The Image and Its Audiences

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A 1855 print showing children decorating an outdoor altar to celebrate a Catholic festival of Corpus Christi and Samuel F.B. Morse’s 1830 oil painting of The Chapel of the Virgin at Subiaco both depict religious activities. One, the print, is constructed for an audience that shares these beliefs, the other, the large and impressive canvas is not.

Corpus Christi Day by Katherine Murphy

In 19th century Europe and America, private homes were often heavily decorated with crafts and artwork - especially overtly Christian artwork. Souvenirs, commemorative plaques and certificates, copies of great European masterpieces, and devotional images were prominently displayed in both public and private rooms of a house; the household's social, religious, and ethnic affiliations could be clearly communicated through the choice of imagery. Such embellishment of the home was considered "civilized" and cultured; although the idea may seem odd to certain modern readers, mass-produced art of this variety was believed to bring sophistication and gentility to its setting. This particular example - the lithograph Corpus Christi Day, by the New York / Connecticut firm E.B. and E.C. Kellogg, ca. 1855 - depicts a major Catholic feast day, one whose celebration was especially important to contemporary European immigrant communities in the United States.

Corpus Christi Day originates in a 13th and 14th century movement in Catholic worship emphasizing the humanity and corporeality of Christ (reflected in the personal vision of St. Juliana of Mont Cornillon) and in the simultaneous embrace of the dogma of transubstantiation (physical transformation of the Eucharistic Host into the Body of Christ) by the Vatican. Soon, the feast day grew wildly popular throughout Christendom; town groups organized massive processions, built and decorated multiple outdoor altars to be visited by the host, sang, prayed, and received the blessing of the consecrated Host. In the 15th century, popes even granted indulgences for participation in the Corpus Christi Day procession. Clearly this sort of celebration not only functioned as an affirmation of a community's Catholic faith, but it also reinforced the communal bonds and stability of a European town or village. Children sometimes ran ahead strewing a carpet of flowers and greenery for the sacred parade; in England, lay groups such as guilds created themed carts to illustrate spiritual, moral and theological ideas.

The context of an immigrant population's celebration of Corpus Christi Day in a new (Protestant) country doubled the community-building importance of the feast: now, not only did it perpetuate the community's traditional values (especially through the active role of the children), but it assumed a new role reinforcing the immigrant group's solidarity and validity in the face of (often hostile) non-Catholic neighbors. Donning one's best clothing and singing and processing enthusiastically through the streets is an act of asserting a community identity to outsiders. Thus, Catholics refused to be ignored by paranoid or snobbish "nativists" as represented by the Know-Nothing Party. This celebration is extremely Catholic, from its theology to its iconography to its physical rituals; it is also completely public. Corpus Christi Day in America refutes any discreet or assimilationist form of Catholicism, in favor of an aggressively ethnic variety.

This hand-colored lithograph, framed in good-quality mahogany (thus slightly more expensive than a black and white) - would have been at home on the wall of any typical Catholic American house around 1855, within a wide range of income. It is easy to imagine a family, particularly one with small children hanging this image as a reminder of both a the religion's teachings and the family members' involvement in the annual celebrations. The point of the lithograph is not "fine art" or realistic subtlety, but rather the story it depicts: four neatly dressed girls decorate a domestic altar with icons, candles, flowers and greenery, and a corpus-bearing crucifix. The girls could be sisters, friends, or neighbors; they endorse the community values of piety, propriety, and obedience (not to mention the female domestic role). The girls also illustrate the duty placed on immigrant children to carry on the old traditions even in the new country.

Stephen Salisbury II's The Chapel of the Virgin at Subiaco by Deanna M. de Arango

When studying art from the past, it is important not only to consider the content of the work, but also basic questions such as why a selected piece was painted and for whom it is painted. All art has a desired audience and is used for different purposes in society. The variety of art that has remained from 19th century Worcester provides great insight into the different uses of art among the diverse social groups of the time period. Since religion was an extremely important part of life in the 19th century, the varying images of devotion are particularly interesting. Commissioned by Stephen Salisbury II, who also commissioned a magnificent home in 1836 from Worcesters' great Greek revival architect Elias Carter, The Chapel of the Virgin at Subiaco, provides great insight into the issue of art as it was acquired and used by the wealthy in 19th century Worcester.

The Chapel of the Virgin at Subiaco is a very grandiose painting, not a reproductive print. While on a trip to Europe, the prominent merchant and landowner Stephen Salisbury II met renowned painter Samuel F.B. Morse and admired his work Morse painted this piece for him in his Rome studio in 1830 based on sketches he had done on a recent excursion. It depicts a magnificent landscape with rich, vivid light. The intense lighting in the center of the painting gives the audience a sense of divine splendor. Within the majestic landscape of the Sabine mountains is an image of shepherds with their flock worshipping at a wayside chapel, apparently in a poor state of repair, on the road to Subiaco. It is a very dramatic image and does not focus specifically on the actions of the worshippers, but rather on the setting and imaginative feeling of the scene. In fact the people themselves are marginalized, seen as quaint adjuncts to the landscape.

Since early sketches of the image were also preserved, one can conclude that Salisbury II must have commissioned a glorious type of painting. As stated by the Worcester Art museum in the painting's description, "Comparison of the final composition and the landscape study shows that Morse transformed the naturalistic palette and even quality of noonday light in the study to create a more dramatic mood: the finished painting is distinctive for its brilliant, artificial palette and strong, late-afternoon light."

The issue of why Salisbury II commissioned such a glorious painting is particularly important. As a distinguished man of society, Salisbury was able to travel extensively to culturally rich places in Europe. His son Stephen Salisbury III would became the major supported and founder of the Worcester Art Museum, bequeathing this painting in 1907. To be able to commission a painting, in Europe nonetheless, from a prominent artist was certainly a luxury. It was a sign of status to have exotic artwork purchased abroad in one's home. Stephen Salisbury's mother, we know from letters, always wanted her son to send her back luxurious gifts he found during his travels in Europe. For the Salisburys, this painting represented their fortune. It demonstrates that they were able to travel to Italy, where they could experience as onlookers its rich religious history and culture. They were not using the painting as an image of worship or devotion, but rather for its aesthetic beauty.

The painting is of an image of devotion, but the Salisbury family did not use the art for religious purposes. The Salisburys and their circle, who certainly did not share the Catholic faith of the peasants depicted, were not treating the image in the manner of the Kellogg Corpus Christi Day. Rather, the image served to define the owner's difference from the subjects depicted. The impressive size of the canvas and dramatic brush strokes argue that it was a seen as a singular and wonderful decorative object. The actions of its subjects are unimportant.

Morgan, David and Promey, Sally M. Exhibiting the Visual Culture of American Religions. Valparaiso, IN, 2000.

Corpus Christi Day, ca. 1855
Children are decorating an outdoor altar with flowers.
E. B. and E. C. Kellogg, New York and Hartford, CT
Hand-colored lithograph
15 x 12 inches; frame 1 1/2 inches probably not original to image

The Chapel of the Virgin at Subiaco, 1830
Samuel F.B. Morse
Oil on canvas
Worcester Art Museum 1907.35.