Marc Chagall’s Creation (1960) is among the striking modernist works in the Peterson Collection at Wesley Seminary. Courtesy of the Luce Center

Art lovers know Washington, D.C., for its bounty of art museums and galleries. While the most prominent command widespread public interest, a stunning smaller collection is on display at Wesley Theological Seminary: the Ralph and Birgitta Peterson Collection of Modern Religious Art.

The collection, housed in Wesley’s Henry Luce III Center for the Arts and Religion, features 26 pieces, including original sculptures and paintings by Louise Nevelson, Brother Eric of Taizé, Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, and Todd Siler, as well as notable works on paper by artists Marc Chagall, Georges Rouault, Henri Matisse, and Sister Mary Corita Kent (Corita Kent).

Ralph and Birgitta Peterson amassed much of their collection between 1966 and 1980, while Ralph served as the pastor of Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church, a landmark modern church in New York City. Birgitta was an artist herself, and several of her weavings are on display at Wesley and available for liturgical use. The couple loved to travel, so the collection at Wesley also includes Coptic icons, Ethiopian processional crosses, Romanian glass paintings, Navajo weavings, and Latin American devotional paintings acquired during their sojourns.

In 2019 the collection was brought to the Luce Center by then-director Aaron Rosen, a scholar of modern and contemporary religious art and a close personal friend of Ralph Peterson. According to the Luce Center’s interim director Devon Abts, Ph.D., the Peterson bequest transformed the Center’s permanent collection and paved the way for additional acquisitions. Today, dozens of works by modern and contemporary artists, all part of the Luce Center’s permanent collections, are on display throughout the seminary’s campus.

Most of the pieces from the Peterson bequest can be found in Elderdice Hall of Wesley’s Kresge building. While the collection is always on view during open hours, Luce Center staff offer private tours on request.


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