The identification of the painting as a 17th century masterpiece is a joy to the parish
NEW ROCHELLE, NY (CNS) – A parish in a neighborhood that once had the highest concentration of COVID-19 cases in the country has found new joy when it finds that a familiar painting on its church’s transept door is a 17th century masterpiece.
“Holy Family with the Infant St. John”, a Florentine Baroque by Cesare Dandini, was installed in the 1960s at Holy Family Church in the New York suburb of New Rochelle. Parishioners described it as one of the many beautiful works of art in the parish.
In early 2020, a fine arts and art history professor from neighboring Iona College made several private visits to the church, sitting on a back bench.
On his fourth voyage, when the church lights were shining, Thomas Ruggio saw the Dandini high on a wall above a transept exit. He recognized the painting as an Italian Baroque and took pictures with his cell phone.
Back at his office, he shared the photos with colleagues in Italy. The painting has been positively identified as one of four similarly themed works by Dandini, probably created in the 1630s.
Ruggio’s subsequent research at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City indicated that the painting was considered missing as there was no public record of it from the early to mid-20th century.
Mgr. Dennis Keane, pastor of the Holy Family, told Catholic News Service that the painting was acquired in Rome by one of his predecessors, Msgr. Charles Fitzgerald, in the mid-1960s. Mgr. Keane said that Mgr. Fitzgerald had previously been posted to Rome.
He said he thought a benefactor had given to Mgr. Fitzgerald funds for the purchase. Mgr. Fitzgerald’s niece had the painting restored and framed before it was installed in the parish church.
Ruggio said the four linked paintings have the theme of charity. Two are religious and two are not. All have a central maternal figure. Ruggio said that âThe Holy Family with the Infant Saint Johnâ is one of Dandini’s finest works and the culmination of his creative journey through this theme.
The 46 inch by 57 inch oil painting on canvas features Mary, Joseph, and the children Jesus and John the Baptist. Ruggio said the composition of the parish canvas is more dynamic than the other three.
âJoseph is almost a stage thief here and reaches his full potential due to his interaction with Saint-Jean-Baptiste,â he said.
Among the associated paintings, one is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, another is in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the fourth is in a private collection in the New York district of Manhattan.
âThe Holy Family with the Infant Saint-Jeanâ is estimated at $ 800,000. Mgr. Keane said he was told during his tenure that the painting was probably the most valuable in the parish’s collection, “possibly around $ 50,000.” He said local tradition attributed the painting to the Dandini school, but not to the painter himself.
“I was surprised by the news and grateful to Tom (Ruggio) for being able to research the history of art,” said Mgr. Keane said.
Teresa Cohan Minnaugh grew up in Holy Family Parish. She said her family entered and left church under Dandini’s painting every Sunday.
âSometimes your mind wanders during mass. I remember looking at this painting and thinking, âWow, these babies are fat. Real babies are not that big! ‘â
Susan Woodruff is the youngest of six children who attended Holy Family. She said her brother developed an interest in art at the parish and became a painter. Her early guardianship helped her appreciate the three-dimensional aspect of the canvas.
âI always looked at the inside of the baby’s foot. It was so different, “she said. By Dandini’s deliberate design, the bottom of Mary’s foot is also visible to a viewer looking at the painting.
On September 17, âThe Holy Family with the Infant Saint Johnâ was exhibited at the Ryan Library at Iona College, an institution founded by the Congregation of the Christian Brothers. It is loaned for three months by the parish of Sainte-Famille.
Richard Palladino, director of Iona Libraries, said its high location on a wall in the well-lit entrance to the atrium allows it to be shared with students and the public.
âIt’s also a wonderful opportunity for students to see something historic firsthand,â he said.
Mgr. Keane said he was happy to allow other people to see and appreciate the work. He said the parish is preparing for the relocation of Dandini’s painting, possibly to coincide with the feast of the Holy Family in January.
For the moment, the space where it was hung is covered with a white curtain and Mgr. Keane explores appropriate security in anticipation of his return.
âPeople are looking at a white wall now, but when the painting returns, the image will enter their hearts – seeing Jesus, Mary and Joseph and the forerunner, John the Baptist,â he said. âIn the past, painting was part of the background. Now he will be in the foreground.
In March 2020, much of Holy Family Parish was included in New York State’s first mandated “containment zone” established to combat the spread of COVID-19.
Mgr. Keane said that authenticating the Dandini âadds joy to life. We have had so much bad news, with the pandemic, the riots and the violence. It’s good news. What was lost is now discovered.