A Pope in the Attic

Where do we go when we die? Surely, we’ve all asked ourselves that question at some point. As I understand it, there are two alternatives: heaven or hell. It had never occurred to me to question where artwork goes when it dies, but it’s a question that writers, artists and musicians would do well to ask themselves.

Mary Shining Through

I stumbled across the answer to that question approximately six years ago while rummaging through my former office building’s ancient attic.

There, in the attic of a building built in 1893 as a residence for the Diocese of St. Cloud’s first bishop, I came across some genuine treasures. The building itself was spectacular, complete with oak woodwork, stained-glass windows, a tower and balcony, a domed ceiling in a former chapel, servant stairways, and rooms large enough to house small families.

An attic room was filled with antiques that were pulled out of one of the area’s closed Churches. There, among dusty boxes, dead birds, a golden tabernacle, and antique furniture, I discovered some old religious artwork. Next to the artwork sat organ pipes as large as small pine trees, and a wooden bishop’s chair with lion heads carved into the ends of the armrests. The artwork, however, was something to behold. There were four enormous original oil paintings in all.

Two of them depicted the Passion of Christ. Another featured one of the diocese’s former bishops. The one that struck me most, however, was of Pope Leo XIII, the pope who had officially named the diocese back in 1889. And it wasn’t the painting of Leo that caught my eye, but the obviously raised image of the Virgin Mary that seemed to be set in the canvas behind the painted image of Pope Leo. It wasn’t part of the painting itself, but almost a relief in the background color. It looked as if perhaps Mary had originally been painted on the canvas, and then completely painted over. I just had to get a closer look.

Clumsily, I grabbed the enormous painting and carried it downstairs into the light of my office. I had the perfect-sized blank wall, complete with nail, that just begged to hold the painting, and so I hung the artwork. Pope Leo looked down upon me as I worked at my computer. The reaction from visitors was well worth it. Most seemed intimidated. Some were bemused. Others agitated. One was outright hostile.

In all respects, it was a beautiful painting. Leo, a genuine smile on his face, extended the index and middle fingers of his right hand in a gesture of blessing. The canvas, above his left shoulder is raised, revealing the unmistakable outline of the Virgin Mary. In her hands she holds a Rosary, the beads cascading down upon Leo’s shoulder. Below Leo, and to the left is another image in the canvas — that of a small girl, most likely Bernadette Soubirous, kneeling before Our Lady of Lourdes.

The image of Mary is not an apparition. There’s no bleeding or crying Madonna. It’s far from supernatural. Rather, it appears as if the original image on the canvas may have been brought forth by the alternating heat, humidity and cold of an unprotected attic.

Yet, the image is remarkable when one considers Pope Leo XIII’s devotion to Our Lady and the rosary, as well as his supernatural experience at the altar and his penning of the St. Michael prayer. Whether the placement of the original image was intended or not, it is a beautiful painting.

What was it, I wondered, doing in the attic after all?

Confusion and Loss

The artist, Peter Martini (1858-1942), was both a painter and singer. He, his father and brother were experienced in decorating churches throughout Europe. Martini emigrated to the US from Germany in 1881. He was commissioned by Bishop Otto Zardetti to paint the town’s patron, Saint Cloud. That picture currently resides in the chancery, where it belongs. Martini decorated the interiors of several area Catholic churches, as well as churches in Milwaukee. Heralded as “the finest decorator in the Northwest,” he was commissioned by Zardetti to decorate the bare walls of the new Holy Angels Cathedral in 1890.

That great work was destroyed when the cathedral burned in 1933. Unfortunately, much of his other church work locally was white-washed in the confusion following the Second Vatican Council. Some remains. A church located only five miles north of my home, where we attend daily Mass, is adorned with Martini’s unmistakable paintings. My children love to point out the various figures — the angels in the sanctuary, St. Stephen (the church’s patron, the mysteries of the rosary, St. Blaise with his candles, St. Peter with his keys, St. Helen with the Cross.

The local history museum holds two of Martini’s paintings — After the Crucifixion, in which Mary weeping holds the crown of thorns upon her lap, and another of Mary with John the Baptist and the Christ-child playing at her feet. Some of his other work survives, held by private collectors.

Yet, Pope Leo XIII, rather than adorning the wall of some church or museum, sat in an alternately hot and cold “hell” reserved for artwork that someone had decided was “dead” and not worthy of salvation.

Perhaps it was seen as too old, too gothic. Perhaps they felt it had outlived its usefulness. Perhaps someone didn’t like it and decided to tuck it away. Perhaps it had been forgotten and no one knew it was there. I lamented that by the time it was found, it would be too late. Exposed to the elements, it would not have lasted.

Some months after bringing Pope Leo downstairs, I found a new job. Before leaving, I put Pope Leo back in the attic where I had found him, for the spiders and the mice to enjoy. Yet I continued to be plagued by what would become of him.

A Proper Place

Beautiful art is inspirational, valuable, and timeless. It has a purpose throughout time. If it is inspired by God, why shouldn’t God impart to it some kind of immortality, say a place in heaven?

That is not to say that all artwork would be there. Certainly, I wouldn’t expect to find a paint-by-number there. Or a velvet Elvis.

I wrote a letter to the Vicar General, explaining the painting’s existence and importance to local history, and suggesting that it be donated to the county historical society so that future generations could enjoy it. I eventually received a reply. The diocesan archivist said that if I wanted the painting, I could have it.

That very day I went to retrieve it. Immense in size, it barely fit into our mini-van. Once I had it home, I placed it in my office. There it sat, inspiring me as I worked. Friends came to see it. Family members made jokes about it, calling it the “Pope Room.” One relative, who would sleep in the office when she stayed with us, would laugh that she had “slept with” the pope.

As much as I enjoyed the painting, it was meant for greater things than a simple bedroom.

One day, approximately a year after I had retrieved it, I decided to give the painting new life. Placing it back in the van, I took it to the local history museum. The staff had no clue what was about to descend upon them. You see, the political correctness operating in the diocese was not the same political correctness operating at the museum. The museum staff recognized a genuine treasure when they saw it. You should have seen their eyes when I walked into the museum carrying the painting. It was as if I had carried in the Hope Diamond.

The staff on duty called in other staff to view the painting. They all stood around it admiring it and talking about it. Someone contacted the executive director, and all of them asked how I had come to possess such a painting. I donated the painting to the museum saying it was a gift from me and the diocese.

The museum promised to refurbish the painting and its elegant frame. I left the museum confident that they would long treasure the piece.

Our Father’s House has many rooms. It turns out that the attic wasn’t hell after all, but merely a purifying purgatory on the way to something far, far better. From time to time, I stop into the museum to see the painting and say “hello” to Pope Leo.

© Copyright 2006 Catholic Exchange

Tim Drake is the author of Young and Catholic: The Face of Tomorrow’s Church (Sophia Institute Press, 2004). He serves as staff writer with the National Catholic Register and Faith and Family Magazine. He writes from Saint Cloud, Minnesota.

Young and Catholic can be ordered by calling 1-800-888-9344 or visiting Sophia Institute Press.

Avatar photo


Tim Drake is an award-winning journalist, the author of six books on religion and culture, and a former radio host. Widely published, and a long-time contributor to the National Catholic Register, he serves as Executive Director of Pacem in Terris Hermitage Retreat Center in Minnesota.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage