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A History Mystery

Posted on April 27, 2022, by Susanna Pyatt

Back in January, the Heritage Center staff were asked about an oil painting of the Epiphany that hangs in the Motherhouse Infirmary. This work, showing the three Magi visiting the Holy Family, has a plaque on its frame for “Francois de Vriendt (Franz Floris) 1517-1570.” Other people on campus asked, was this painting actually 500 years old, and if so, how valuable might it be?

Framed oil painting by Frans Floris the Elder

Frans Floris the Elder was a major artist of the Northern Renaissance. He was born in Antwerp around 1517 or 1519. Frans came from a family of craftsmen, including stonemasons, architects, and artists working with other media. He studied with painter Lambert Lombard and also traveled to Italy to study before opening his own workshop around 1545. While Floris was a prolific artist, relatively few of his works have survived to the present day, in part because many were destroyed during a period of iconoclastic destruction of religious art in Antwerp in the second half of the 16th century. He is most known for his historical and religious paintings, as well as about a dozen portraits he did. Floris also had many pupils and assistants in his workshop, extending his legacy far beyond the artwork he produced himself.

Self-portrait by Frans Floris the Elder
Copy of a self-portrait by Frans Floris the Elder, c. 1560-1565. Collections of the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum.

We have few other clues about the history of the painting. A 1962 newspaper article taped to the back of the frame includes a photo of the painting being restored in St. Louis, but the journalist makes no mention in the text about the work. Father Charles Nerinckx brought many pieces of art from Europe to Loretto and the Kentucky Holy Land in the early 1800s, but there’s no record of this painting being among the materials he brought. It’s likely that it was donated to Loretto more recently. That theory is backed up by the report of an Infirmary employee that the family of a Sister of Loretto donated the painting decades ago, but it would be good to have a second source for that information.

With all that in mind, we reached out beyond Loretto for more information about the painting. We contacted a curator from the Speed Museum in Louisville, KY, to see if she could give more insight about the work. She could tell from her examination that the painting does indeed date to the 16th century, so it probably was created by either Frans Floris the Elder or someone in his workshop. However, her examination revealed that previous conservation work stripped much of the original character from the painting. The original parts that are left are more like a “sketch” that has been filled in by a later conservator. We don’t know what condition the painting was in before this conservation work – perhaps much of the original surface had already been lost over time or from specific damage – and conservation standards have changed over the decades. In this case, the previous work done on the painting actually makes it much less valuable.

Newspaper photograph of conservation work being done on the painting
Photograph of conservation work being done on the painting, from the November 27, 1962, issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

This painting of the Epiphany will remain in the Infirmary, where it can be appreciated by residents, employees, and visitors for its religious imagery and as the work of an important Renaissance artist. As for the Heritage Center, we hope that others may remember the story behind how this work came to Loretto and be able to shed some more light on this history mystery.


Susanna Pyatt

Susanna Pyatt is the director of the Loretto Heritage Center. A graduate of Western Kentucky University's Folk Studies program, she geeks out over American communal societies, historic buildings, and the artifacts of daily life.
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