Like a good who-dunnit, the Angels of West Baden tantalize with mystery and intrigue. Here's one big enigma: Just who painted larger than human-size icons/angels hidden from public view 100 feet above the Grand Atrium of the West Baden Springs Hotel? And how did they get to the Irvington Historical Society, where they're part of a new, permanent exhibit?
The second question is much easier to answer than the first. Hidden for over a century, the Angels were "found" during the 2005 restoration of the hotel. They're located on the interior wall of a metal, drum-shaped space (about 16 feet in diameter) hanging from the top of the atrium. The drum can only be accessed by climbing a ladder on the outside of the building, then negotiating a crawl space and finally dropping onto a plank floor.
Interested parties have been making that pilgrimage for years (some of them defacing the paintings in the process), but today the Irvington Historical Society is offering a easier way to see them — and in much the same way as they may have looked when they were first painted. The ground floor of the Society's Bona Thompson Memorial Center is now home to replicas of the paintings created by the late artist Pamela Mougin.
Mougin, who died in May 2013, photographed the angels in 2005-6, then translated those photos to canvas, wiping away age-related damage and graffiti in the process. Her renditions of the icons were included in a smaller traveling exhibit that toured the state during her lifetime, but she hoped to ultimately find a permanent home for them. Members of the Irvington Historical Society and conceptual designer David B. Nickel helped to realize her goal; the permanent exhibit's grand opening was Dec. 8, 2013.
Historian Paul Diebold and Irvington Historical Society board member Kent Hankins conjecture the artists could have been mosaic craftsmen brought in to create the magnificent terra cotta floor, quite like the one in the grand entry of the Bona Thompson Center that also opened in 1902, simultaneously with the West Baden Hotel. Or they could have been created by scenery painters with the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, who stayed at the hotel during the First World War. Or a Greek iconographer who happened to be in the area.
Exhibit materials (PDF) point out that the angels resemble those "painted by the Dominican Monk Fra Angelico in 1433 on the Linaioli triptych altarpiece," while two smaller painting of cherubs are "reminiscent of the famous Sistine Madonna painting by Raphael (1513-1514)."
To quote again from those materials: "It is not known when, why or how these angels came to be painted." Putting those questions aside, Mougin attempted to restore the paintings to their original glory by, as Nickel puts it, restoring the "original colors before graffiti and natural deterioration changed them."