Earlier this year, I wondered about the reredos in the St. Andrew’s-Sewanee school chapel, discovering that it was a copy of the Demidoff Altarpiece, now in National Gallery, London, but originally made by Carlo Crivelli for the church of San Domenico in Ascoli Piceno in 1476. “So, now the questions is WHY is this in the St. Andrew’s Chapel?” I asked. “Aside from its very evident beauty, of course, and its very “high church” appeal, was there a particular connection to this piece for the Holy Cross brothers who founded the school?”
Anyway, a few months later, I wrote to former Head of School, Father Bill Wade, about all of this, and he generously responded thus:
Bishop Campbelll OHC writes in his history of St. Andrew’s School:”On entering the Chapel one is struck at once by the beautiful reredos which is bolted to the eastern wall. A present of Miss Mary A.J. Neilson of Philadelphia, it is a copy of Crevelli, the original of which is on exhibit in the National Gallery in TravalgarSquare, London. Miss Neilson painted this most devotional work originally for the Church of the Evangelists, Philadelphia of which the Rev. W.W. Webb was rector (later he became Bishop of Milwaukee). When at St. Michael’s [FYI: the monastery at St. Andrew’s} to conduct a retreat he reported that while Miss Neilson was doing the painting he used to help her;in order not to allow the representations of the saints in various panels to look too fresh and glaring, they would put bacon fat in a hot skillet and wave it in front of the fresh paint in order to dim it a bit.”He does not provide a date for when the reredos was installed but the impression is that happened at the time the chapel was built. The Prior at that time , Father Hughson, had spent the winter of 1913 on “special assignment ” at St. Mark’s , Philadelphia. The Easter offering of $9000 was given to him and that led to the design of the chapel by Philadelphia architect, Horace W. Sellers…construction began immediately and the first mass took place on Quinquagesima, February 22, 1914.I do not know for sure but I think I remember that the Church of the Evangelists was closed about this time and that may explain why the reredos was not put there but given to the school.
Beyond the fetching detail of the bacon-fat aging process, Fr. Wade’s note provides a lot of leads to follow up on. According to the 1904 Guidebook to the Church of the Evangelists (now digitized), “The reredos is a copy of the famous altar-piece (now in the National Gallery, London) by Carlo Crivelli, made by Miss M. A. L. Neilson and presented by her to the parish. It is a magnificent work, harmonious and rich in color, and leaves nothing for the architectural critic to desire.” Even better, the guidebook supplies some pictures of the church, in which one can see the St. Andrews’ reredos in its original setting.
Much of the decoration–very Italianate in its inspiration–came about from the energies of the guidebook’s author, the very high church rector appointed in 1880, Henry Robert Percival, who (according to a source quoted by Wikipedia) possessed “a sensibility which combined Italian and Anglo-Catholic romanticisms.” Of the Church of the Evangelists’ architecture, the same source points to “Italy, Ruskin, the ecclesiological movement, and the pageantry of medieval Christianity” as influences.
At any rate, Percival became ill in the 1890s, and the Oxford Movement/ Victorian medievalism he espoused fell out of favor in the decades following. The chapel at St. Andrews in Sewanee opened in 1914, as Fr. Wade notes, probably with the reredos now removed from its failing home in Philadelphia. The Church of the Evangelists has had a colorful afterlife: converted into an art gallery in 1922 associated with the Graphic Sketch Club, it became part of the Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial. “The mission of the Fleisher Art Memorial,” as stated on their website, “is to make art accessible to everyone, regardless of economic means, background, or artistic experience.” The space is used for exhibits and occasionally weddings (as can be seen in the photo below).