<em>Adoration of the Magi</em> by Master of the Legend of St. Lucy

Desiring the Epiphany of the Magi

An interview with art historian, Cecelia Dorger.
Hannah Keegan

Cecelia Dorger and I sat down together at the Cincinnati Art Museum two months after my first encounter with her in the same space, in which she presented a public lecture on sacred art. At her lecture, I met someone whose life – from her marriage to her teaching and professional work – is lived in a wonderful harmony. In addition to being a wife and mother, Ceil is an art historian and has been working with her son on a two-part video series sharing the art that can be discovered in the Ohio river valley. The Cincinnati Art Museum has a substantial sacred art collection, and Ceil’s bright eyes and insight help one discover the richness in each piece. In his address to artists, Pope Francis, quoting Guardini, says, “The situation of the artist is not unlike that of a child and even that of a visionary. A work of art opens a space into which we can step, in which we can breathe, move about and encounter objects and persons as they open up before us.” Struck by her presentation on sacred art and her person, I asked her to share with us her journey of falling in love with sacred art, and to help open up for us the Adoration of the Magi by Master of the Legend of St. Lucy (title of an unidentified painter from Bruges) in light of Epiphany Sunday.


Why did you begin studying art?

I loved art growing up, but when I went to University of Dayton for college, I felt my limits as a producer of art. So, instead of creating, I studied art education and then taught art in high school. But when I was sharing information with my high school students about the art history program at the University of Cincinnati, I thought, “I would like to study that.” That pushed me to go back to school for a masters in art history and I loved it. I taught for a while at Mount St. Joseph’s University in Cincinnati, OH with a masters and had the desire to go back for my Ph.D., but I was already married and raising children.

Now you have your PhD. What was it like going back to school as a mom with children?

When I decided to go back to study, my youngest was a junior in high school and my daughter was in college. I felt that they were grown and I was facing the question of how I would spend my time once they were both out of the house. Going back to school as an adult, I found that my focus had already been honed and that I had a little more courage. For example, I was initially discouraged from studying the Virgin Mary in art because I was told that sticking with a non-Western subject would make me “more marketable,” but I knew I wanted to focus on Mary.


I love images of Mary and I had begun growing close to the Virgin Mary. My father had a great devotion to Mary and I watched that throughout my life and wondered: how do you get that? I remember one of the last times he and I spoke before he died, I asked him: “Dad, how did you get that devotion to Mary?” And he said, “Oh, honey, I just can’t wait to meet her.” As if he had this internet relationship with her and just hadn’t met her yet! He didn’t answer in an explicit way, but I understood that it was something deep and true for him.

How did the devotion to Mary happen for you?

I asked her. I said, “I want to be closer to you.” Certainly studying the words written about the images of her deepened my knowledge about her, and I read all of the scripture discussing her. But ultimately it happened like falling in love. It happened slowly and then deeply, and now I am just crazy about her.

The images of the nursing Madonna were the subject of your dissertation. Why was that?

Before I left to get my PhD, I was teaching a class at the university with somebody from the Religious Studies Department called “Jesus Through the Ages”, and in the text was an image of Mary nursing. I wasn’t familiar with that image, but I nursed my kids and I loved it, and seeing Mary nursing Jesus really moved me. In my experience of nursing, I found it to be not just a beautiful way to feed my children, but a rather mystical thing. Only God could create this activity where you're nurturing and nourishing at the same time.

What does the image of Jesus nursing reveal to us about who He is?

St. Francis of Assisi focused on the humanity of Jesus, giving us the first nativity scene. I think we take this for granted – we just had Christmas and there's a nativity scene – but the older I get the more I am in awe of what really happened in the Incarnation. That God deigned to become a human in the most modest circumstances, born in a stable. It almost seems trite to say it, we say it so often, but it is true! And in God becoming man, he chose to do so through a woman – a human person – who had the task of nourishing the savior. She fed him with her own human body. St. Francis highlighted this in his writings because for him the experience of Mary nursing Jesus revealed the helplessness and dependence of this infant king. In Europe there are many altarpieces depicting a nursing Madonna, and it amazes me that this is what people saw as the backdrop when the priest elevated the host, and what the priest looked at when he consecrated the body of Christ. I think it shows us that the idea of feeding with one’s body is deeply theological and beautiful. In the Church, art has always been used to deepen devotion and to enliven our imaginations about the saints and what is contained in scripture.

What was your experience of teaching sacred art to students?

