by Carole Verona
In honor of Pope Francis’s visit to Philadelphia in September, Woodmere Art Museum dug deep into its vault to present “Woodmere Welcomes Pope Francis: Biblical Art from the Permanent Collection.” The exhibit opened July 11 and will run through October 18.
Rick Ortwein, deputy director for exhibitions, curated the exhibit. “When it was announced that the Pope was coming, we thought it was a great opportunity to do this show,” he said. Bill Valerio, Woodmere’s Director and CEO, introduced the idea at a staff brainstorming session. An introduction to the exhibit on the museum’s website relates how the stories of the Bible have been interpreted by artists working in distinct social and historical contexts to create images that express faith and provide commentary on contemporary issues.
“Because I have worked here for 14 years,” Rick said, “I knew that Woodmere had a lot of art with religious themes. I found even more going through it again. I had an object list for this exhibition that was nearly 100 pieces.”
He explained that a curator’s job involves organizing, researching and putting together an exhibit. At Woodmere, he also designs and installs exhibits. ”In our situation,” he said, “we have a very small staff and don’t have a full-time dedicated curator. So we work as a team with one of us essentially taking a lead role in curating an exhibition … As a practicing Catholic and artist, I am particularly interested in the subject matter of this exhibit, and I have a deep interest in the imagery. Art history is dripping with Church history, Bible history and all of that.”
Rick had certain criteria in mind when deciding which pieces to include. “Overall, I wanted the exhibit to be reverent but not boring. I wanted to show a range of styles and stay within the context. Certainly, the quality of the work is important. For example, we have many biblical narrative prints by Benton Spruance. I could have filled this gallery just with his prints … We wanted to show the work of artists who are part of our Woodmere family, who are integral to the history of Woodmere’s collection.”
When entering the museum and passing by the information desk on the right, visitors are immediately drawn into the exhibit by the first painting they see. “Come Unto Me” by Ralph Pallen Coleman depicts the figure of Jesus seated on a hillside, comforting a war-weary crowd, including the wounded and blinded soldiers of World War II. “This work is illustrative of the Golden Age of Illustration in American art,” said Rick. It’s been sitting in our vault for years and has rarely seen the light of day until now.”
On the wall next to it is a series of images of the Biblical figures Cain and Abel, Jacob, Job and Samson, engaged in various physical and spiritual struggles. The artists represented here include Benton Spruance and Sam Maitin, both of whom often use biblical stories to reflect on the contemporary world.
Violet Oakley’s “The Three Communions (Banquet in Heaven, Morning After the Resurrection, The Last Supper)” is a study for a never-executed church mural. It hangs next to Edith Emerson’s “Calling of Elisha,” which depicts the meeting between the prophet Elijah and his disciple Elisha. Oakley was a great painter, illustrator and muralist who lived on St. Georges Road in Mt. Airy with Emerson, her life partner, the first director of Woodmere. Some say that Emerson’s study is a veiled reference to her relationship with Oakley.
One corner of the gallery is dedicated to images of St. Francis of Assisi, the Pope’s namesake. “We have several images of St. Francis in the exhibit and more in the Woodmere collection. We have to ask ourselves why St. Francis is so popular. He’s not confined to a denomination, and he appeals to non-religious people as well as to religious people,” Rick said, adding that certain images had to be in the exhibit because of the St. Francis-Pope Francis connection. Spruance’s color lithograph of “St. Francis-The Piazza” was an obvious choice, as were Peter Paone’s two etchings of “St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata, after Jan Van Eyck.”
Rick was born and raised in Bethlehem, Pa. He has a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Tyler School of Art and a Master of Fine Arts from Stanford University. He has taught painting, drawing and printmaking in college programs. He and his wife Amy live in East Falls.
Free tours for this exhibition will take place on Sept. 23 and 30 and on Oct. 7 and 14. More information about the exhibit, catalogue and special events is available at 215-247-0476 or www.woodmereartmuseum.org.