The forgotten history of the Michelangelo of Montreal and his masterpiece

Guido Nincheri’s artwork is everywhere, in sacred places all across Canada and parts of the U.S. His masterpiece is Saint-Léon-de-Westmount, a National Historic Site of Canada

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Lori Le Mare, a historical paintwork restoration artist in Hamilton, Ont., got a curious phone call this summer.

It was about a job to restore the murals and painted ceiling, stained by a century’s worth of incense smoke and deteriorating in parts, at Our Lady of the Assumption Parish in Windsor, Ont., right near the Ambassador Bridge.

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To begin, she would work on a canvas mural of Mary, in a side chapel, with arms outstretched and eyes heavenward, her head surrounded by a halo and stars. It was striking.

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“Do you know who painted this?” Le Mare asked the parishioners, and was surprised to hear they did not. The church had no records.

So she got on with the work of cleaning off soot, and matching and patching the bits that had flaked away, and in that process she saw a partly obscured signature in the foliage at Mary’s feet. It looked like “G Minche…” A counterpart painting of Jesus on the other side of the chapel showed the same signature, similarly obscure. A bit of Google sleuthing on who it might be turned up nothing.

A close-up view of the fresco painting on the ­ceiling of the sanctuary at St-Léon-de-Westmount church.
A close-up view of the fresco painting by artist Guido Nincheri on the ­ceiling of the sanctuary at St-Léon-de-Westmount church in Montreal. Photo by John Mahoney/Postmedia

It was not until October, when she started on the ceiling, that Lori’s partner was browsing in a used bookstore down the street and came back with a book. It was a bit of serendipity. “The Art and Passion of Guido Nincheri,” a 2018 book by Mélanie Grondin, contained the answer, more or less. It listed his 1925 work on Assumption’s painted interior, but with an outdated address for the building. It also showed clearly that this was his signature.

She learned that Nincheri frequently put himself and his loved ones in his painted scenes, and she suspects Mary was modelled on his wife, Giulia.

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“Looking at the face, it looks a lot like the picture of her in the book, and one of the apostles looks so much like Nincheri,” Le Mare said. “We don’t know for sure.”

“I just thought, where have you been all my life? How did I not know about you? We feel very honoured to be working on these,” Le Mare said. “Everybody was super excited.”

This is not a unique occurrence in Canada, although in Quebec especially it tends to happen not through restoration but through the sale of church buildings.

Even where explicit credit has been obscured by time, Guido Nincheri’s artwork is everywhere, in sacred places all across Canada and the northeastern United States. Known as the Michelangelo of Montreal, his masterpiece is Saint-Léon-de-Westmount, a National Historic Site of Canada, whose stained glass nativity window is reproduced here.

The nave at St-Léon-de-Westmount church.
The nave at St-Léon-de-Westmount church in Montreal with ceilings painted by artist Guido Nincheri. Photo by John Mahoney/Postmedia

The Montreal church’s major historical significance, as Canada sees it, is in the painted frescoes and decorative work in stone, bronze and wood. All of this was by Nincheri, who is best known across Canada for his stained glass.

His studio in Montreal outfitted more than 200 churches with stained glass scenes of Biblical imagery in traditional Italian style, from Holy Rosary Cathedral in Vancouver to Saint Anthony of Padua in Ottawa, and many others in between, of various types of Christianity. As the discovery in Windsor shows, some of this legacy might remain unknown today, even among those who see it every week at mass.

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An exhibit of Nincheri’s work, “From The Secular to The Sacred” is on now at Montreal’s Château Dufresne museum.

Born in 1885 to a wealthy textile merchant in Tuscany, and educated at Florence’s Academy of Fine Arts, Nincheri came to Montreal via Boston in 1914. He worked on Saint-Léon-de-Westmount through the 1930s. It was built in 1901.

The nativity scene here is curiously proportioned, giving most of the space to a dark rendering of wise men and shepherds, with the family in just the upper right quarter, brightly illuminated by starlight in pastel purple and blue.

The pipe organ at St-Léon-de-Westmount church.
The pipe organ at St-Léon-de-Westmount church in Montreal. Photo by John Mahoney/Postmedia

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It is less busy, for example, than his “lost window,” a three-part nativity scene with children and angels in a 1930s chapel in Prescott, Ont., so called because curators of Nincheri’s estate did not know where it was for many years until the chapel was about to be sold, and the window with it. Parishioners got together to save it, however, and it is now safely in St. John’s Anglican Church.

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Much of Nincheri’s work, especially in Quebec, has been threatened by a similar fate as churches close and the buildings are sold.

Nincheri himself was named a “national historic person” in 2007 by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, for his “exceptional legacy” and “remarkable contribution to the Italian tradition in religious art in Canada.” Italy, the Vatican, and the city of Montreal have given him similar honours.

He was not without scandal. To this day, another of his major Montreal church works, Notre-Dame-de-la-Défense in Little Italy, has a fresco depicting fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini on horseback, in a scene about the 1929 Lateran Treaty that settled the status of a sovereign Vatican within Italy.

Years after he painted it, with Canada at war with Italy, Nincheri was arrested by the RCMP and interned at Petawawa, Ont., for three months before authorities were convinced he was not actually a sympathizer, but rather had delivered what his client requested.

He continued working on this and other churches, but after that experience, he started spending more time in Rhode Island, where he died in 1973.

Stained glass window showing the nativity at St-Léon-de-Westmount church.
A stained glass window showing the nativity at St-Léon-de-Westmount church in Montreal. Photo by John Mahoney/Postmedia
Carved wooden doors at St-Léon-de-Westmount church.
Carved wooden doors at St-Léon-de-Westmount church in Montreal. Photo by John Mahoney/Postmedia

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