Nazarenes, noted for the unconventional manner of dress and lifestyle, were striving to revitalize Christian art. They studied the old masters, trying to relearn the technical skills needed to undertake large frescoes. At the same time, Lenz became fascinated with Egyptian art which was now available to be studied after Napoleon brought back many pieces from his exploits in that far-off place. He believed that the highly stylized form of art which the Egyptians had devised lent itself better than any subsequent form to expressing a religious ideal. Wüger, on the other hand, favored the less stylized and gentler forms being developed by the Nazarenes.
Lenz and Wüger dreamed of forming a monastic community of artists and even drew up plans for a monastery building. They believed that in order to make sacred art one should lead a Christian life in community. For them, Christian art flowed from the experience of Christian community. In 1868 in Rome they met Maurus Wolter, who had similar artistic aspirations for his young community at Beuron. He hoped that art could be brought back to the service of the Church and wanted his community to play a role in the revival of church art just as it was beginning to do in the revival of church music. Lenz was attracted to Beuron partly because of his interest in the abbey’s use of Gregorian chant, which he saw as parallel to his own efforts in art and architecture. Upon the invitation of Princess Catherine, Lenz and Wüger designed and constructed a chapel, the Mauruskapelle, near Beuron. This chapel epitomizes their theories in a harmonious blend of both art and architecture. Wüger entered Beuron in 1870, soon followed by his disciple Lukas Steiner and finally by Lenz himself in 1872.
Lenz and Wüger, with Wolter often acting as arbitrator, developed a distinctive style and philosophy of religious art and architecture and soon attracted many followers. Maurus Wolter’s brother and successor as abbot in 1890, Placidus, formally established a Kunstschule at Beuron in 1894. The Dutch artist Jan Verkade, who was very familiar with the French artists active in the late nineteenth century, entered Beuron after his conversion to Catholicism and joined the art school. The artist-monks of Bueron worked together on a number of churches in Europe. The high point of their reputation came in 1905, when they were the centerpiece of an exhibition of avant garde art in Vienna. The artists Cezanne, Gauguin, and Van Gogh were very familiar with Beuronese work, which had some influence over the French school of artists known as Nabis, whose founder Maurice Denis visited Beuron several times. Several monasteries noted for their work in the arts (e.g., Maria Laach, Müensterschwarzach, Collegeville) had monks trained at Beuron. In recent years, art historians have begun to reevaluate the style. Some see it as anticipating the 20th century with the insight that art and community are connected; some consider it as one of the first expressions of the abstract movement which has dominated 20th century art; and some maintain that it was a forerunner of the German Bauhaus movement. In his apostolic letter Archicoenobium Casinense, Pope Pius X likened the artistic efforts of the Benedictines of Beuron to the revival of Gregorian chant by the Benedictines of Solesmes. He wrote: “...together with sacred music, it proves itself to be a powerful aid to the liturgy.” (AAS 5, 1913, 113-117)
It is difficult to speak of Beuronese art as a coherent style when, in fact, there were at least two or three styles which competed for “canonization” as various elements came in and out of favor. Lenz was the principal theorist, seeking a “pure” art independent of the excess of baroque and the naturalism of romantic. The Beuronese artists were in search of a natural simplicity and clarity with an emphasis on essentials and conscious neglect of accidentals and details. They chose as their guiding principles the use of plain backgrounds and basic colors, a limited use of perspective, and a repetition of decoration.
The most significant principle or canon of the Beuronese school is the role which geometry played in determining proportions. Lenz thought that sacred art should reflect the natural laws of aesthetics through formulae he believed were forgotten after the Greeks and Egyptians. Geometrical proportions determine ideal forms, and the result is an innate harmony comparable to the mathematical relationships in musical composition. This is why the relationship between Beuronese art and the revival of the “pure” forms of Gregorian chant was so compelling in the mind of Lenz and others. Other canons of the school include:
- The orientation of the art is hieratic, speaking to the spirit of the viewer. The art itself worships and invites the viewer to join in the worship of God. As such, it should not stand out boldly of itself but be part of a worshipping environment.
