joy of childhood is visible in the work of Franciscan Sister
Maria Innocentia, better known as Berta Hummel. Her sketches
and watercolors captured childrens happiness and simplicity
even during the darkest hours of war-torn Germany. By Jay
of happy childrenare international collectors items,
well-known, well-loved and highly valued. Not everyone is equally
aware of the artist behind these images of children and other
more overtly religious figurines. All were inspired by the sketchings
and pastel drawings of Sister Maria Innocentia Hummel, a German
Franciscan who lived during the Hitler era. Though her work
was banned by the Nazis, she continued to produce her art under
Maria Innocentia (Berta Hummel) works in her studio. This
previously unpublished photo was sent by the artists
mother to her American biographer, Sister Gonsalva.
Photo courtesy of the Sisters of St. Francis, Oldenburg, Indiana
Hummel died nearly 51 years ago when she was only 37. Her
art beautifully reflected her sunny disposition and her love
of children. She kept her faith in the power of God even though
she lived in the darkest days of her native Germany.
1942, a woman now known as the living Hummel
became one subject of Sister Hummels work. When Sieglinde
Schoen of Buchau was 16 months old, her father commissioned
Sister Hummel to do a painting of her to give his wife for
Christmas. In preparation for a kinderfest (childrens
festival), Sieglindes mother had costumed her daughter
in a dress decorated with bluebells. Sister Hummel pictured
Sieglinde in the dress amid a field of bluebells. She called
it Kind Mit Enzian (Child With Bluebells).
Christmas, Sieglinde accompanied her father to the convent
to pick up the portrait. The young girl was awestruck by the
sisters Christmas tree, decorated with real clip-on
candles. Sister Hummel, seeing Sieglindes fascination,
let out a little cry of joy, shouted, Dont move!
and ran for her sketchbook. She called her charcoal drawing
Sieglindes First Tree and presented it to
the family as a Christmas gift. Both drawings, which Sieglinde
still owns and calls my babies, were later made
observes today, The whole world thinks there was nothing
but ugliness in Germany during the war. But with the Hummels,
the world got a special giftthe German children were
Her Fathers Wish Come True
Hummel was born in 1909 in the small, picturesque village
of Massing, Bavaria. She was the third daughter in a family
of six brothers and sisters. (The last living member of Bertas
immediate family is her sister Crescentia, who lives in Prague,
Czechoslovakia. A seventh child died in infancy.) Her family
lived above the dry-goods store owned by her father, Adolf.
Outside their windows loomed flower boxes and, beyond, the
Berta showed early creative talent, making doll clothes out
of scraps from her fathers store. By the time she was
10, she had already established an artistic reputation, at
least among her peers. She was a gifted caricaturist, and
her friends implored her, Sketch me, Berta!
was largely Catholic. Just 20 miles south of Massing is Oberammergau,
site of the famous Passion Play. Bertas family was devout.
They attended Mass together and celebrated feast days.
as she did near the mountains, Berta excelled in outdoor sports
like skiing, skating and even ice hockey. She had a cheerful
temperament. Hummel means bumblebee in
German, and that indeed was Berta, buzzing around with a zest
was so high-spirited that her third-grade teacher labeled
her as insubordinate. But the following year,
her teacher, Sister Theresilla, understood her better. Bertas
artistic talents flourished.
many ways Berta had an idyllic childhood. She grew up in a
tight-knit family, lived in a gorgeous area, reveled in the
outdoors and devoured books like Tom Sawyer. Bertas
early years encouraged her natural innocence and optimism.
as a child she also survived hard times. Battles of World
War I were fought not far from her family home. Her father
was called away to the army. To the front, young Berta sent
drawings of her infant brother, whom he had yet to see.
Berta was 12, based on Sister Theresillas recommendation,
she was admitted to the Institute of English Sisters, a boarding
school in Simbach about 20 miles from her home. Her talents
continued to develop at the Institute and, after six years,
she entered the prestigious Academy of Applied Arts in Munich.
She rose to the top of her class in her four years there.
plan, heartily endorsed by her father, was to be an arts teacher.
Adolf had himself once harbored artistic aspirations. Indeed,
the Hummel family had a tradition in the arts. An 18th-century
ancestor, Dominic Hummel, had been an accomplished painter-priest.
Berta was to continue his calling in more ways than one.
Convergence of Faith, Art and Love
a short time in Munich, Berta chose to bypass the typical
student-living accommodations and chose instead a boardinghouse
run by nuns. It was there that she met two Franciscan sisters
who also were studying at the Academy.
sisters were members of a teaching community which valued
the arts. Her father argued that becoming a religious sister
would ruin her as an artist. Though Berta herself wondered
how she would fit in, she was encouraged to see that her two
friends were still able to practice their craft.
presented a challenge, it seemed, to religious discipline.
