SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Answer Man: For many years the dining area at Mercy (St. John’s) Hospital was graced by a large painting of “The Last Supper” that I believe was painted by one of the sisters. During recent construction at the hospital the painting has disappeared. Can you tell us where it’s gone? — Don Butcher of Springfield
It’s in storage at the hospital, Don.
The Mercy painting is one of countless variations of the classic mural created 1495-1498 on a monastery wall in Milan, Italy, by Leonardo da Vinci.
This local painting, oddly enough, might be unique.
A short story on the painting and the nun who painted it, Sister Mary Agnes, appeared in the September 1971 issue of The Link, the St. John’s Hospital employee newsletter.
(In 2012, “St. John’s Hospital” was renamed “Mercy Hospital Springfield.”)
The newsletter story states that Sister Mary Agnes chided a newspaper photographer not to include what’s on the table for dinner in his photos. She was still working on the painting and she initially painted fish as the main course on the table.
(Most experts on the original say there is a dispute whether the fish on the table is herring or eel since each carries its own symbolic meaning.)
The newsletter story says: “After researching the background of the last supper, she had decided to make the fish into lamb.”
Nun becomes artist-in-residence
Sister Mary Agnes was born in 1900 and died in October 1992. She is buried in St. Louis.
She was a laboratory supervisor at Mercy 1933-1961 and then was artist-in-residence at the hospital until 1974. She had a studio on the first floor of the hospital.
She finished her version of “The Last Supper” in 1971.
Her painting came down soon after construction commenced on Mercy’s new heart hospital in August 2016, says Sonya Kullmann, Mercy spokeswoman.
The heart hospital should be finished in the fall of 2020. The price tag of $110 million includes the remodel and relocation of the cafeteria.
Once construction concludes, Kullmann says, the painting will be put back on display, but she’s not sure where.
“This painting is near and dear to many in Springfield, and we certainly plan to preserve it and find an appropriate place to display it,” Kullmann said via email. “It’s quite large and we need to find the right home for it.”
The mural is 8 feet high and 20 feet wide, according to a caption with a photo of the then work-in-progress. That photo ran in the July 2, 1971, edition of the News-Leader.
In the foreground is Sister Mary Agnes. Her last name was Mayer.
Here’s a tip for researchers of history that I discovered working this story: Don’t include the last name of a nun when searching archival sources like www.newspapers.com.
In print, I learned, nuns rarely have last names.
I found far more matches searching “Sister Mary Agnes” than for “Sister Mary Agnes Mayer.”
Sister Mary Agnes, of the order of Sisters of Mercy, was born in Springfield as Cecilia Gertrude Mayer and was 15 when she became a novitiate in the Convent of the Sisters of Mercy, then located in St. Louis.
Sister Mary Agnes went to St. Joseph’s School in Springfield, according to a Dec. 18, 1965 story in the Springfield Leader and Press, a predecessor of the News-Leader. The story marked her 50th anniversary as a nun.
Prior to working at Mercy Hospital, which opened on Cherokee Street in 1952, Sister Mary Agnes worked at the prior Mercy Hospital at 620 W. Scott St., on Springfield’s north side. It is now the site of the Franciscan Villa.
The 1965 story states that “as hospital artist she paints sacred statuary and does oil portraits of Biblical and ecclesiastical figures. Some are of Christ as a Babe and as the young preacher in Judea. The religious works are prepared for placing in Catholic hospitals or in churches.”
In 1966, Sister Mary Agnes’s oil painting of a young and smiling Madonna and Child — she had used a young student nurse as a model for Mary — was selected for the cover of the hospital’s annual Christmas card. It was used on a smaller scale than the painting.
Technically, original was a failure
In the brief time I had to research da Vinci’s original, I was surprised to discover that although the work is revered and one of the most famous works of art in the world, the technique used is considered a failure.
Unlike traditional frescoes, which Renaissance masters painted on wet plaster walls, da Vinci experimented with tempera paint on a dry, sealed plaster wall in the monastery.
The experiment proved unsuccessful because the paint did not adhere. The work began deteriorating almost from the moment it was finished.
Also, I might add, it did not help that the monastery was bombed during World War II.
In August 1943, Allied forces hit a number of Italian cities, including Milan.
A bomb landed a mere 80 feet from the mural. The roof caved in and most of the walls were blown away. Miraculously, the wall the mural was on was still standing.
Hoping to protect Leonardo’s work against just such an attack, officials had the foresight to guard it with sandbags and scaffolding.
Keep those questions coming. Send them to The Answer Man at 417-836-1253, firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @stevepokinNL or by mail to 651 Boonville Ave., Springfield, MO 65806.