- Works are anonymous, done by a group effort, and not for the glory of the artist, but of God.
- Imitation is favored over originality, with freehand copying revealing an artist’s genius.
- There is full integration of art and architecture. Painting and sculpture are not “additions” to an architectural given but an integral part of it. Thus Beuronese art encompasses painting, architecture, and furnishings.
Beuronese art was revolutionary for its time, and also characteristic of its time. It offered a stylized, simplified, and hieratic approach to art which went against the grain of contemporary romantic forms. Yet its search for the pure and ideal is not unlike the movements in the revival of the liturgy and music - and even non-Catholic and “secular” counterparts such as the utopian movements or, as in literature, the transcendentalist movement. Abbot Frowin, also a child of his time, was searching for the simplicity of a “pure” romanesque. It is not surprising that he saw the “pure” simplicity of Beuronese art as fitting decoration for his church.
Between 1893 and 1897, several monks of Conception, most notable Lukas Etlin (d. 1927), Hildebrand Roseler (d. 1923), and Ildephonse Kuhn (d. 1921), the latter two of whom had studied art at Beuron, redecorated the walls and ceiling of the Abbey church primarily in the Beuronese manner, retaining elements of the original Victorian stenciling. This is a curious anomaly since one of the Beuronese canons was that all decoration should be done without a stencil. Conception’s was the first church in the United States so decorated. The apse painting of the Immaculate Conception is an original work by Lukas Etlin. The eighteen murals in the central axis are copies from twenty-two scenes of the Life of Mary cycle painted in the church of Emaus Abbey in Prague, Czechoslovakia, under the direction of Lenz, Wüger, and Steiner between the years 1880-1887. Wüger, who favored less stylized figures and softer tones, was the principal artist behind this project. The church at Emaus was bombed and gutted by fire in 1945, leaving Conception’s murals as perhaps the most complete replica of the Emaus originals. The four transept murals are scenes from the Life of Benedict cycle originally painted at the abbey of Monte Cassino in Italy. Executed under the direction of Lenz and Wüger in the years 1876-1880, they were destroyed in the bombardment of that monastery during World War II.
Vision of the Blessed Virgin by Isaiah and David
The introductory mural on the south side of the church depicts "Prophets Foretelling the Birth of the Messiah from Mary." In this fresco, Mary is presented in a mandorla, holding the Christ Child, who is crowned. Below the figure to Mary's right is King David, from whose line Mary proceeded. On Mary's left is the prophet Isaiah holding a scroll proclaiming, "Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son."
Mary's Immaculate Conception is hinted at. The panel shows her standing on a crescent moon, wearing a crown, and twelve stars adorn her halo.
The Birth of Mary
"The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary" presents St. Anne, haloed and seated in bed, gazing at the infant Mary, who is held at arm's length. Mary is surrounded by a mandorla. Three angels appear at the foot of Anne's bed, two with trumpets and one holding a scroll on which is written, "cum munditate" or "with purity," referring to the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
At the head of the bed, are two servants, one kneeling in prayer, the other with her hands outstretched in what is known at the "wonderment" gesture. Seven rays of light shine above the infant Mary, perhaps calling to mind the role of the Holy Spirit in the Immaculate Conception, or possibly prefiguring the overshadowing of the Spirit in the conception of Jesus.
Presentation of Mary in the Temple
The non-biblical subject of the panel, "The Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Temple," derives from apocryphal books such as the Protoevangelium of James and Gospel of the Birth of the Virgin.
