Sunday, October 21, 2012

Blog Post No. 2012-15: Something like this (though maybe not exactly this)... what your correspondent meant about Boston's Cathedral of the Holy Cross:

Photo 1: Existing facade of St. Paul's Cathedral, Tremont Street, Boston. Note
the blank, unfinished pediment above the columns. Copied from Architecture Boston website.

Photo 2: Selected finishing design by Philadelphia-based artist Andrew Lipski, based on the whorl of the Nautilus shell. Copied from Architecture Boston website.

Photo 3: Night view of Lipski's design. Copied from Architecture Boston website.

So, you may argue with the aesthetics and, if you have a viewpoint on the subject, the question of whether the pediment of a religious building should convey an expressly religious message directly tied to the congregation that meets within, or if an essentially aesthetic or natural subject's depiction is can itself be a subtle appeal to the existence of a deity that is the root of such beauty and order. But there is no doubt that the Epicopal Church in Massachusetts is sending a message to the broader community that it is still alive and kicking by spending considerable time and energy on presenting a new, finished face to its surroundings. The location at stake here is critical as well. St. Paul's Cathedral is located on Tremont Street, across the street from Boston Common, in the heart of the Downtown Crossing area of Boston, facing up the lower part of Beacon Hill toward the State House. A map to help RTUF Nation orient itself is here.

The decision to go with this design, made by St. Paul's with the help of MassArt, was made back in March. But it only recently came to your correspondent's attention. The essential story, which can be found on  WBUR's website, is similar in its broad outlines to the story with the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, at which we here at RTUF took a gander last year around this time. St. Paul's original builders apparently had intended for the pediment to include a sculptural depiction of St. Paul preaching to Herod Agrippa II of Judea. When funds ran short during construction in 1819, the pediment sculpture was dropped and the space where it was supposed to go has remained blank for the last 190+ years. Why fill the pediment in now? Ostensibly, it's a way of celebrating the 100th anniversary of the designation of the building as the Episcopal diocese's cathedral church. As Dean Jep Streit indicates in the WBUR story, though, the diocese is trying to do more with their decision and send a message of continuing relevancy and vitality.

Now, as to the aesthetics themselves, Bostonians have long been active in historic preservation and the architectural community's reaction was at least mixed, if not tending toward critical, at the outset, as you can see from the commentary on the Boston Society of Architects' website here and on Universal Hub. And the reasons are many why that kind of a discussion would be warranted. The design of the church is an early and excellent example of Greek Revival architecture. The architects of St. Paul's were Alexander Parris and Solomon Willard, between them responsible for two of Boston's major landmarks: Quincy Market (Parris) and the Bunker Hill Monument (Willard). The interior of the church was redesigned around its hundredth anniversary by  Ralph Adams Cram, a well-known proponent of Gothic Revival architecture whose designs include the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York. You'll see that there's a bit of referencing of the "Saint John the Divine Approach" in the BSA comments, where there's some hand-wringing over the failure to complete the original design in stone sculpture, much like the way the completion of the massive Saint John's has been pursued using traditional masonry methods eschewing modern methods. St. Paul's has obviously taken a different approach with the selection of the Nautilus pediment.

In the final analysis, count me with the group who see the pediment design as worth at least a try, if not entirely appropriate. Remember that the church design is itself Greek Revival, a design aesthetic that initially had absolutely no intrinsic Christian meaning (being, you know, pre-Christian by several centuries). The artist, Donald Lipski, ably and with obvious seriousness described his design idea and meaning as follows (I am quoting in full from his own blog, which can be found here):

St. Paul’s is a house of Prayer for all People.  Carl Jung saw the spiral as the archetypal symbol of cosmic force, focusing both inward and outward.  The spiral occurred to me because it speaks to all people.  We see it in most every culture, from primitive rock carvings to the scroll of the Torah. It’s a ubiquitous form in nature—from the motion of subatomic particles to the vastness of galaxies.

The church itself gets its Greek proportions from the golden rectangle, which generates the Fibinacci spiral.  This is how the idea first came to me.  I visited the church in November, and in the Commons came upon a woman making a spiral in the leaves, and walking it back and forth like a labyrinth.  This was like a divine sign.

I’ve based it on a slice from the shell of the Chambered Nautilus, one of the Earth’s oldest creatures.  The Nautilus each year outgrows its chamber and builds a new one, which is a beautiful metaphor for spiritual growth.  Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote his great poem, The Chambered Nautilus, reflecting on just this.  He called the nautilus “The Ship of Pearl”, and I have made this the title of the sculpture.  

Here is the last stanza:

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!

I plan to make it look like the stone tracery on Gothic churches.  St. Paul’s was once a prominent building, but as tall office buildings have grown up around it, it has lost its impact.  Folks have felt that it looks like a bank.  I think this will change that.  I expect it will be a new and welcome landmark on Tremont St.

-Donald Lipski

How inspiring would it be if your correspondent's own Archdiocese of Boston could find within itself the resolve to finish the vertical elements of its massive Roxbury Puddingstone edifice, designed by P.C. Keely, perhaps the most prolific church architect of them all?

No comments:

Post a Comment