“The Nativity,” a 600-year-old wood painting in Sacred Heart Church, Trenton, was featured in the video
“Hidden in Plain Sight” recorded by Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., for a new series curated by the USCCB.  Frank Lettieri Jr. photos
“The Nativity,” a 600-year-old wood painting in Sacred Heart Church, Trenton, was featured in the video “Hidden in Plain Sight” recorded by Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., for a new series curated by the USCCB. Frank Lettieri Jr. photos

Having long rested quietly atop Mary’s altar in the beautiful and iconic Sacred Heart Church, Trenton, a 600-year-old work of art is getting new attention as part of a national video series on the healing power of beauty.

Rich in color and texture, “The Nativity” was painted on wood by Italian artist Gentile da Fabriano, portraying the graceful figure of Mary at the birth of Christ.

The painting is the subject of a video titled “Hidden in Plain Sight,” which is narrated by Bishop David M. O’Connell, C. M., for the series curated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. 

The series’ title, “Beauty Heals,” was inspired by Pope Francis who uttered the words while touring Palazzo Miglori, a 19th century palace which he ordered repurposed into a homeless shelter last year.

“Beauty Heals,” features short videos in which bishops tell the stories of meaningful works of art in their dioceses.  In an introduction to the series, the creators explain that the initiative is a response to a reported uptick in incidents of vandalism against houses of worship and symbols of faith: “The recent vandalism of churches and their sacred art gives us the opportunity to bear witness to our hope in the Lord whose beauty is revealed on the Cross. ‘Beauty Heals’ invites us to learn about works of devotional art significant to local churches and how they inspire Catholics to live beautifully.”

Bishop O’Connell was among the first bishops to respond to an invitation from Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami, who serves as acting chairman of the USCCB Committee for Religious Liberty, to submit a video sharing the significance of a sacred work of art, through which, wrote Archbishop Wenski, “we can testify to God’s grace, overcome ignorance of our great saints and other aspects of our faith, and – indirectly – defend our Church.”

The insight of Archbishop Wenski and Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, served to guide the project according to Dan Balserak, USCCB Director of Religious Liberty and Assistant General Counsel. He stated, “Whatever the cause of these attacks on our churches and their sacred art, they are a sign of a society in need of healing. Of course, healing the wounds of sin and bringing us closer to God and to each other is in a sense what all of the Church’s work is about. This initiative is a tiny contribution to that work.”

In the video segment produced locally by the diocesan Department of Multimedia Production, Bishop O’Connell explains that “The Nativity,” dating back to 1420, has been “hidden in plain sight” in Sacred Heart Church, which celebrated its own bicentennial in 2014. 

Beautiful in its Romanesque Revival style, the church is “a gem in the middle of the city, a beautiful edifice which remains in exceptional condition. The faithful who worship or visit, and who don’t often realize they, themselves, are the sacred art of the church, are often surprised by the beautiful art and architecture inside,” said Father Dennis A. Apoldite, pastor.

 “Throughout the history of the Church, art, architecture and music have always lifted the soul of Christians to God,” says Bishop O’Connell in the video. He expressed appreciation for the opportunity to share this special work of art and invited the faithful to “take an opportunity to go visit your churches or cathedrals and look for the precious works of art that are there … and let them lift your soul to God.”

Balserak stressed, “Our hope is to help people, both our faithful and the general public, to understand how the beauty of sacred art can inspire us to live beautiful lives. There is so much to learn from the lives of the people represented in Catholic art, and from the stories behind the pieces. So perhaps this initiative can bring some Catholics to look at the art in their local churches with renewed curiosity and contemplation, and can help some people outside the Church to understand the value this art has – not just for Catholics, but for everybody.

“We were very pleased to receive a number of prompt responses to our request for entries to the series, and expect to publish more videos in the near future. There is a tremendous need right now for cultural engagement on how the Church’s message can lift our society up. And in a way, when we look at these pieces of art, we are looking upwards.”

Additional videos in the current series include “Sacred Art Inspires Us On Our Journey,”  featuring Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller, Archdiocese of San Antonio; “Art Tells A Story,” from Bishop Felipe J. Estévez, Diocese of St. Augustine, Florida; “Our Lady of Elige,” from Bishop A. Elias Zaidan, Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon of Los Angeles, and “How Beauty Leads to Charity,” narrated by Bishop Barry C. Knestout, Diocese of Richmond.

You can view “Hidden in Plain Sight” and learn more about Sacred Heart Church in Trenton at TrentonMonitor.com.  To watch the entire “Beauty Heals” series, visit usccb.org/beautyheals. The initiative uses #BeautyHeals on social media.