After Mary was born to Joachim and Anne, her parents dedicated her to the service of the Temple. And when she was 3 years old, she walked unaided up fifteen steps to where Zachary, the High priest, awaited her. The Basilica panel shows a gray-haired Joachim and a wrinkled Anne presenting the young girl Mary, who is wreathed, to Zachary and to other Temple officials. Mary is climbing a staircase of only three steps. Two texts appear on the panel, the first reads: "Veni electa mea et ponam in te tronum meum" (Come my chosen one and I will place you on my throne," a paraphrase of Song of Songs 4:8).
This text served as an antiphon at Matins for St. Elizabeth, Queen of Portugal, and in the verse and responsory of the Common of Virgins and Martyrs. The second text reads "Et sic in Sion firmata sum et in civitate santificaia requievi" ("And so in Zion I was established and in the holy city I rested" [Sirach 24:10}). Note that the painter forgot to cross the "T," so "sanctificata" instead reads "sanctificaia."
Marriage of Joseph and Mary
The story of "The Espousal of Joseph and Mary" is told in the apocryphal Gospel of the Protoevangelium of James. After the presentation in the temple, Mary lived in the Temple until she was twelve. A decision then had to be made about her future. The high priest prayed for guidance and an angel appeared and told him to assemble the widowers. Each should bring a rod, which was to be laid on the altar. Among those assembled was Joseph, and when the High Priest returned the rods to them, he saw that Joseph's rod had flowered (a variant story states that a dove flew from Joseph's rod and settled on his head). The High Priest told him that he was to wed Mary, but Joseph, who already had sons, insisted he was too old. To marry such a young girl would make him the laughingstock of Israel. The High Priest pointed out that it was God's will that this should take place. Joseph then accepted her.
In the Basilica fresco the central figures are framed by the central arch. The peripheral figures, under half-arches, are holding flowers and a branch, probably fertility symbols. Joseph, holding his flowering staff, is placing a ring on Mary's finger, while the High Priest blesses their union.
The Annunciation by the Angel Gabriel
The narrative source for "The Annunciation," one of the most frequent subjects of Christian art, is found in the Gospel of Luke (1:26-38). The angel Gabriel tells Mary that she is to be the mother of the Savior. Mary is here shown on a porch, her hands raised in surprise or wonderment - surprise at the apparition or wonderment at the message.
Gabriel, holding a staff, is kneeling while delivering his message. The Holy Spirit appears amidst seven rays of light, all emanating from God. This fresco is relatively simple in its portrayal of the event, avoiding many of the details popular in earlier works. The architecture of the portico serves to frame the important figure of the Blessed Virgin and divides the panel neatly into two sections.
The Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth
After the Annunciation, Mary went with haste to a Judaean town in the hill country, where she visited her pregnant cousin, Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child in her womb, John the Baptist, leapt with joy. The story is told in Luke (1:39-42). The basilica mural of "The Visitation" shows Mary greeting her cousin just outside the house of Elizabeth and Zachary.
Elizabeth said, "How is it that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" Her kneeling position is a sign of her humility before the Lord and his mother. The two pregnant women, framed by the palm tree, are flanked on one side by a hatted Joseph, with his walking stick and donkey (all of which will appear in the panel of "The Flight into Egypt"), and Zachary, depicted as an aged person (as Elizabeth and Zachary invariably were). Mary's response to Elizabeth's question is the text of the Magnificat, the canticle sung daily at Evening Prayer (Luke 1:46-55).
The Birth of Jesus
The basilica panel of "The Nativity of the Lord" is fairly traditional in its iconography. Four angels sing "Gloria in excelsis, and an ox and ass watch as Mary and Joseph adore their newborn son laying in a manger. The architecture of the stable is reduced to a few beams. In the apex of the roof is the star of Bethlehem, casting light on the Infant Jesus, whose hand is raised perhaps in blessing. All eyes - angelic, human, and animal - gaze with adoration on the Infant Jesus, who is surrounded by an aura of scalloped light (which, as in the rest of the basilica frescoes, indicates divinity).
