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Art exhibit gives glimpse into history and faith.


Sarah Schroth, curator at Duke University's art museum, has become a local celebrity in the college town of Durham, N.C.

People stop her wherever she is to thank her for bringing a collection of 400-year-old Spanish paintings and sculptures to the university's Nasher Museum of Art in the exhibit "El. Greco to Velazquez: Art During the Reign of Philip III."

"They feel it's a gift to them," said Schroth, the museum's Nancy Hanks senior curator.

Schroth spent more than two decades researching, and then locating, the 52 works of art, which were on display at Duke University until Nov. 9. They were shown this spring and summer at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Tribute also should be given to the small book that inspired Schroth to study Spanish art in the first place: her mother's St. Joseph's Missal.

About 20 years ago, when her mother moved to a smaller home, Schroth and her five siblings were told they could have whatever family books they wanted. Schroth, who was then working on her doctorate at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, chose the missal she remembered looking at when she was a girl.

As she leafed through the pages, she was taken aback by dozens of pictures of religious art predominantly by Spanish painters--her field of study. She said the pictures "obviously spoke to me" at the time and even though she had forgotten about them, they were with her on a subconscious level.

Schroth told Catholic News Service in an Oct. 9 telephone interview from Durham that the Spanish art used in the missal "spoke to people directly."

"That's why they are such powerful paintings. They have a very intimate style that brings you into the canvas or very close to the picture. They're in your space; the figures are very realistic," she said.

That description holds true for the museum's exhibit of Spanish art from 1598 to 1621. The 52 master paintings on display included seven late works by El Greco and three early works by Diego Rodriguez de Silva Velazquez, along with paintings by Gregorio Fernandez, Juan Bautista Maino, Luis Tristan and Juan Sanchez Cotan. Three sculptures and about 50 decorative objects were also on display.

Schroth, who is deeply attached to the art on loan from Spanish museums and churches as well as museums worldwide, was hard-pressed to name favorites. Although she proudly mentioned El Greco's painting of St. James and Maino's "Adoration of the Magi" from Madrid's Prado Museum, she also spoke with equal fondness of the portraits, still-life images and sculptures.

Her affection, in part, stems from the discovery of some of these works, particularly those that had been tucked away in tiny chapels, or in a Madrid hospital, such as Vicente Carducho's "The Stigmatization of St. Francis."

Schroth said that painting had "only been published once in a bad photograph," and when she saw it in person it took her breath away. The intense gaze between St. Francis and Christ, she said, reflects the period's spirituality,, which stressed the importance of an intimate relationship with God.

Although El Greco and Velazquez were the exhibit's draw, Schroth said she hoped visitors, who numbered 35,000 in the first week of October, would gain an appreciation for the lesser-known painters.

Schroth collaborated with a friend, Ronni Baer, a curator of fine arts at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, to obtain the loan of some works from museums.

The two women paid several visits and made pleas to local church officials for the loan of sculptures housed in Spanish churches. The loan of a small wooden statue of Mary from a Catholic church in a village outside Seville was a "milagro," said Schroth, using the Spanish word for miracle.

To borrow the statue, Schroth wrote several letters to church officials and obtained the unofficial blessing of the archbishop of Seville. The parish priest and a group of elders from the small parish, which includes a chapel devoted to this 16th-century statue, were not inclined to let Mary go, especially across the ocean.

They finally consented, but the parish priest wrote to Schroth after the statue was transported, saying that "the village was orphaned."

Fr. John McDonagh, associate chaplain of the Catholic Center at Duke University, worked with local priests and Duke University faculty members to plan an evening of commentary, reflection and prayer at various spots in the exhibit Nov. 1.


Catholic News Service
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Author:Zimmermann, Carol
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Nov 14, 2008
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