Immaculate Conception’s restored murals make a holy impression
It is 1910, and Knoxville has come through the Civil War to prosper among the cities of the south, its industry and wholesale markets helped by the local East Tennessee, Virginia, & Georgia Railway — a railroad that also brought to Knoxville Irish immigrants and with them, their Catholic faith.
The growth of the city, however, came with urban problems, such as coal pollution and crime.
Into this fray came a band of itinerant gypsies, eyeing Knoxville as a market for their craft: decorative painting. By this time Knoxville boasted its own opera house, Staub’s Theater on Gay Street, which was good potential for the gypsies, as many theaters during this time would commission handsome murals to adorn their lobbies.
But the theaters were not the only patrons of the gypsies’ craft — saloons, gambling halls, pool rooms, and houses of ill repute also would commission these wandering artists to adorn their walls. But the gypsies had one other target market to solicit — churches.
“The tradition of itinerant icon makers in Europe dates back to the Renaissance. Not every small church could afford a Michelangelo or a da Vinci, but traveling artists — many of whom might have apprenticed with such masters — brought their skills to the countryside. This tradition continued for centuries and arrived in America with the immigrants from Europe,” said Marty Komorny, a professor of art
history, drawing, and painting at Pellissippi State Community College.
In a likely scenario, one of the gypsy men came into town and walked up Vine Avenue with a portfolio of sketches to visit Immaculate Conception Church and inspect its interior. He entered the red brick church — red still, not yet turned a dark brown from the coal soot that rose from the rail yards below. Looking around, he noted the blank walls and ceiling. Nodding in satisfaction, he headed out the door and turned toward the rectory beside it. It is now 2013, and scaffolding fills the interior of Immaculate Conception Church as its recent roof renovation moves toward completion. In the 1950s, an acoustic ceiling had been put in place over the original plaster, but age and wear prompted its replacement.
“There were leaks,” said George Ewart, an Immaculate Conception parishioner and Knoxville architect who helped oversee the project. “This was a repair that had been needed for some time.”
But after the old acoustic ceiling was removed, the plaster behind it was found to be deteriorating and about two feet of coal soot had settled in the rafters of the church, which at one time had seven chimneys to keep a 19th century congregation warm. There was no choice — the plaster would need to be removed for the new ceiling, even though it meant a cost overrun of more than twice the project budget.
But the question arose — what about the ceiling murals, the three wooden medallions adorning the ceiling of Immaculate Conception whose murals depict the Nativity, the Ascension, and Jesus greeting the little children?
“They were filthy, dirty,” Professor Komorny said. “When we first came up here, we were really trying to figure out what to do with them.”
She stopped to examine a rag held by a worker.
“You need really dry rags — keep squeezing the water out until no water drips,” she instructed one volunteer. “Any moisture settling in the cracks of the wood can cause rot.”
Professor Komorny pointed out that the murals were painted on canvas, which was then glued to the wood.
Around her, a volunteer team from Immaculate Conception stood on scaffolding nearly three stories above the church floor, with the three murals just a couple of feet above their heads.
“This is probably the first time anyone has been this close to view them,” said Immaculate Conception parishioner Gary Parisi. The volunteer team — Parisi, Ed Stokes, Linda Meier, Mark Reda, and Karl Jacob — wet rags in distilled water and then reached up to wipe the murals with repetitive strokes.
Professor Komorny explained that distilled water was the only substance used to clean the murals.
“I’ve analyzed the paint, and it’s behaving like oil paint,” she said, noting that there are two reasons to use distilled water — cost and the fact little is known about the murals. She said a $13 bottle of professional cleaner may cover an area three square feet and then a neutralizer would be needed.
She estimated that enough cleaning agent could cost more than $50,000.
“So we use just distilled water, back and forth. The workmen are still generating a lot of dirt and dust, but we wouldn’t have time to wait until they’re finished. We will go over it one last time once they’re done,” she said.
According to Professor Komorny, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, itinerant gypsies made their way across the United States, doing such paintings in churches and other places.
“There is a history of that in European church art, workers that would go from town to town, doing such paintings, “ she said, describing the artwork. “These were crudely done, they were not what I’d call master painters, not if I evaluate them up close from an artistic point of view.”