The banderoles contain texts from the angelic hymns ("Gloria in excelsis Deo" and "Pax hominibus"). They are written upside down for the benefit of the singing angels. Mary is shown with hands clasped in prayer, Joseph with on hand raised in wonderment and the other holding his flowering staff. The ox and ass are details not present in the Lucan Gospel, but come from the apocryphal Pseudo-Matthew. The two animals call to mind the text from Isaiah (1:3): "The ox knows his master, and the ass his master's crib: but Israel does not know..."
The Adoration by the Magi
The motif of the star of Bethlehem does not appear in the Lucan text but in the Matthean story of the visit of the wise men. After the Magi visited Herod in Jerusalem, they followed the star to where it stopped over Bethlehem. The Basilica's panel of the "Adoration of the Magi" is split into two triangular pieces by the diagonal beams of the divine light. It and the haloes of the Magi highlights the Infant Jesus who is raising his hand to bless the adoring Magi, two of whom are bearing gifts. The posts of the stable (repeated from the Nativity panel), the straight postures of Joseph and Mary arrest the viewer's attention to the Infant King. A crown lies on the ground under the elbow of the Magus closest to Jesus and Mary - a symbol of the humility of the Magi. The scene is balanced by the camel of the Magi, its handler, and the ox.
The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple
The Basilica's mural of "The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple" is stark in its presentation of the Lucan narrative. Luke 2:22-40 presents Joseph and Mary bringing the Infant Jesus to the Temple, for their purification and his presentation. Joseph brings two turtledoves as a sacrifice. Mary places the child in the arms of Simeon, while Anna looks on. the horizontal alignment of the heads of the adults in the scene is broken by the smaller heard of Jesus; the pointed end of the lamp interrupts the alignment as well, emphasizing the location of the Infant Jesus.
Simeon and Anna represent the righteous waiting for Israel's redemption, and rejoicing that they lived to see the day of Jesus' presentation. Both of them are presented as elderly - Simeon waiting to die and Anna, 84 years old, wrinkled and using a can. Guided by the Holy Spirit, these two utter oracles concerning the redemption and consolation of Israel. Simeon's first oracle has become the Nunc dimittis, sung at Compline or night prayer.
Simeon's second oracle suggests that Jesus will bring consolation but also conflict and sorrow. He tells Mary that "a sword of sorrow" would pierce her soul. the sword of sorrow has been widely interpreted throughout the ages. One common interpretation is that it represents the maternal sorrow of the Blessed Virgin during the passion and death of her son. From this sorrow Mary is named the Mater Dolorosa or Sorrowful Mother.
The Flight into Egypt
Based on the Gospel of Matthew (2:13-15), the narrative of "The Flight into Egypt" received rich elaboration in apocryphal Gospels, such as the Gospel of Thomas and of the Pseudo-Matthew. The fresco in the abbey Basilica shows Joseph carrying a walking stick and bindlestiff and wearing a Greek traveling hat. He leads the Virgin Mary, who is seated on a donkey and cradling the sleeping Christ Child. Following them is an angel, whose flowing tunic reflects the forward motion of Joseph and the donkey. Of this nocturnal flight in Egypt (note the eclipsed moon in the upper right corner of the panel) Matthew writes: "This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, 'Out of Egypt I have called my son.'"
An intriguing detail of this panel is the crumbling idol that falls from its pedestal as the Holy Family passes. This is an elaboration from the Gospel narrative. The idol is based on Thoth, the Egyptian baboon or monkey god of mathematics, writing, and wisdom. The idol clutches a broken writing instrument and contrasts with the Christ Child as Word of God and Wisdom.
At the base of the column, between the hind feet of the donkey is the date 1896, the year in which the fresco was painted.
Lilies of the valley blossom at the feet of the Blessed Mother while poisonous mushrooms grow near the column. The donkey shown here is the only complete animal of the Basilica's art (with the exception of birds), but its legs are not painted in the proper position for walking.
