The seminary has said it is formulating a plan that could include sale of its Eakins paintings, plus the Neel portrait of Archbishop Jean Jadot, commissioned by the diocese in 1976. The fate of the Pearlstein portrait of Cardinal John Krol, paid for by Krol himself, is also in play. But it is the Eakins paintings that have captured the attention of scholars and critics.
"They are especially important to the seminary's history," said Akela Reason, assistant professor of art history at the University of Georgia and an Eakins scholar. "These men were seen as the leaders of Philadelphia Catholicism." The portraits are available for public viewing, by appointment, at the seminary, where they were painted.
The earliest portrait, of Archbishop James Frederick Wood, who oversaw completion of the Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul and the seminary campus, and who became Philadelphia's first archbishop, dates from 1877.
Eakins, despite his agnosticism, was fascinated by Wood's intellect and achievements, asked him to pose, and gave him the finished work. Unfortunately, a botched 1930 restoration ruined much of the painting, which hangs in the seminary's Eakins Room.
By the turn of the century, Eakins and his studio mate, sculptor Samuel Murray, were biking through Fairmount Park on Sundays to the seminary, where Eakins loved chatting with seminarians, discussing complex theological and philosophical problems, and listening to the chants of vespers.
He developed several friendships at St. Charles and asked each friend to pose. When the painting was done, he would give it to the sitter.
In all, Eakins painted 14 clerics (not all at the seminary). Five are in the St. Charles collection - Wood; Msgr. Patrick J. Garvey, St. Charles' rector, painted in 1902; Msgr. James F. Loughlin, 1902; Msgr. James P. Turner, c. 1900; and Msgr. Hugh T. Henry (1902). The Henry portrait, titled The Translator, is on loan from the American Catholic Historical Society, which Henry helped found.
A sixth Eakins is also in the St. Charles collection - of James A. Flaherty, a layman active in the Knights of Columbus. The Knights commissioned it in 1903 and subsequently donated it to St. Charles.
Michael Leja, a University of Pennsylvania professor of art history, said the portraits reflected Eakins' fascination with "great men" and were closely tied to his portraits of scientists and doctors. Because of their association with St. Charles and the city's history, Leja feels their sale would constitute a dilution of Philadelphia's cultural identity, a blurring of its sense of itself and its relationship to the past.
"Even when a monastery falls on hard times, they don't sell the frescoes," he said.