By Amy Gansell, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Art History, Department of Art and Design, St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
When a student asked, “Do you feel that there is a spiritual significance to your discovery?”
Thomas Ruggio, M.F.A., Director and Associate Professor of Visual Arts at Iona University, admitted to the audience during his September 29 lecture at St. John’s University that he did not have a good answer. He was referring to the circumstance of his discovery of a “lost” Italian Baroque masterpiece by Cesare Dandini titled Holy Family with the Infant St. John.
Since the 1960s, international scholars and museum curators had lost track of the painting’s whereabouts. However, it was hanging on prominent display in the Church of the Holy Family in New Rochelle, NY.
It was here, in January of 2020, that Prof. Ruggio spotted it as he sat in a pew reflecting on his day. His discovery made national headlines, but the underlying story that he shared during his campus presentation resonated more locally and personally.
Teresa Delgado, Ph.D., Dean and Professor, Department of Theology and Religious Studies, St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, shared during her opening remarks that she is a longtime parishioner of the Church of the Holy Family. For nearly 30 years, she has witnessed the painting as a “beautiful piece of artistic expression,” not knowing or questioning it further. Dr. Delgado sees Prof. Ruggio’s discovery as a lesson on how much “we miss, or perhaps even disregard, when we don’t have diverse perspectives.”
In fact, Prof. Ruggio had overlooked the painting on previous visits to the church. But, his expertise as an artist, art historian, and curator prepared him to recognize the masterpiece. On that particular day, when the lights of the church were turned on brighter, he was in the right place at the right time to finally realize he was looking at something extraordinary—something that turned out to be Mr. Dandini’s missing artwork!
The timing of his discovery in winter of 2020 is striking. As Prof. Ruggio’s investigation proceeded, the COVID-19 pandemic raged across the world, spreading sickness, death, and economic shutdown.
According to Prof. Ruggio, Mr. Dandini created the Holy Family in a context of similar calamity: in Florence, Italy, in the 1630s, as a wave of Black Death swept through the city. He might have included St. John, the patron saint of Florence, in the scene in hopes of garnering protection for the residents of Florence.
In lifelike detail, the Holy Family painting illuminates Joseph, alongside Mary, who holds the infant Jesus, while the baby St. John the Baptist toddles toward them. Artistic details help us understand its holy meaning. The Virgin gazes earnestly upward. She is looking toward God, who is not depicted, but whom, in faith, she seeks as she grapples with the unknown future of her newborn son.
Content in his mother’s lap, Jesus holds a little goldfinch. The bird alludes to the future. It a symbol of the soul, crucifixion, and resurrection—a reminder of God’s promise of life everlasting. The presence of John the Baptist evokes not only the Christian rite of baptism but, more generally, rebirth and new beginnings. In the age of the plague, this painting would have offered much-needed hope, as it would have hung behind an altar where desperate Florentines prayed.
“Today, nearly 400 years later, as we emerge from the darkness of our modern pandemic, we can compare the losses and resilience of our University community to that of the city of Florence,” said Dr. Delgado. “We were both founded under the patronage of St. John, and we both, thanks to Prof. Ruggio, have now seen Mr. Dandini’s profound masterpiece.”
Following the lecture, as students poured out of the D’Angelo Center to join a reception on the lawn adjacent to Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall, they, too, seemed renewed. Art History minor Alexa Mangione remarked, “I can’t believe Prof. Ruggio came to St. John’s. It’s as if we have been waiting to hear this story.”
To view a recording of the lecture, visit https://vimeo.com/740499932.