Jesus Teaching in the Temple
The panel of "The Boy Jesus in the Temple" finds its source in the Gospel of Luke (2:41-52). The Holy Family had traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. But as they began their return trip home, a 12-year-old Jesus was left behind. "After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions."
In this mural Jesus is seated on a platform in front of a column, with four steps and a footstool leading to his seat above the elders. A garlanded rope (red and green ribbons around live branches) stretches between the pillars in the Temple. Jesus' posture is reminiscent of the majestas domini postures, so important in the middle ages: a seated Jesus, holding a book in his left hand while raising his right hand in blessing.
The books first open page reads: "Isaisa proph. Surge illuminare Jerusalem quia venit lumen tuum et gloria domini super te orta est. Qui ecce tene(b)rae operient terram et caligo populos super te autem orietur Dominus et gloria eius in te videbitur. Et ambulabunt gentes..." (Isaiah 60:1-3a) ("Isaiah the prophet. Arise, shine, Jerusalem, for your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold darkness will cover the people but the Lord will arise upon you and his glory will be seen in you. And the nations shall walk..."). On the second page are two prayers, the in Engligh: "O Sacred Heart, we offer to thee all our works. Bless our efforts we beseech thee"; the second prayer, in German, is difficult to decipher, but it ends with: "...uns O Herr, lass finden sich und gehorchen ewiglich."
The figures of Joseph and Mary on one side, and those of the five teachers of the law frame the figure of Jesus, who appears to be addressing his parents. A basket of scrolls sits at the foot of the stairs, representing the texts of Scripture which Jesus had been explaining to the scribes.
The Wedding at Cana
Garlands of roses, lilies, and daisies hanging between the pillars of "The Wedding Feast at Cana" panel connect this mural with the preceding panel's garlands. As in the preceding panel, Jesus sits before a pillar. He shares the spot just off center with the wedding couple and his mother. The bright haloes of Mary and Joseph add weight to their side of the panel, offsetting the imbalance of the composition.
The central figures of Jesus and the wedding couple are balanced on one side by Mary, whispering to Jesus that the wine has given out, and on the opposite side a servant whispering the same to the steward.
Jesus raises his hands in blessing, transforming the water poured by the other servant (portrayed as an African-American). This fresco unites all of the narrative elements of the story in once composition.
St. Benedict's Conversation with Scholastica
The south transept frescoes depict the story of Benedict's visit to his sister Scholastica before her death, and the funeral procession afterward. Both narratives are found in Book II of the Dialogues of Pope Gregory I the Great.
The story of "Benedict's Visit to his Sister Scholastica" is one of the more popular stories about the saint found in the Dialogues. Benedict and Scholastica customarily visited each other once a year. They spent the day in spiritual conversation and in the evening shared supper. While they were still at the table, Scholastica asked Benedict to postpone his departure to spend the night discussing spiritual life with her. Horrified at the thought of spending the night away from his monastery, he refused her request. Scholastica put her head down on the table and began to weep. At that moment, a torrential thunderstorm struck. The powerful storm caused Benedict and his fellow monks to delay their trip as Scholastica had asked. She and her brother spent the night discussing heavenly topics.
The fresco on the east of the transept presents the narrative in triptych form: the central panel shows Benedict seated with his Rule in hand, accompanied by two confreres, one of whom carries his pastoral staff. Benedict faces his sister, who is seated at a table with two nuns. On the table in Roman numerals is carved the date, 1898.
Above the central scene is a passage from Philippians, "Conversatio nostra in coelis est" (3:20), a reference to the discussion of spiritual matters taking place between the two saints. The left side of the panel shows a kitchen area in which a curtain is blowing open to reveal a jagged lightning bolt. The other side of the mural shows an outdoor scene and another bolt of lightning. Note that one of the monks is regarding the tempest outside with some apprehension.
Gregory the Great tells us that three days after the storm, Benedict, standing in his cell, saw his sister's soul leave her body and enter the secret recesses of heaven. Benedict ordered the brethren to carry her body to him, and he placed it in the tomb he had prepared for himself.
