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History's Headlines: New book on Moravian painter by late Vernon Nelson draws interest

History's Headlines: Book on Moravian painter draws interest

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - By any account John Valentine Haidt (1700-1780)- Moravian painter and longtime resident of Bethlehem- was an extraordinary artist.

His art works exude a passion that combines both deep religious faith and training at some of the leading art centers of 18th century Europe. One author calls him the Painting Preacher. He might even be called the Moravian El Greco.

On November 27th the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem released a long-awaited new book on Haidt. The work is the product of the scholarship of the late Vernon Nelson, the former Moravian Archivist who was killed in an auto accident in 2010.

"We knew he had been working on the project since the 1960s," says Paul Peuker, the current Moravian Archivist. "After his death we got his computer hard drive and saw what he was working on and how far he had gotten."

In honor of Nelson, the Moravian Archives decided to complete the work. Last January Peuker placed a request for volunteers to help complete the work in the Archives newsletter.

"I was very pleased when Jane Schluetter, former provost at Lafayette College and a retired English professor with several books to her credit, agreed to take the rough manuscript and make it ready for publication," says Peuker. "And Darlene Schneck, a book designer from Staunton, Virginia did the design work."

Peuker notes that Nelson was not an art historian or art critic and so he does not make artistic judgments about Haidt's paintings. "He was primarily interested in his life and in tracing his biography," Peuker says. Nelson spent a great deal of time both in the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem and in European archives tracing the artist's career history. "For a time he was going over to Europe every summer," Peuker says.

The 200 page volume contains 100 color illustrations of Haidt's paintings, from both the Moravian Archives and the Moravian Historical Society collections. The books are being produced by an on-demand computer printing company at a cost of $74.95. The Moravian Archives also has some copies for sale. More information about the book can be obtained by calling the Moravian Archives at 610-866-3255.

Peuker points out that when Haidt arrived in Bethlehem in 1754 he was unique. "He was probably the first European trained artist to come to the Lehigh Valley," he says. Haidt was already in his 40s, a mature age by the standards of the day,
Haidt had been born in Danzig- now Gdansk-in what was then Prussia and is now Poland. His father was a goldsmith and worked for the Prussian court. When he tried to get his son interested, the young man rebelled, claiming he wanted to be a minister. But eventually Haidt did become a goldsmith. He also studied drawing at the Royal Academy of Arts in Berlin.

Haidt, after spending some time in Dresden, decided in the 1740s to move to London. It was here that he became interested in and met with the local Moravian community. After undergoing a major life changing conversion experience, Haidt became a Moravian. At the same time the sect itself was undergoing religious upheaval. Some Moravians felt strongly that it was important that the passion of Christ and his suffering and shedding of blood be a primary focal point of their teaching. Others thought that their primary task should be missionary outreach and building a community in Bethlehem. Haidt was a firm believer that the wounds of Christ and his shedding of blood had to be regarded as an essential church teaching, as it was to him personally.

But when it looked like Haidt's faction was losing influence within the general body of the church, he wrote Count von Zinzendorf, requesting a change in his path as a Moravian. Rather than preach the doctrine he felt so passionately about, he would paint it "For I thought, if they will not let me preach the martyrdom of God anymore I will paint it more vigorously," he wrote. The count gave his permission to follow that path.

From 1754 to his death in 1780 Haidt was the official painter of Moravian Bethlehem. He was given a space to paint in and was regarded as a part of the church's mission to both the Native Americans and the German speaking folks of the region who had no ministers of their own denominations to turn to.

It is important to understand that Haidt's works were not considered art works, although they were. Unlike the New England Puritans who saw pictorial depictions of any kind in a church as a dangerous distraction from God's word, the Moravians had no problem with using paintings to teach the faith.

"They were used in Moravian churches to help people understand what the church taught," says Peuker. "In the eyes of fellow Moravians any value they might have had as works of were superseded by their role as spreading the faith." Haidt himself expressed it this way. "I hardly need mention that I have painted, because …. the dear Savior has also let it be a blessing to many a heart."

Along with painting Christ's passion and death, Haidt did portraits. Almost all of them are of fellow Moravians in the simple dress that the sect favored at that time.

These were not views of warrior princes or bejeweled priests that decorated the churches and palaces of Europe but lives of ordinary people, skilled craftsmen and craftswomen who reflected the social status of many Moravians, like the goldsmith Haidt had been. They breathe an air of domesticity and peace.

After Haidt died in 1780 his paintings gradually faded out of fashion. There is even an account of a 19th century pastor, who found the artist's depictions of Christ's passion too violent and gory and threw them out with the trash. No one has apparently done that for a very long time. Today they grace many museums including the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.

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