By Bishop Glen John Provost
The painting of St. Agatha, which now graces the narthex of the Cathedral, began its journey to us several years ago when Mr. Ronald L. McGinley contacted me to donate the historic work to the Diocese of Lake Charles. The painting was part of the succession of Brent Wickliffe Fenet to her daughter, Brent Fenet McGinley, Mr. McGinley’s beloved wife. The painting is donated in memory of Mrs. McGinley and her mother and enjoyed a long history in the Wickliffe family.
Having been part of the estate of Mrs. McGinley’s grandparents, the Honorable Robert Wickliffe, United States Congressman, and his wife, Lydia C. Wickliffe, the painting could have been the personal property of Robert C. Wickliffe, Governor of Louisiana from 1856-1860. Whether the painting hung in the Governor’s St. Francisville plantation has yet to be confirmed. Regardless, it is my opinion that the painting could very well have been purchased in Europe on a grand tour, which was such common practice in the 19th Century.
Before the painting of this historic and important martyr of the early Church could be received, significant restoration was necessary. For this purpose, I recommended to Mr. McGinley the conservationists at John Canning and Company of Cheshire, Connecticut. This company entrusted the restoration to the noted Fine Arts Conservator, Gianfranco Pocobene of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Mr. Pocobene visited us in 2016 and commented on the historic importance of this work of art.
In his professional judgment and that of the Canning Company, the painting is by a yet-unidentified Italian artist of the late 17th or early 18th Century. It is oil on canvas. The restoration involved the removal of grime and yellowed varnish layers and some subsequent inferior restorations, as well as relining, repairs to cracking in the surface, and extensive efforts to stabilize the piece. In the restoration the antiquity of the fabric making up the canvas was confirmed, which helped in dating the painting. In summary, the painting over the centuries has undergone previous restoration and even re-painting.
Because of the circumstances surrounding her martyrdom, the Church considers St. Agatha the patroness of women with breast cancer. She is also a major patroness for Sicily. Since the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is inspired by a style of architecture found in the Romanesque churches of the Piedmont region of Italy, it is quite appropriate that the image of this martyr, whose intercession is so highly regarded by the people of Italy, should greet the visitors and worshippers who enter this sacred edifice. The painting joins other features of the Cathedral of Italian origin, such as the superb Carrara marble altars and historic railing and the hand-sculpted bas-reliefs above the doors.
In the future, I would hope to share with you more information on the artistic discoveries made during the extensive restoration that we were privileged to oversee.