Some were not naturally interested, but others were. One great compliment I received from a former student is when he said to my husband, “She taught me a new way to see.” I remember one Lent I told my sacred art students that we would meet at Mass on campus, which was during our class, and then review the art in the chapel afterwards. It was a small class of about seven students, and I told them I would not force them to go to Mass, but that they would be responsible for the material that we would cover after Mass. When I got to Mass that day, I saw that only two students had shown up. I was so sad. I felt that I had said something wrong or that I should have required it. But God is so good. One student was not Catholic and she said, “This chapel brings me to tears. On orientation night, I was bawling in here, and I couldn’t wait to come again. Thank you for inviting us.” The other student told me he had gotten out of the habit of going to Mass, but wanted to begin again. So, I thought, those were the two students that needed to be there.

Is modern art able to communicate the sacred?

I think in any field there is the need to learn and grow. That's also true in the field of art and art history. We certainly would become bored if in the year 2024 we were still painting like Fra Angelico. When I look at some modern sacred art and I am in a really receptive place, it's quite beautiful because it doesn't lead you by the hand as the Renaissance and Medieval pieces do. It takes a more contemplative and open reception of what's going on there. I love that revelation. I think it is also possible to discover the sacred in modern art that isn’t intentionally trying to depict anything religious. One of my heroes is world-famous Sister Wendy. She was a contemplative nun who studied art history and died in 2018. She talks about Rothko as one of the most spiritual artists, and the Cincinnati Art Museum has a Rothko. After I read her comment about Rothko, I went and sat in front of it for half an hour, but then I got up to leave and thought, “I don’t get it.” So maybe I need a whole hour! Sister Wendy prayed many hours a day, so I think the fault is mine. She was able to find God in everything, which I think is really the point: to find God in the bad news, to find God’s presence in the person that bugs you, to find God in the sunset and the graciousness of others.

In the way you talk about art, it seems that loving sacred art helps you encounter and enjoy other art genres. What provokes that openness?

We are made in God's image and likeness, and he is the creator and lover of creation. He loves us because he created us. And so, if we find ourselves loving things that were created, I think that's an intersection with our likeness to God – even if it's not an image of Mary and Jesus, Saint Joseph, etc. One of my favorite pieces of all time is the Burghers of Calais by Rodin. The story behind it is that six citizens give themselves up in order for King Edward to lift a siege on Calais during the Hundred Years War. They made a deal that they would give their lives up for the rest of the city siege to be lifted. That is Christological.

In light of Epiphany Sunday, could you help me see more in the Cincinnati Art Museum’s piece Adoration of the Magi?

That is a great idea. In this painting the artist is reveling in his ability to paint texture and fabric. You notice the beautiful golden edges on the tunic of the king and the jewels in their crowns and headpieces, their soft leather boots that puddle at the ankle, and this little trimmed crown. In the foreground, the figures are largest, in the middle ground, they're smaller, and in the background, the details are still seen, but they're tiny. That's a way of articulating perspective, and it may seem obvious to us, but at the time it was a new invention. The color in the background – this blue-green color – is called atmospheric perspective, so we have vivid colors closest to us, but the colors become less vivid as you look further back. You also notice that the city in the background is not Bethlehem but architecture typical of northern Europe. It is typical of the Magi story that multiple races are depicted, indicating the far flung regions from which they came. I think that it helps us meditate on how the story of the birth of Jesus Christ as our savior and king reaches all over the world.

The visit of the Magi is exclusively in Matthew’s Gospel, while the message of the shepherds adoring Jesus after an angel appeared is in the Gospel of Luke. Those shepherds were the night watch – the lowest of the low in society. They smelled like the sheep they tended, yet an angel of God appeared to them, and they went running to the stable. Christ meets the lowest echelon in society. And then in Matthew’s Gospel, we read of the highest, most well-respected men that are attracted to the news of a messiah. We see them here lined up to greet him. What does that mean for us? Well, we are probably somewhere in the middle, between the lowest and the highest, and aren’t we also attracted to the news of a messiah? I don’t want to take that good news for granted, not for a minute. I want to rush to the stable and really contemplate this great event. I want to have that epiphany – the revelation that makes you want to adore a God that loves you so much. And after they have that encounter with the baby king, they were spoken to in a dream to return to their homes in a different way to avoid Herod. After we encounter Christ, don’t we always take a new path?

You can pre-order Ceil’s forthcoming book, Universal Mother – A Journal for Finding Yourself in Mary from Amazon or Barnes and Noble. It features twenty Marian paintings by Holly Schapker, showing Mary in diverse times and settings. The paintings are accompanied by Ceil’s personal reflections and questions to help readers delve into their own experiences and reactions to the art and the theme of each painting.