Life and death at the Rodin Museum

Auguste Rodin was close to his sister Maria, who entered the convent and died at a young age. Rodin was devastated and soon entered a religious order himself, the Society of the Blessed Sacrament.

He wasn’t there long.

Seeing the bust of himself that Rodin created, Father Peter Julian Eymard, founder of the order, recognized the young artist’s talent and encouraged him to return to the world.

Rodin may never be canonized, as Father Eymard has been, but he became a revered artist, and many of his sculptures are based on biblical themes and figures. Many can be seen at the newly renovated Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, which has the largest collection of his work outside of Paris and was reopened to the public on Friday, July 13.

Central to the collection is The Gates of Hell, which Rodin worked on for 37 years, until 1917, the year he died.

He continually added, removed or altered the some 200 human figures that appear on the doors. The Thinker, arguably his most well known work, was originally conceived as part of The Gates and only later removed, enlarged and cast as an independent piece.

The work was originally inspired by Dante’s Inferno — with The Thinker representing Dante — but eventually the artist discarded the specific narratives of Dante’s poem. The Gates, which neither open nor close, depicts suffering figures in a limitless space with no gravitational pull.

The museum contains two representations of St. John the Baptist. One is a somewhat larger than life size depiction of the saint preaching. The other could be described as its aftermath: Head of Saint John the Baptist on a Platter.

Comparing sculpture to the divine process of creation, Rodin said, “When God created the world, it is of modeling he must have thought first of all.”

The artist created the sculpture The Hand of God in 1898. A few years later he sculpted The Hand of the Devil Holding Woman.

Among other works at the museum of particular interest to Catholics are Head of Sorrow (Joan of Arc) and sculptures of Adam and Eve.

The museum also has on display what Rodin considered his first serious work, Mask of the Man with the Broken Nose. He said the sculpture, the face of a handyman with rough features, “determined all my future work.”

The work was not intended as a mask. After leaving the Society of the Blessed Sacrament, Rodin was unable to afford a studio, so he rented a drafty stable in a working class neighborhood in Paris. One cold night, after he modeled the handyman, the head froze and the back broke off, leaving only the face.

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