At her boardinghouse, the mother superior would throw up her
hands in frustration upon entering Bertas room and seeing
her sketches spread out all around. And Berta could not seem
to learn how to comport herself. The nuns she lived with constantly
corrected her, Fraulein Hummel, will you ever learn
to walk sedately? or Berta, please step quietly.
the end, her father gave his blessing and Berta became Sister
Maria Innocentia. The other Franciscans agreed that was appropriate
since she dearly loved the innocence of children. The Franciscan
convent at Siessen was a community of about 250 sisters, most
of whom were teachers. All the elements important to Bertaher
faith, her art and her love for childrennow neatly converged.
She taught art at the convent school. As reward for good work,
she gave her students original picture cards. Little did her
beloved pupils know it, but their fine schoolwork was helping
to stimulate the talent of a great artist!
sisters, impressed with her skill and in need of income, decided
to allow her a wider audience. They sent some of her work
to a Munich publishing house which specialized in religious
art. The company quickly reproduced some of her paintings
as postcards, a popular medium in Germany. In 1934, it also
published a collection of her drawings, called simply Das
Hummel-Buch, with poetic text by Margarete Seemann.
one of the books first buyers happened to be a craftsman
at a porcelain factory in Oeslau. The factory where he made
tableware and other products was on the verge of closing.
He told the factory owner Franz Goebel of his idea to recreate
Sister Hummels drawings as porcelain figurines. Goebel
agreed and, after much hesitation, Sister Hummel, sympathetic
to the plight of the factorys many workers, gave her
Across the Ocean in Duffel Bags
Hummel spent much of her day in prayer and meditation. But
she continued to draw. She also visited the Goebel factory
periodically to oversee work on the figurines. One day an
elderly worker rose and effusively thanked her for saving
the jobs of the factory workers.
Hummel remained humble despite her success. Once a woman reading
The Hummel Book on a train noticed her fellow travelers
(Sister Hummel) habit. She asked Sister Hummel if she was
from the same community as the artist. Yes, I am from
the same community, was her modest reply.
in the figurines exploded after they were displayed in 1935
at the Leipzig Fair, a major international trade show. A decade
later, the figurines began to enjoy great success in the United
States when returning soldiers brought them home.
She Draws Out the Inner Child
did the Hummels stir such passion? Sister Hummel drew sketches
of radiant, chubby-cheeked little children. She captured them
in carefree times of play, or tramping joyously through leaves
or snow, or enjoying one anothers company in giddy fellowship.
Sister Hummel portrayed the moments of childhood stored in
everyones memory. She was still in touch with the innocence
of her own childhood, and her art gloried in the wonder, the
freshness of youthful experience.
everyone loved Hummels. The Nazis, though they allowed Sister
Hummel to work, banned the distribution of her art in Germany.
The Nazis believed the Germans were the super race, and Sister
Hummels depiction of children in patched clothes playing
frivolous games irked them. Hitler himself attacked the art,
denouncing the depiction of German children with hydrocephalic
World War II, religious communities throughout Germany suffered
increased persecution, and in 1940 the Nazis closed all the
Franciscan schools. Later that year they confiscated the motherhouse
at Siessen. The nuns were ordered to vacate the building in
10 days to accommodate German refugees from Romania. Only
40 of the 250 sisters were allowed to stay, confined in one
wing of the building. Sister Hummel returned to her family.
three months, desperate to be with her community, Sister Hummel
was allowed to return to the motherhouse by Mother Augustine,
her superior. In a small sleeping room that doubled as her
studio, she continued to draw. Even though the Nazis took
half the profits, her work was the major source of income
for her community.
war years were difficult ones. Other refugees were brought
to the convent. Food was scarce. The convent was unbearably
cold in the winter. What we suffered was indescribable,
wrote Mother Augustine.
Hummel contracted tuberculosis in 1944 and was sent to a sanitorium
in Isny. She returned to the convent after five months, and
shortly thereafter French troops liberated the area. But Sister
Hummels illness grew worse. At high noon on November
6, 1946, as the Angelus was ringing, she died. She is buried
on the convent grounds at Siessen.
Schoen Smith, married and living in Ft. Worth, Texas, visited
Sister Hummels grave at the convent in 1987. Hers is
but one among many, marked like the others with a plain white
tombstone. In death, says Sieglinde, Sister Hummel was allowed
the same humility she displayed while alive.
