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Durham University

Centre for Catholic Studies


Heritage in Focus: Franz von Rohden’s Crucifixion at Ushaw College

(28 January 2014)


1st February 2014 to 28th February 2014

World Heritage Visitor Site Centre, 7 Owengate, Durham DH1 3HB

Opening Hours: 9:30-16:30 (every day) – Free Admission


This exhibition focuses on a rare and largely neglected masterpiece by the Nazarene artist Franz von Rohden (1817-1903) currently preserved at Ushaw College. The painting, which depicts the Crucifixion of Our Lord with the Virgin Mary, St John and Mary Magdalene (1854), exemplifies the artistic creed of the Nazarene school of painting, founded in Rome by a group of dissident German artists in the early nineteenth century and characterised by the radical recourse to the pictorial repertoire of Italian pre-modern masters. While still relatively unknown in England today, the Nazarene movement exerted a tremendous influence on European Romanticism, the Gothic Revival and the British Pre-Raphaelites. The exhibition is organized by Dr Stefano Cracolici (MLaC) under the aegis of the Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, the Centre of Visual Arts and Cultures, the Institute of Advanced Studies and the Centre for Catholic Studies.

Ushaw College presently preserves the largest and most revealing collection of Nazarene art in the country, and, in particular, the largest collection of Rohden’s paintings in the world. Strongly connected to the ‘Rome in the World Project’, led by Dr Cracolici (CVAC) and sponsored by the Leverhulme Trust, the exhibition illustrates the CCS’ commitment to promote and illustrate the treasures of Ushaw College, by highlighting their artistic and devotional significance. Mgr. Charles Newsham (1791-1863), president of Ushaw College, commissioned this artwork for his personal devotion in 1850. He later presented it to the St Aloysius Chapel, in Ushaw’s Junior College, where it hung until the 1970s as the culmination piece of Alexander Rossi’s (1840-1916) Stations of the Cross.

The painting has never left Ushaw College and is here exhibited to the wider public for the first time. While still in progress in Rohden’s Roman atelier, this exquisite painting had already become a sensation. Its first admirers called it ‘a miracle of art and a most devotion-inspiring picture’ and elected it as ‘the finest picture of the subject that ever was painted’. The recourse to Nazarene art was suggested to Newsham by Ushaw’s most illustrious alumnus, Cardinal Nicholas Patrick Wiseman (1802-1865). The need to go to Rome, for the acquisition of artistic objects to adorn the college, coincided with the need to turn to the Holy See for the acquisition of sacred objects charged with a particular devotional energy. Nazarene artists, such as Rohden, suitably fulfilled this need. 

Contemporary art critics praised Rohden’s art for his special use of light and colours. During the time of the exhibition, the World Heritage Visitor Site Centre will transform itself into a laboratory – Dr Cracolici and Prof Beeby (Chemistry) will conduct a pilot spectrographic analysis of the painting’s colours, through a non-invasive technique already adopted to study the ink of Durham Cathedral’s manuscripts. This would allow the Durham team to verify whether Rohden used pigments common in the pre-modern period. If confirmed, this would suggest that not only Rohden was inspired by pre-modern models stylistically, but that he also tried to revive the pictorial techniques of the great old masters, opening new and exciting vistas on current Nazarene research. After the exhibition Rohden’s painting, currently preserved in the Ushaw storage, will be put on display in one of the College’s rooms.

Contact for more information about this event.