Where Does Art Go When It Dies?


Shortly after writing this story, the Diocese told me I could have the painting. It now sits in another form of purgatory, in my home office, as I pray about the painting's fate.

I stumbled across the answer to this question many months ago while rummaging through our office building’s ancient attic.

The building I worked in at the time was built in 1893 as a residence for the Diocese’s first Bishop. It’s a spectacular building, complete with oak woodwork, stained glass windows, a tower, a domed ceiling in a former chapel, servant stairways, and rooms large enough to fit small families.

There, sitting among the dusty boxes, dead birds, and antique furniture I discovered a treasure in what appeared to be some rather old religious artwork. The room was filled with what were obviously antiques pulled out of one of the area’s closed local Churches, for next to the artwork sat organ pipes as large as trees, a wooden Bishop’s chair with lion heads carved in the armrests, and a gold-plated tabernacle. The artwork, however, was something to behold. There were four enormous original oil paintings in all.

Two of them depicted Christ on the cross. Another featured one of the Diocese’s former bishops. The one that most struck me, 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. Rather, it was the obviously raised image of the Virgin Mary that seemed to be set in the canvas behind the painted image of Pope Leo. The image of Mary appeared to be the original painting on the canvas, and had been painted over. I just had to get a closer look.

Clumsily, I grabbed the enormous piece and carried it downstairs to my office. I had the perfect-sized blank wall, complete with nail, that just begged to hold the painting, and so I hung the piece. 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’s a beautiful painting. Leo, a genuine smile on his face, is extending the index and middle fingers on his right hand in a gesture of blessing. The canvas above his left shoulder is raised, revealing the unmistakable outline of the Virgin Mary as she looks on. 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, kneeling before Our Lady.

This is not an apparition. There is no bleeding or crying Madonna. What appears is far from supernatural. Rather, it is an original image on the canvas brought forth by the alternating heat, humidity, and cold of an unprotected attic.

However, 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?

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 U.S. 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,” Zardetti commissioned him to decorate the bare walls of the new Holy Angels Cathedral in 1890.

That great work was destroyed when the Cathedral burned in 1933. Many of Martini’s paintings, such as “After the Crucifixion” and “Christ Before Pilate” are still held by museums, churches, and private collectors locally.

Here, on the other hand, rather than adorning the wall of some church or museum, his work sits in a kind of purgatory reserved for artwork which someone decided was “dead.”

Perhaps they found it too old, too gothic. Perhaps someone didn’t like it and so tucked it away. Perhaps no one knows it is here. By the time they do, it will be too late. Exposed to the elements, as it is, it will not last. The paint is showing its age and the frame is peeling. What an end for something that was meant to edify and inspire!

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?

This is not to say that all artwork would be there. Certainly we would not expect to find paint-by-numbers or velvet Elvises. But we would expect to find Michelangelo’s work in Heaven, along with DaVinci’s, and Raphael’s, and maybe even Martini’s.

I have since moved on. I put the painting, owned by the diocese, back into the attic for the spiders and mice to enjoy, and fired off a letter alerting the Vicar General to its existence and importance to local history. I suggested it be donated to the county historical society so that future generations can enjoy it. So far the painting remains, subjected to the purifying frost and heat of the seasons.

Recalling my earlier question I realize that while the attic is dusty and uncomfortable it is not hell. Likewise, especially on hot summer days, it most assuredly is not Heaven. Therefore, I hold out hope. Perhaps the painting’s trial is only temporary – a pit stop on the way to something more deserving…something far, far more glorious. Perhaps, when we finally enter Our Father’s mansion and start investigating the rooms we’ll find Pope Leo XIII hanging right there on the living room wall.

Tim Drake


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 Senior Editor/Director of News Operations for the Cardinal Newman Society.

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