Berta joined the Franciscan Sisters Convent of Siessen…
Born in Massing in Bavaria, Germany, as Berta Hummel, one of the six children of Adolf and Victoria Hummel, she was raised in a warm, loving and strongly devout family, living above her father's dry goods store. As a child Berta showed creative talent, and developed a reputation in the village as the local artist. She was a cheerful, active girl, who loved the outdoors and winter sports. Her father encouraged her artistic talents and, at age 12, enrolled her in a boarding school of the Sisters of Loreto in Simbach am Inn, about 30 kilometres away. Hummel continued to grow in her abilities, and after graduation in 1927 she enrolled in the prestigious Academy of Applied Arts in Munich, where her talent and skills developed.
Hummel was a devout Catholic and instead of the standard student housing, she chose to live in a Catholic residence run by Religious Sisters. While living there, she made friends with two members of the Congregation of the Franciscan Sisters of Siessen (Sießen) in Bad Saulgau who were also studying at the Academy. The religious congregation focuses on teaching, and gives great emphasis to the role of art in education. After Berta graduated in 1931 with top honors, she chose to follow a religious calling that she had felt for some time and applied to enter that congregation, and was admitted in April 1931 as a postulant. Berta made one final visit to her family home in late May, spending two weeks with them. On 22 August, she was admitted as a novice and received the religious habit of the congregation and the religious name of Sister Maria Innocentia.
Life in the convent and as an artist
After completing her novitiate year, Hummel was assigned to teach art in a nearby school run by the convent. Though her days were busy teaching, Hummel spent her spare time painting pictures of children. The Sisters were impressed with her art and sent copies to Emil Fink Verlag, a publishing house in Stuttgart which specialized in religious art, to which Hummel reluctantly agreed. The company decided to release copies of the works in postcard form, which were popular in the early 20th century. In 1934, it also published a collection of her drawings, titled Das Hummel-Buch, with poetic text by Margarete Seemann.
Soon afterward, Franz Goebel, the owner of a porcelain company, was looking for a new line of artwork, and happened to see some of these postcards in a shop in Munich. Hummel agreed, mostly for its saving the employment of many workers, and the convent granted him sole rights to make figurines based on her art. Interest in the figurines increased after they were displayed in 1935 at the Leipzig Trade Fair, a major international trade show. A decade later, the figurines would gain popularity in the United States when returning American soldiers brought them home.
In 1937, two events in Hummel's life were to mark her future. On 30 August, she made her final profession as a permanent member of the Congregation. Also, she had released a painting titled "The Volunteers", which drew the enduring hatred of Adolf Hitler, who attacked the art, denouncing the depiction of German children with “hydrocephalic heads”. Although the Nazi authorities allowed Hummel to work, they banned the distribution of her art in Germany. One Nazi magazine, the SA Man (issue of 23 March 1937), wrote of her work:
Significantly, Hummel also drew sketches that contained the Star of David, a dangerous theme 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.
Wartime suffering and death
When World War II broke out, the Sisters were not spared persecution. In 1940, the Nazi government closed all religious schools, including those of Siessen. Later that year, it seized the convent itself, forcing most of the community to leave. Out of a community of some 250 Sisters, the 40 Sisters who were allowed to remain were confined to one small section of the convent, living there without heat and without any means to support themselves. Hummel returned to her family at this time, but within three months so missed community life that she asked to be allowed to return. The Superior, Mother Augustine, O.S.F., allowed her to do so.
Hummel was given a small cell which served as both as her sleeping quarters and her studio. The Nazis took half of the money generated by her work, but the remaining funds were the main source of income of the Sisters there. Nevertheless, food was scarce and the cold was intense. Mother Augustine later wrote of that period, "What we suffered was indescribable". The conflict caused by these circumstances affected Hummel's constitution. Her suffering during this period gave rise to the most personal work of her convent years: The Stations of the Cross, a series of work deeply expressive of her artistic individuality.
Hummel was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1944 and was sent twice to a sanatarium in Isny im Allgäu. She returned to the convent after five months, just before the region was liberated by the Free French Forces. She did not recover, and died on 6 November 1946, aged 37. She was buried in the convent cemetery.
Goebel, his team of artists, and a board of Sisters from the convent carried on her legacy through the figurines, all of which were based on her artwork. Goebel Germany discontinued the figures in October 2008.
Sister Innocentia's sister, Centa Hummel, established the Berta Hummel Museum in the family home in Massing. Centa died September 2011, just before her 100th birthday, and the management of the museum passed to her son.
One of the children depicted in her work, Sieglinde Schoen, established The Hummel Museum in New Braunfels, Texas, in the United States, which displayed about 280 of Hummel's original pieces. These pieces had been stored in Switzerland by a private collector during the War. The museum discontinued as a venue of Hummel's work in 2001.
The first Mayor of Rosemont, Illinois, USA Donald E. Stephens, amassed one of the largest collections of figurines in the world. Upon his death, he bequeathed the entire collection to the City of Rosemont. To house it, the city built the Donald E. Stephens Museum of Hummels, which opened March 13, 2011.