“Walls Speak: The Narrative Art of Hildreth Meière,” at the Museum of Biblical Art inNew York City, offers a glimpse into the rarely examined field of twentieth-century liturgical art. Although not widely known today, Hildreth Meière (1892–1961) has a solid core of admirers for her Art Deco designs, and no architectural history of New York City can ignore her elegant work in settings both secular—Radio City Music Hall, the Red Banking Room at One Wall Street—and sacred, notably in the splendid St. Bartholomew’s Church. In 1956, Meière became the first woman to earn the Fine Arts Medal of the American Institute of Architects; she was also the first woman appointed to the New York City Art Commission. During a prolific career, Meière devoted considerable time to her religious commissions. The ninety objects in the exhibition—hand-painted altarpieces, sample mosaics, studies and models, as well as photographs documenting her work in situ—show that it is possible for an artist to be both innovatively modern and deeply spiritual.
For centuries, much of the finest art in the Western world was created for churches, from Giotto’s frescoes in the Arena Chapel, Padua, and Santa Croce, Florence, to Caravaggio’s three scenes from the life of Saint Matthew in Rome’s San Luigi dei Francesi. But before fresco and oil painting, well into the thirteenth century, the dominant form of decoration was mosaic—durable, luminous and beautifully suited to architectural elements such as domes and arches. Figures were generally stylized, making them easier to read from a distance, and the color and shine of the tesserae were exhilarating. Splendid, unfaded mosaics are still visible in churches in Rome, Venice, Sicily and Ravenna, where Meière fell in love with the medium. To see Meière’s mosaic work at its best, a visit to St. Bartholomew’s Church, on Park Avenue, from 50th to 51st Street, is recommended. The 1919 church, designed by Bertram Goodhue, with a Romanesque portico by Stanford White and figures by Daniel Chester French, is a triumph of the collaborative arts. Meière contributed mosaics to the narthex and apse that tell the story of the Creation and the Transfiguration.
The MOBIA exhibition includes sample mosaics from the St. Bartholomew’s decorative program, giving the visitor an opportunity to study Meière’s work at close range. St. Peter (1928), for the Transfiguration, is composed of colored glass and gold-leafed tesserae, and her skill with this difficult medium is striking. The figure of the saint is shaded enough to indicate physical volume but flat enough to articulate a well-defined silhouette against the gold, atemporal backdrop. The tesserae are not laid flat but embedded at various angles: the uneven surfaces catch the light, and she uses multiple shades of gold. These same techniques gave the earlier mosaics their vitality, and Meière’s work represents a genuine revival. Mosaics did not completely disappear after the thirteenth century, but there was a great deal of pedestrian work, with tiles set flat and blandly uniform surfaces. Part of Meière’s commission at St. Bartholomew’s consisted of inset panels, for the lower part of the apse, depicting animal symbols for Christ. The MOBIA exhibition features one of the most attractive designs, Pelican (1929). In medieval bestiaries, the pelican was renowned for self-sacrifice, since she was believed to feed her chicks with her own blood, a clear iconographic association with Christ. Meière’s design takes advantage of the narrow (50-by-20 inches) format of the panel, with the pelican’s wings rising in symmetrical curves to shape the celtic cross, at the top, and a stylized flower cradling the nest of chicks, at the bottom. The composition is as bold as the detail is refined.
Meière continued accepting liturgical commissions for the rest of her career. A set of full-scale cartoons for a mosaic at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis, St. Louis, Missouri, dated 1957, Drinking Deer shows the animals beside a stylized-ribbon stream with leaping fish. Both the iconography—referring to edenic beasts enjoying the waters of paradise—and the picture-book clarity of the scene bring to mind the pantheistic spirituality of the twelfth-century apse mosaic at San Clemente in Rome. During World War II, Meière painted a series of portable altarpieces for Christian and Jewish chaplains to use in services. The paintings, in oil on wood with guilded gesso, deploy stylized figures against solid color backgrounds, and are often tailored to specific military units. Triptych no. 146 for the Armed Services (1944) bears the legend “Our God Shall Fight for Us” and was designed for use by the U.S. Naval Construction Battalions (Seabees). Appropriately, the center panel depicts the young Jesus in a visual-shorthand version of Joseph’s carpentry shop. Sometimes, liturgical art serves a primarily pragmatic function, and these paintings fit that category. Well-thought-out and gracefully executed, they were designed to bring a comforting spiritual message to the troops in an aesthetically clean, but not antiseptic, form. Still, for most visitors to the exhibition, the best reason to reevaluate Meière’s work lies in the mosaics, a tradition revitalized by her skill and vision. “Walls Speak: The Narrative Art of Hildreth Meiére” was organized by the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts at St. Bonaventure University and curated by Catherine Coleman Brawer. It is on view February 3–May 20, 2012, at the Museum of Biblical Art, 1865 Broadway, New York, New York 10023. On the web at www.mobia.org