Fairfield’s New Museum of Fine Art

by Alistair Highet

The 13th-century beech wood carving of Virgin and Child that sits against the wall in the new Meditz Gallery shows the stresses of the years, but the figures remain remarkably fresh in their simplicity – the faces of both mother and child gaze through the viewer toward a distant horizon, serene and assured in their role in the grand scheme of things, drawing the viewer into a powerfully intimate contact with the religious sensibility of the Medieval world.

This work is one of 20 objects from the early Christian, Romanesque, and Celtic periods loaned to Fairfield University by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s (MMA) Department of Medieval Art and the Cloisters, and it joins a host of other work – including 10 Renaissance and Baroque paintings and eight plaster casts from the Acropolis Museum in Athens – as the highlights of the collection in Fairfield University’s Bellarmine Museum of Art, which formally opened its doors to the public on Oct. 25.

Benedetto da Maiano (Italian, 1442-1497), Madonna and Child, ca. 1495, plaster cast from original marble shrine of San Bartola, Church of Saint Augustine, San Gimignano (Gift of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009).

With the opening of the museum, Fairfield now has a home for its permanent collection of art, which had hitherto been spread about the University. It includes a collection of plaster casts from the Classical world on loan or gifted to the University by the MMA, a small collection of Asian, African, and pre-Columbian artifacts, and the Samuel H. Kress collection of Italian paintings, which were given to the University in 2002 by The Discovery Museum in Bridgeport. The paintings include a “Madonna and Child” attributed to Pietro degli Ingannati (c.1530s), two striking egg-gilded tempera panels, “St. Anthony Abbot” and “St. Andrew,” attributed to a follower of Pietro Lorenzetti (1280-1348), and the dramatic and sweeping “Andromeda on the Rocks” by Paolo de Metteis (1662-1728).

In creating the museum space, Centerbrook Architects of Centerbook, Conn., managed to transform what had been a storage space in the lower level of Bellarmine Hall into a remarkably elegant, thoughtfully scaled exhibition and teaching space. The main exhibition space, the Frank and Clara Meditz Gallery, is entered through a door and down a small flight of stairs. The original concrete support arches of the building have been used to create an adjacent gallery where highlights from the plaster casts are exhibited. The result is a space that is intriguing to the eye, and designed for meditative reflection.

Along the central corridor of the museum are seven of the eight casts that have been recently donated to Fairfield by the Acropolis Museum. An exhibition featuring these casts, Gifts from Athens: New Plaster Casts from the Acropolis Museum and Photographs by Socratis Mavrommatis, opened on Nov. 2 and continues through Dec. 17.

The total cost of building the museum was $3.2 million of which $500,00 still remains to be raised. The lead donor was alumnus John Meditz ’70, a University trustee and Vice Chairman of Horizon Asset Management Inc. of New York, who gave $2.5 million to launch the project. Other donors have included The Samuel H. Kress Foundation, and the Charles and Mabel P. Jost Foundation, among others. In April 2009, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded the University a prestigious $500,000 challenge grant to endow the Museum. Under the terms of the grant, the University must raise $2 million by 2013 in order to receive all of the NEH funding. Half of that sum has been raised to date. Once in place, the endowment will help to ensure that the museum continues to grow and achieves its goal of serving as a teaching tool for the University community, as well as for elementary and secondary schools in greater Fairfield county, and as a cultural resource for the tri-state area.

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