The Funeral of St. Scholastica
The mural of "The Funeral Procession of St. Scholastica" shows six monks carrying a bier on which rests the dead Scholastica. Three other monks follow, chanting prayers or psalms.
The cortege is met by Benedict, who stretches his hands toward the procession, and a group of monks. The two monks holding candles are acolytes, and another holds a processional cross. Next to the monks is a holy water bucket and the aspergillum used to sprinkle the blessed water.
Present in both murals is a raven, the iconographical symbol frequently associated with Benedict. It appears with the figure of Benedict in the apse of the church and in the south transept window.
The symbol of the raven is taken from Book II of the Dialogues of Pope Gregory I the Great in which the life and miracles of Benedict are presented. A wicked priest, jealous of Benedict's reputation for holiness, poisoned a loaf of bread and sent it to Benedict. Benedict, aware at once of the fact that it was poisoned, instructed a raven to carry it out of harm's reach.
The Death of St. Benedict
The "Death of St. Benedict" on the east wall is set in the chapel of this monastery. Benedict is the central figure of the panel, standing with his arms uplifted, while his disciples kneel in prayer and sorrow at his feet. A priest, accompanied by an acolyte, stands on the left side of the mural, and on the other side is a crowned angel holding a victor's crown.
Gregory the Great tells us: "On the sixth day he [Benedict] had his disciples carry him into the chapel. There he fortified himself against death by receiving the Lord's Body and Blood. As he supported his weak limbs with the help of his disciples, he stood with hands raised to heaven and drew his last breath while praying."
The priest and acolyte probably are present as Eucharistic ministers; the angel with the victor's crown suggests Benedict's triumph over death and eventual entrance into glory.
Benedict's posture and uplifted hands resemble Moses praying on the mountain. His dedication to prayer in the last moments of life is perhaps reminiscent of St. Martin of Tours, who, according to Sulpicius Severus, was determined to pray until his last breath was drawn.
The Ascent of St. Benedict
The panel across the transept depicting "The Transitus of St. Benedict" shows two monks in the north corner of the panel viewing a path revealed by an angel. The pathway is covered with a carpet, lined with lamps, and surrounded by angels; it connects the earthly monastery of Benedict with the heavenly Jerusalem.
Benedict is shown ascending the path to the gates of Jerusalem. Gregory the Great wrote: "On that day, the very same vision appeared to two monks, one who was from his [Benedict's] monastery and the other from quite far away. In it they saw a road, strewn with carpets and flashing with many lamps, which led straight eastward from his cell to heaven. Above this road stood a man radiant in appearance and dressed in a stately robe. When he asked whose road this was, they confessed that they did not know, and he told them, 'This is the road by which Benedict, beloved by the Lord, is ascending to heaven.' Then just as the disciples present saw the holy man's death, so those absent became aware of it from the sign which had been foretold to them."
Carrying of the Cross
The first two panels of the south side of the choir introduce the passion of Christ and Mary's participation in that passion. The composition of the first panel, "Mary Meets Jesus as He Carries the Cross," emphasizes the face of Jesus by placing it where the beams of his cross intersect. His eyes are sunken, his face strained, as he looks upon his mother who beholds her suffering son.
To one side of Jesus one of the holy women who followed Christ supports Mary. On the other, an angry man with a whip drives Jesus forward, followed by a young boy, carrying the titulus (the "title" of Christ, to be affixed to his cross at His Crucifixion) and a basket of tools.
At the foot of the Blessed Virgin is an upright stone engraved with the letter E, a small cross, and the date, 1894. The "E" may indicate that Fr. Lucas Etlin, OSB, was the painter of this mural.
The second panel presents “The Crucifixion.” One of the more striking in the cycle, It is a simple portrayal off the crucified Christ, Mary and St. John silhouetted against a dark sky. In this panel, however, Mary and John are not looking up at Jesus but are facing the viewer.