But Professor Komorny was quick to add that these painters were not to be considered amateurs. These were trained artists, whether in art schools or by apprenticing with another, and often this skill was handed down in a family from generation to generation.
The strokes aren’t perfect; the figures are not anatomically correct,” she added. “But Even Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine Chapel is not that detailed when viewed up close. They found that out when they were cleaning it.”
Larry Gibney, a parishioner at Immaculate Conception who wrote a history of the church entitled, “The Church on Summit Hill,” confirmed what Professor Komorny related.
“In the ’70s, an art professor from the University of Tennessee looked at them,” Mr. Gibney said, noting that the UT professor confirmed the murals were the work of itinerant painters — with an emphasis on painters, since it appeared more than one person painted the murals.
“He pointed out the different styles,” Mr. Gibney recalled. “You could tell a different person painted different characters.”
Mr. Gibney provided more details to the story of the murals. He said when the gypsies arrived, they sometimes would have a catalog of pictures. One would arrive and look for business in churches, saloons, and libraries. Once a deal was struck, a crew would come into to do the work.
‘The church wasn’t the only place — at the same time the gypsies might be decorating all the saloons down in Old City,” he said, chuckling.
The murals on the ceiling of Immaculate Conception were not the only work of gypsies, according to Gibney, who said they painted holy pictures, too.
“They were all over the place — they literally redecorated the whole church,” he said.
Mr. Parisi recalled when the gypsies’ paintings were removed from the walls of the church a number of years ago.
“We took them down some years ago,” he said. “We rolled them up and kept them in the basement.” However, several years ago the wall paintings were unrolled and they promptly disintegrated from improper storage. In addition, when they took down the old acoustic ceiling tiles, they found paintings on the original plaster that mirrored the stained glass windows of Immaculate Conception.
“Unfortunately the plaster was in such terrible shape that it had to be removed and with it these other paintings,” Mr. Parisi said.
The volunteer team also worked on the mural at the back of the church.
Mr. Reda asked what this mural depicted. The murals have been dark for so long, the figures can barely be seen. As he and the team wiped at it with their damp rags, characters started to emerge.
“Oh, I think I see a sheep,” said Karl Jacob. “I think it is the Nativity; that looks like a manger.
Ed Stokes agreed. With each wipe, more of the mural was revealed — and the depiction of Christ’s birth came to life again. Even architect George Ewart agreed.
“The murals were so dark, we couldn’t even tell what they depicted,” Mr. Ewart said.
Only the three ceiling murals survived to show a unique part of Immaculate Conception’s history. The company that replaced the acoustic tiles, Odom Construction, built wooden frames that follow the curved shapes of the murals to set them off from the ceiling.
Mr. Parisi estimated that the Immaculate Conception volunteers put in some 100 hours of work, carefully wiping each mural, again and again.
When the ceiling project began, Immaculate Conception parishioners were unsure whether to put in the effort to clean the murals or simply remove them.
“The value of these murals extends beyond Immaculate Conception Church, even beyond the Diocese of Knoxville, because they continue the tradition of the Catholic Church to have rich imagery in their churches and cathedrals. Catholic churches have always used art, first to instruct people at a time when many could not read or write, but also to engage people and all their senses in worship. That tradition that dates from the early Church can be found here in Knoxville at Immaculate Conception,” Professor Komorny said.
In keeping the murals, the church preserves more than just its history — it preserves a piece of Knoxville’s history when it was celebrating its growth from a river town into a city, and a tradition of itinerant artists who painted their way across Europe to America.
It also highlights the beauty and sacredness of Immaculate Conception, the second oldest parish in the Diocese of Knoxville, founded in 1855.
“Everything we do as Catholics, both as individuals and as a community, begins and gets its inspiration from what happens at this altar. That is why it is so important to dedicate a special place, a place that reveals its purpose by the way it’s built and how it’s furnished and adorned,” said Paulist Father Ronald Franco, Immaculate Conception’s pastor since 2010.
“Our goal today is the same as that of the immigrants who built this church over a century ago — a beautiful and welcoming place, that announces the Good News of Jesus Christ and his Church to all who live or work or visit within sight of it,” Father Franco added.