- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 29, 2005

BALTIMORE— A simple knock on the wall led to the discovery of four 140-year-old paintings at the National Shrine of the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, America’s first cathedral.

Steve Riley, project architect, was credited with discovering the paintings of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They are painted about 60 feet high on the wall near the basilica’s main dome.

“We are lucky. What we have left to restore is in excellent condition,” said Mr. Riley, who made the discovery two months ago while performing a routine tapping check of the panels. “I was pretty excited that this was the way it is.”

The paintings, each approximately 11 feet wide by 8 feet high, were made public Wednesday. They date to 1865 and bear two pencil-written names, Philip Nengle and Hubert Schmidt, who are reported to be the artists.

The paintings probably were covered with wood during a redecoration in the 1870s. The early redecoration portrayed the four evangelists in a circulation fashion as opposed to the rectangular style of the recovered paintings, Mr. Riley said.

“The basilica went through at least 14 major redecoration campaigns, top to bottom” Mr. Riley said. “As a result there are many layers of history to be exposed.”

But he thinks the chances of finding more paintings are “pretty slim.”

There was some inclination that something could be behind the wall, he said, but no one knew what.

“A very simple way of determining what is hollow and what is solid is to knock on the wall,” said Mr. Riley, who described finding the edges of the murals so that they could be uncovered.

The paint is similar to pastels and could come off easily, he said.

“Whoever covered over them in the first place was very careful to do it in a way to protect those paintings,” he said.

The basilica, constructed in stages during the early years of the 19th century, was closed in November 2004 for restoration and is scheduled to reopen in November 2006.

The paintings will be covered with construction fabric while the restoration project continues. They will be retouched with matching paint and then framed.

“It’s tough to put a monetary value on the paintings,” said Mark Potter, executive director of the basilica. “They have a historic value that will be here for generations to enjoy.”

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