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Saint Vincent exhibition reveals the 'face' of a Benedictine monk and prolific artist


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No one knows what Brother Cosmas Wolf looked like. There are no pictures of him. But you might recognize him by the precise lines of his drawings, the ornate finials of his altarpieces and the reverent faces of his saints.

"His character comes through in his letters and in what he made. It's almost like his work was his face," said Jordan Hainsey, co-curator of "Br. Cosmas Wolf, OSB: Monk, Architect, Sculptor, Designer," an exhibition that ends Friday at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe.

‘Br. Cosmas Wolf, O.S.B.: Monk Architect Sculptor Designer’
Where: The Saint Vincent Gallery, Robert S. Carey Student Center, third floor (accessible by stair or elevator), Saint Vincent College, 300 Fraser Purchase Road, Latrobe.
When: Through Feb. 28.
Hours: 1 to 4 p.m.Tuesdays through Sundays.
Admission: Free.
Catalog: A complimentary 100-page illustrated catalog accompanies this exhibition.
Information: http://gallery.stvincent.edu or 724-805-2197.

Over a 32-year career, most of it spent at Saint Vincent Archabbey, the German-born Benedictine monk designed and built at least 35 Neo-Gothic altars for Catholic churches in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and the German Triangle -- Cincinnati, Milwaukee and St. Louis. In the century that followed, many were painted over, dismantled or simply lost. In Pittsburgh, the only ones still in use are in St. Anthony's Chapel, Troy Hill.

By the 1980s, when Saint Vincent Art Collections curator Brother Nathan Cochran discovered a stack of his drawings, Brother Cosmas had been nearly forgotten, even at the monastery where he lived most of his life and where he died in 1894.

"There was always a consciousness of his work. Someone would say 'That's a Cosmas Wolf statue.' But there was no information on him. He was lost in history," said Brother Nathan, who is also director of the Saint Vincent Gallery and co-curator of the exhibition.

Brother Nathan began to look for the altars, statues and paintings shown in the drawings. In that pre-Internet age, his main tools were phone calls, letters and site visits. When he was named college registrar in 1986, he was forced to put the project aside, passing on his research to other scholars in hopes that they could shine more light upon this pious artist.

Fast-forward to 2011, when Mr. Hainsey, a Saint Vincent student majoring in graphic design, was working as an assistant to Brother Nathan. A drawer filled with Brother Cosmas' drawings intrigued him.

"Jordan kept pestering me, 'We need to do a Brother Cosmas exhibition,' " Brother Nathan recalled. "And I kept saying, 'It's going to be a lot of work.' He said, 'It will be worth it.' "

It was and it is. The exhibition in a gallery on the second floor of the Robert S. Carey Student Center features 50 drawings, sections of two altars and nearly a dozen figures believed to have been carved by Brother Cosmas. Visitors have included local Catholics, lovers of sacred art and more than a few architects impressed by his draftsmanship..

"An art teacher said he must have kept 50 sharpened pencils by his side," Brother Nathan said. "There is no dull edge on any of his lines."

Brother Cosmas was born Johan Baptist Wolf on June 20, 1821, in the village of Grosskissendorf, now part of Bibertal, Bavaria. His parents, Johann Wolf and Theres Pannholzer, were not married. At the time, Germans who were not land owners rarely wed, Brother Nathan says in the exhibition catalog. Little is known about his education; the last mention of him in parish records was that he left Germany on Aug. 30, 1853, to become a monk in America.

Saint Vincent's Benedictine community had been established only six years earlier on farmland in Westmoreland County. Brother Cosmas was brought in to replace another brother, a sculptor, who had died in 1852. He was a lay-brother, one of two tiers of monks that includes craftsmen and laborers. In 1857, Abbot Boniface Wimmer sent Brother Cosmas to live in a Munich monastery and apprentice with sculptor Johann Nepomuk Petz. He left that monastery for a short time, according to a letter from the chaplain in Bavarian King Ludwig I's court:

"I reproached Br. Cosmas for being released from the monastery. The good man began to weep and fell at my feet. ... He certainly did not leave the monastery due to dissatisfaction but purely because of art. There was a craving in him that he could not withstand anymore."

A centerpiece of the exhibition is a cluster of painted statues, "Adoration of the Magi," made by Petz's studio around 1860, when Brother Cosmas was his apprentice. Brother Nathan believes it may be among his earliest work. On either side of it are statues of St. Benedict and St. Boniface that he believes Brother Cosmas carved toward the end of his career, in the early 1890s. The folds of their robes, the position of their hands and the quiet joy on their faces indicate a more skilled carver's hand. We'll never know for sure who made them. Brother Cosmas never signed his statues.

He returned to Latrobe in 1862 and was assigned to set up the Catholic Altar Building Stock Co. in a warehouse next to St. Joseph Church in Covington, Ky. Although it was common at the time for monks to work at monasteries as brewers, farmers and other jobs, Brother Nathan said, it was unusual to send one to run a business elsewhere.. Before long, Brother Cosmas had hired sculptors, carvers and painters to fill orders for altars and other religious items from mostly German Catholic churches. Johann Schmitt and Wilhelm Lamprecht were the company's best-known painters for the company.

Another painter was a young altar boy from the neighborhood, Frank Duveneck, who went on to fame as an American impressionist. In the early 1980s, Brother Nathan discovered in Saint Vincent's collection one of his earliest works, "Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception," painted by a 16-year-old Duveneck in 1864.

Acting as both master and "friendly old Father" to the teenager, Brother Cosmas sent a letter in 1866 to Duveneck and his parents suggesting he apprentice with a painter friend in Munich:

"Continue to learn as much as you can But!!! take special pains with your drawing. That is more important to you than free-hand painting ... . Attend to your devotions and prayers faithfully and be a good boy. For then the blessings of God will accompany you through your whole career."

Brother Cosmas closed his business in Kentucky and returned to Latrobe in 1868. He continued to design altars and other items almost until his death in 1894. His later drawings also show plans for baptismal fonts, candlesticks, grave monuments, churches, even a rectory.

One of his last drawings is of a large red-brick Neo-Gothic church that closely resembles the Saint Vincent Basilica, which was begun in 1892 and finished in 1905. Although a New York architect's name is on the blueprints, Brother Nathan believes its main features are from Brother Cosmas' design. Another of his students, Brother Wolfgang Traxler, supervised its construction.

Brother Cosmas never explained his love for sacred art. But he came close in a July 1857 letter to Abbot Wimmer from Germany when he returned to the monastery:

"From now on I will use my artistic ability, as God has given it, with doubled zeal for the holy cause."


Kevin Kirkland: kkirkland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1978.

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