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Wilpert, Joseph


Authority on the catacombs and churches of ancient Rome; b. Eiglau (Silesia), Aug. 22, 1857; d. Rome, Feb. 13, 1944. Wilpert was ordained at Innsbruck (July 2, 1883) and dedicated himself to the study of Christian antiquity. Arriving in Rome (Oct. 10, 1884), he stayed in the German hospice at Campo Santo; through the hospitality and support of its rector, Msgr. Anton de waal, he was introduced to Giovanni Battista de rossi who guided his early researches in the catacombs. He was successively appointed papal prelate (1897), member of the Pontifical Commission of Sacred Archaeology (1903), and apostolic prothonotary (1903). During World War I he lived at Freiburg im Breisgau and returned to Rome only in October of 1919. A professor of Christian iconography at the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology (1926) and dean of apostolic prothonotaries (1930), he was chosen a member of the Institut de France in 1935.

Wilpert not only discovered unknown art treasures in the catacombs and ancient churches of Rome, but also brought new precision to the study of known frescoes and sarcophagi. He stressed the use of photography and the direct consultation of the art works themselves, rather than reliance upon artists' copies, sometimes inaccurate in important details.

A prolific author, his first scholarly publications appeared in 1886. His works include Die Malereien der Katakomben Roms (2 v. Freiburg im Breisgau 1903), Die römischen Mosaiken und Malereien der kirchlichen Bauten vom iv. bis xiii. Jahrhundert (4 v. Freiburg im Breisgau 1916), and I sarcofagi cristiani antichi (3 v. Rome 192936). In 1930 he published his memoirs, Erlebnisse und Ergebnisse im Dienste der christlichen Archäologie (Freiburg im Breisgau 1930), a series of lectures that he had prepared for delivery at Harvard University in 1928, although poor health prevented him from crossing the Atlantic. He contributed extensively to scholarly journals and his achievements earned him the personal title of "Eccellenza," bestowed by Pius XI, and honorary doctorates from the Universities of Münster and Innsbruck.

Bibliography: Rivista di archeologia cristiana 15 (1938) 616, bibliog. j. sauer, Münster 1 (1947) 118122.

[w. e. kaegi, jr.]

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