Hummel Model Honors Memories
in Germany, Sieglinde returned to the convent in Siessen.
What happened on that visit borders on the miraculous.
Witgard Erler, who was documenting Sister Hummels artwork
at the time, had not been able to identify two entries connected
to the Schoen family in the artists daily workbook.
Two weeks before Sieglinde arrived, the nun had prayed in
the chapel for help.
Schoen Smith (above) is the original Child With Bluebells.
For the pastel portrait, she wore a dress embroidered by her
grandmother. At left, the child Sieglinde picks wildflowers.
Photos courtesy of Sieglinde Schoen Smith
1987 visit was exactly 45 years from the date of her visit
in a dress decorated with bluebells. Once again, a kinderfest
was being celebrated. While looking at postcards featuring
Sister Hummels art, Smith remarked to her husband, William,
how closely one resembled the drawing of herself. (She believes
that Sister Hummel, working from photos, may have done other
drawings based on her and her sisters.) Sister Witgard happened
to overhear. Fraulein Schoen? she asked.
who is passionately devoted to the memory of Berta Hummel,
vowed to display Sister Hummels art in the United States,
to which Smith had immigrated in 1963. Tracing the ownership
of 280 original Hummels to the Jacques Nauer family in Switzerland,
she found that their collection was packed in crates. She
convinced the family that a U.S. museum was a better idea.
In 1992 Sieglinde was instrumental in founding the not-for-profit
Hummel Museum in New Braunfels, Texas, where she is special
projects director. The museum has more than 280 pieces of
original Hummel art as well as 1,500 figurines.
That Still Cheers
Hummel left behind much more than art of children. She also
drew fine religious art and nature scenes. Among her subjects
were madonnas, angels and wayside shrines. Sieglinde Schoen
says of Sister Hummels portraits, You can see
the inside person. Of the natural elements, she
observes that Sister Hummels flowers have an accuracy
that would please any botanist.
Sister Hummel also drew sketches that contained the Star of
David, a bold, dangerous decision in those times. She portrayed
angels in gowns covered with slightly skewed six-pointed stars.
She also designed a series of Old and New Testament symbols
for the convent chapel in 1938-39. She symbolized the juncture
of the two Testaments by designing a cross with a menorah
before it. She apparently had not only the innocence of children
but also their bravery.
was a time when the force of evil seemed most determined
to eradicate all that right-thinking men held sacred and inviolable,
wrote American Franciscan Sister M. Gonsalva Wiegand in a
1951 biography of Sister Hummel. The cheerful, talented Franciscan
nun was an opposing force of purity and consecrated
possessed in herself the power to see the bright side of ordinary
human affairs, continued Sister Gonsalva, and
translated it for the enjoyment and stimulation of her fellowmen.
Sieglinde adds, Sister Hummel was a very special person.
It didnt matter how old you were, you could not forget
her love and kindness.
artists still base their work on charcoal sketches and pastel
drawings left by the prolific Franciscan artist. They discuss
each new M.I. Hummel work of art with an artistic board
at the same convent which Berta Hummel entered in 1931. A
percentage of the profits from Hummel products still goes
to the Siessen convent and supports the sisters missions.
Innocence was not only Bertas religious name but also
her cheerful artistic signature. It seems fitting that her
work still supports the care and education of children.
Maria Innocentias death was noted in the Catholic newspaper
of the Diocese of Regensburger, of which Massing is part.
That obituary concluded, A persons work is the
result of his inner being and personality. The works of Sister
Innocentia were so strong, so real because behind them stood
a person who strove with her whole being toward completeness,
a person to whom art was the expression of devotion to the
eternal beauty of God and at the same time the outpouring
of a love for the people with whom she freely shared her inner
riches. To see her work is to share those riches still.
The Hummel Museum, 1900 Main Plaza, New Braunfels, TX
78130, is located 30 minutes north of San Antonio and is open
year-round. It exists only through memberships and donations.
Sketch Me, Berta Hummel, the first biography of Sister
Maria Innocentia Hummel to be published in English, is available
from the museum. It may also be purchased from Millers
Hallmark and Gift Gallery in Eaton, Ohio, where an annual
Hummel Festival attracts thousands of collectors. Call 1-937-456-4151
Child and Her Biographer
Jay Copp is a writer and editor at DePaul University in Chicago and a former associate editor of The New World, Chicagos archdiocesan newspaper. He has a graduate degree from Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University, Chicago, and has contributed articles to Catholic publications such as U.S. Catholic, America, Catholic Digest and St. Anthony Messenger.