Berta Hummel, who was born in Bavaria in 1909 and trained as an artist, applied to the Congregation of the Franciscan Sister of Siessen in 1931. When she took her first vows in 1934, she became Sister Maria Innocentia. In her spare time at the convent, Hummel continued to paint and draw happy, large-headed, wide-eyed children, often with animals.
Her fellow nuns were wowed by her artwork, and after some convincing, she allowed them to send some of her pieces to publishers of religious art. Emil Fink Verlag printed popular postcards from her paintings, as well as a book called “Das Hummel-Buch” with her drawings and poetry by Margarete Seemann. Ars Sacra Josef Müller Verlag, a publisher of prayer books, religious prints, and holy cards now known as ArsEditions, also began to print many of Sister M.I. Hummel’s images.
Some of Hummel’s Christmas and New Year’s cards caught the attention of Franz Goebel, the head of Goebel pottery, in December 1933. Goebel approached the convent with the concept of turning the nun’s painting into three-dimensional figurines. The letter granting Goebel permission had the caveat that the convent had to approve all Hummel figurine designs before they could be mass produced.
Once the company had permission, Goebel began to experiment with molds and earthenware models. Goebel debuted the Hummel figurines at the Leipzig Trade Fair in March of 1935, where they received much acclaim. By the end of the year, Goebel had added 46 figures to the Hummel line. The profit became a source of income for the convent.
When she released the painting, “The Volunteers” depicting hapless boys being sent off to war with the line, “Dear Fatherland, let there be peace!” in 1937, Hummel drew the scorn of Adolf Hitler, who objected to German youth being depicted as “brainless sissies” with “hydrocephalic heads.” Hummel also didn’t shy away from Jewish imagery, like the Star of David and menorahs, in her religious artworks. The Nazi government let her continue to paint, but they banned the reproduction and sales of her work in the country.
Early in World War II, the Nazis shut down all religious schools in the country, including the school at Siessen. In 1940, Nazi officials took over the convent, forcing more than 200 of the nuns to leave, allowing only 40 to stay as prisoners, with no heat or income and little food. Hummel had gone home to her family, but requested to come back within three months, as she missed the Sisters. By then, the Nazis had made off with half of the money Hummel had earned for the convent. Sister Hummel fell ill with tuberculosis in 1944, and died on November 6, 1946, at age 37.
Goebel’s production of Hummel figurines died down during World War II and, toward the end of the war, halted completely. In the United States, a subsidiary of Ars Sacra, produced...
Between 1946 and 1949, the United States Military Occupation Government gave Goebel permission to resume production. Men in the occupational forces were quite charmed by the Hummel figurines and brought them home as gifts for their wives, children, and extended families. That’s when the popularity of these figurines exploded in the United States.
The talented sculptors and painters at Goebel continued to reproduce original Hummel pieces as well as new Hummel figurines until 2008, when the factory in Rödental closed. However, a company called Rödental, lead by Jörg Koster, took over the manufacturing of Hummel figurines in 2009, after hiring many former Goebel employees who had worked on the Hummel line and receiving blessings from the Siessen convent and Hummel’s family.
Most authentic Hummel pieces bear an incised “M.I. Hummel” signature, with the exception of a few figures that were too small to incise. The oldest Hummel figurines, those manufactured between 1935 and 1950, also feature Goebel’s “crown-WG” mark with a drawing of a crown indicating the company’s loyalty to the monarchy in 1900 and the initials “WG” for founder William Goebel. Between 1946 and 1948, a Hummel piece would also indicate that it was made in the occupied zone, and between 1948 and 1949, in West Germany.