When I visited Baltimore for the first time, it was early March and the streets were still covered in winter ice. The pavement, city buildings, and sky blended together as one gray mass, and I was struggling to make my way around. I had never really encountered cold weather like that before. Being from Texas, winters for me were more like momentary pauses between the hot and humid seasons. In the unfamiliar terrain, I navigated the frozen sidewalk in my sneakers with much determination. But soon my attention shifted from my slipping feet towards a figure looking down at me.

I had reached the entrance of an all white church. In its pediment stood a gloriously sculpted angel. Rays burst from its feathered wings, and the clouds parted in its wake. The holy messenger elegantly grasped a scroll with brassy Greek letters and looked down from its seat in the sky. The drama of the scene was only accentuated by the particularly dreary day. The warmth of the sculpted terra cotta contrasted with the weather I had found myself in. It also stood in conflict with my own expectations of what I normally expected to see sitting in pediments. Instead of being made from traditional marble or stone, this sculpture was formed from clay: a material classically reserved for use in the planning and sketching phase of a sculpture.

While an unconventional material for a final piece of sculpture, I have come to appreciate its connection to the fiery red brick that lines the facades of rowhouses in Baltimore. It seems to be the material that binds the city together, both decoratively and architecturally.

A block of Baltimore rowhouses in the Reservoir Hill neighborhood.

However, this unconventional use of terra cotta has not been without trouble. Cindy Kelly in her book Outdoor Sculpture in Baltimore recounts the rapid demise of the original. 

By 1900 Cappellano’s terra-cotta relief had begun to decay. It was suggested that the original tiles might not have been fired at the proper temperature, that the firing might have been at too high of a temperature, or that there might have been too many impurities in the original clay. By 1954 the falling terra cotta pieces so worried the congregation that they decided to take down what was left of the original pediment design and store it in the church basement until it could be restored.

As you can see in the photograph below, just 40 years after installation, the sculpture had already begun to heavily erode. One particular challenge to the restoration effort were the hands. Henry Berge (a 1929 graduate of the Rinehart School of Sculpture under J. Maxwell Miller) had to scour over news clippings and archives just to find a decent photograph of the hands to see how Capellano originally modeled them.

Glass negative from cir. 1865 depicting the façade of the church with the original deteriorating terra cotta relief by Antonio Capellano. (photograph: Frank Cousins / Phillips Library at Peabody Essex Museum)
Detail of the photograph.

While Berge’s reproduction is still standing strong, there are some tiles that have fallen from the base from which the angel stands. But considering its rocky history, we should be glad nothing more is missing. Perhaps in the future, another Rinehart graduate will take on the task of repairing the broken pieces, preserving it for the next hundred years.

View of the church at sunset from a recent trip downtown.
Angel of Truth, Antonio Capellano (restoration sculptor: Henry Berge). Terracotta, 1818; restored 1959. First Unitarian Church, Baltimore.

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