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‘I hope somebody can tell me what these are’: New Bedford homeowner finds images behind wallpaper.
NEW BEDFORD — When Amber Autry was moving into the house she just recently purchased in the South End, she found something inside that was totally unexpected — even a little spooky.
As her sister Katie started to remove the old flowered-pattern wallpaper on a living room wall, something mysterious began to appear.
“We scraped faster,” Autry said when they realized some sort of religious murals were emerging.
The walls revealed colorful full-size paintings of four figures — three images on one wall and a single image on another.
The first image shows an angel dressed in a red top, a long blue skirt and wearing sandals. She has dark hair and yellow wings. She holds a dark-colored orb and has the word FATE written twice above her head.
The second image depicts the crucifixion of Jesus Christ with the two thieves who were also crucified on Mount Calvary, according to the Bible. There is an angel at the top of the cross, holding flowers and an undetermined object.
The third image is another angel — this one dressed in brown and blue, with light blue wings. The name Saint Teresa is written above. The angel is also holding a dark-colored orb.
The fourth image appears on another wall. It looks to be a recreation of Joan of Arc, Autry surmises. The figure is dressed in brown and blue with a belt and belt buckle. One fist is raised above her head, while the other appears to be holding a sword with a cross on the grip.
“We’ve been looking for clues and found ‘2/47’ written in pencil,” Autry said. There’s no artist name and she’s not sure if the 2/47 represents a date when the murals were done.
The house was built in 1917, according to property records.
Art historians weigh in on the murals
Jay Zysk is assistant professor English and communication at UMass Dartmouth whose field of study also includes medieval art. He said the murals are a “fascinating set of images.” While he was not able to specifically say why the paintings are on the walls of the home, he speculated that the room might have been a private devotional space.
“There is something of an altar scene with the crucifixion in the middle,” and two other images on either side, which he said is representative of Catholic beliefs.
In looking at the images, Anna Dempsey, professor of art education, art history and media studies at UMass Dartmouth, said the paintings seem reminiscent of art nouveau, which was quite a popular art form at the turn of the century.
Dempsey noted the artist who painted the images “doesn’t seem to be a person with training” and was probably trying to recreate images they saw in books or in church.
The representation of what is believed to possibly be Joan of Arc, Dempsey said is quite plausible since Joan of Arc was quite popular in culture and church traditions.
While Joan of Arc is traditionally displayed in art wearing a suit of armor, the one painted on the wall in Autry’s home is dressed in more modern attire.
While these exact images may not be found in local churches, Dempsey said it was not uncommon for people to replicated scenes they may have seen in books or in a church’s stained-glass windows. And if they are indeed relying on memory it becomes like the game of telephone tag and by the end of the line the message is different from the original.
A Catholic priest offers his views
“I’m going to agree with the assumption that these are amateur works, and so the painter made their own additions or interpretations,” said Rev. Thomas Washburn, rector at Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption in Fall River. He is also the pastor at Good Shepherd Parish and St. Stanislaus Church.
Washburn noticed that of the four figures painted on the walls, three are female.
“What I keep wondering is if this might not be connected to women’s suffrage of the last century,” Washburn speculated. “I know there was a strong movement in New Bedford and each of the images are a then-contemporary interpretation of powerful women. There’s certainly no stronger example of a powerful, holy woman than Joan of Arc, and Teresa of Avila was known as a reformer. She holds the distinction of being the first woman to be named a ‘doctor of the church.’”
It’s weird because it doesn’t feel Catholic or Portuguese. ~ Suzanne Roberts, master’s degree in library science.
“My first impression is that this is an amateur, not someone who has studied art and painting but who is talented enough to get the proportions mostly right,” said Suzanne Roberts, who holds a master’s degree in library science and whose family is from the Azores.
“The painter used the ‘rule of 8’ meaning the head fits into the body 8 times which is used by artists especially when painting someone of nobility or a religious figure,” Roberts noted.
“The FATE [image] is really throwing me for a loop. It could be a mistranslation for destiny but neither is really used in Christian Iconography,” she said. “It’s weird because it doesn’t feel Catholic or Portuguese.”
Owners of the property going back to 1913
A visit to the Bristol County Registry of Deeds shows that Manuel Enos Correira, who owned the property in 1913, sold it for $1 to Franciso de Resendes in July 1917. Then three months later, de Resendes sold it to John C. Motta for $1.
Turns out, Motta is the grandfather of Arthur Motta Jr. of the New Bedford school department. It appears the Mottas did not live in the house, because their homestead was on Vernon Street, and city directories over the years list various tenants as living in the mural house.
And if the Mottas rented out the house, Arthur Motta Jr. said his grandparents never would have allowed the murals to be painted on the walls.
“They were devout Roman Catholics, especially dedicated to venerating Espiritu Santo, the Holy Spirit, as most Azorean immigrants did and still do,” Motta said. “My grandfather was one of the founding members of the Charity Brotherhood of the Holy Ghost. He built their hall next door to his house and purchased a silver crown from Lisbon.”
In looking at one of the images Motta said, “Note how that mural has nothing to do with the Holy Spirit — no dove iconography. That mural looks to me to have been done much later, perhaps in the ‘60s or ‘70s.
John C. Motta died in 1942, and his wife, Claudina, sold the house in 1954 to Jose and Mary V. Cordeiro (who had 14 children). The Cordeiros, according to city directories, had been living in the house since at least 1936.
The Standard-Times was able to find a granddaughter, Carol Cordeiro, who responded in an email that “There are only two family members left and none of us know anything about it,” she said regarding the murals.
A daughter may hold the key
Autry purchased the home from Borge’s daughter, Elizabeth DaSilva.
Autry said she learned from DaSilva that the murals were already on the walls in 1979 when her family moved in. DaSilva also remembered even more murals painted on the walls going up the staircase. It was her family that wallpapered over the images.
Regarding the murals on the wall along the staircase, Autry said those are covered with “wallpaper, then paint, then more wallpaper. We only saw little bits of green, but it would have taken us forever to get it off to see if those murals were under there.”
What will happen to the murals?
While Autry takes the presence of the murals in good stride, even joking that maybe they mysteriously just appeared, she said her older daughter — a middle schooler — is spooked by them.
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