The composition is probably inspired by the text from John’s Gospel: “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home” (John 19: 26-27).
In the upper left corner, the sun is darkened: “It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed” (Luke 23: 44-45).
Descent from the Cross
The account of Jesus’ followers removing his body from the Cross is found in all four Gospels and is called “The Deposition from the Cross,” or “The Descent from the Cross.” Early representations of this event presented only Joseph of Arimathaea and the two Marys, but later other figures were added — the Blessed Virgin, Nicodemus, John, and various servants of Joseph.
In the basilica’s version,on the north side of the choir, we see Jesus being lowered by a young man with a muscular arm.Joseph of Arimathaea has climbed a ladder and his helping by grasping Jesus’ arm. Nicodemus and the Blessed Virgin receive the body of Jesus, while the Apostle John, portrayed as a young man, holds the legs. Mary Magdelene stands beneath the ladder, with an anguished face and upraised arms. In the upper left corner, the sun is still darkened. At the bottom of the fresco are a ewer and cloth, as well as a basin and sponge for washing the body of Jesus.
The other mural on the north side of the choir, “The Descent of the Holy Spirit,” takes its inspiration from Acts 2: 1-12. The composition of the fresco reflects one of the earlier schemes for depicting Pentecost: the Virgin is placed in the center, surrounded by the Apostles. The dove of the Holy Spirit descends upon them and tongues of fire appear over their heads. Kneeling to the right of Mary’s throne is Saint Peter and to the left is the Beloved Disciple, Saint John.
The account of the Death and Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary depends on various apocryphal books of the 2nd to 5th centuries. Though these highly imaginative accounts differ from one another in length, language, and detail, they are similar in narration: Mary’s death is foretold by an angel or Christ. Some or all of the Apostles are miraculously gathered to assist Mary and receive her blessing. Christ comes and takes Mary’s soul into heaven, and the Apostles carry her body to the valley of Josaphat for burial. The Jews plot to burn the body but are foiled by the Holy Spirit. The Apostles continue their vigil at the grave until, after a period of time, Mary’s body is assumed into paradise.
In the panel “The Dormition,” the last fresco on the south side, the Apostles are gather around the body of the Blessed Virgin, who is either asleep or dead. Christ is present in a mandorla, holding a scepter crowned by a cross, and he is surrounded by four angels. Two are blowing trumpets, while the lower two carry a crown and scepter, in preparation of the coming “Coronation of the Blessed Virgin.” At Mary’s head is John, the Beloved Disciple, and at her feet is most likely Peter, portrayed with a furrowed brow.
Between the two candlesticks in front of the bier is a vessel with lilies, an iconographic symbol representing the purity of the Blessed Virgin.
This fresco was so badly damaged over the century of its existence it could not be restored during the renovation of the church. The solution proposed by Evergreen Studios in New York was to copy the original mural onto canvas, bring the canvas to the basilica and hang it over the damaged original. The artist then adjusted its colors to match the surrounding frescoes.
The Coronation of the Virgin Mary
“The Coronation of the Virgin” is part of the iconography of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which is often subdivided into four parts — the dormition, the burial, the assumption, and the coronation.
The coronation of Mary is not a biblical scene, or even a prominent one in the Golden Legend, but is based on Psalm 44: 11-12 in the Vulgate and the Song of Songs (4: 8). It is paraphrased as “Veni electa mea…in thronum meum” (“Come, chosen one to my throne”).
The usual arrangement for the coronation, as seen in the basilica’s mural, is to place Christ and Mary beside each other, but there are several variations.
Christ stretches out his hand to crown the Blessed Virgin. Angels surround them. Two incensing angels, one presenting a brazier, the other swinging a thurible, are in the lower corners. On the left side an angel holds a banderole that exclaims: “Salve Regina!” Opposite him, another angel plays a harp. In the upper left corner is a band of angels, while various choirs of angels are represented in the upper right corner.