American Aristocracy: Gods Of Copley Square – Centerpiece 1
The Taj Mahal does not come readily to mind anywhere in Back Bay Boston. Especially in the three somber blocks of Copley Square’s Clarendon Street, dominated as these blocks are by some of H H Richardson’s finest works: the Brattle Square Church (now First Baptist Church), the Trinity Church Rectory and Trinity Church itself in the square’s heart. India’s bright and fabled architecture of delicate fantasy has little in common with these strong, dark Richardsonian landmarks. A mighty fortress is our God. No romance in the Holy City, thank you.
Yet it is a measure of how embryonic Copley Square in at least one field almost at once changed the cultural balance between Europe and America on the world stage that one of the most fascinating evidences of that change is to be found on yet a third continent, in India’s, if not Asia’s, largest city, then as now. Amazing to report, within seven years of the completion of Trinity Church in 1877, such was its global impact that the design for the Bombay (Mumbai) City Hall or Municipal Building wed India’s most celebrated architecture with what was becoming Boston’s (supplanting the Bulfinch State House). It was on the same principle, I suppose, that so many unlikely marriages are explained: opposites attract. Clearly the Mumbai landmarks forms are those of the Taj, while “the overall concept of its massing is reminiscent of Trinity Church in Boston,” this from Francis D. K. Ching’s, Mark M. Jarzombek’s and Vikramaditya’s Prakash’s Global History of Architecture.
Spearheading so radical a change in the back and forth between the Old World and the New even in just the one field of architecture was noteworthy. To thus influence the larger sphere of art and religion, especially in a place where the founding of MIT, Copley Square’s cornerstone, had just established the developing square as a center of science and technology, was doubly notable. “European observers, above all Germans, recognized,” Richardson scholar James F O Gorman has written, “that one man had in effect turned the tide of cultural influence westward from Europe. [Richardson] was the first [American] architect.” O’Gorman adds, “to have a broad and lasting influence on the Old World. His legacy was global in scope.”
True enough. But it has never been thought by even the most devout Richardson scholars to be the whole truth. Although architectural historians are not quick to consult church historians, nor vice versa, nor literary historians either, and never talk to scholars of liturgy or music, the fact remains that notwithstanding Richardson’s genius, the church we see today was as much the result of the genius of Phillips Brooks, Boston’s now legendary saint-bishop and the rector who built Trinity Church, never mind as well of Trinity’s muralist John La Farge’s too. To be sure, sources like Robert Atwell’s and Christopher Weber’s Celebrating the Saints: Devotional Readings for Saints’ Days document Brooks was canonized later in the 20th-century chiefly because he “has been called the greatest preacher in the history of American Christianity.” But my reading of Brooks’s life and work and Trinity’s history is that the saint-bishop’s genius for preaching has unfairly eclipsed his genius as a church builder…
Yes,” Richardsonian Romanesque ” was launched on the world at Trinity. But it would never be more than a starting point for Richardson himself. Nowadays, in fact, the exteriors by Richardson one most admires – the jail in Pittsburgh, the bridge in the Back Bay Fens, the Marshall Field Warehouse Store in Chicago – and the most memorable homage to Richardson, Louis Sullivan’s brilliant abstraction of Trinity, the Anshe Ma’ariv Synagogue, also in Chicago – are seen as at least Trinity’s equal, rightly so.
I love Boston Brahmin poet John Wheelwright’s critique: “Mauve and inquisitorial, / That great horned toad of a Trinity Church / Inquires after me.”
In other words, to understand Trinity’s uniqueness one must go inside. And once inside, I like to say the design of Trinity can be seen to be by the firm of Brooks, Richardson and La Farge! Indeed, among the earliest international notice taken of the Copley Square basilica is a paper I have turned up given to the Architectural Association in London in 1886, published in November and December of that year as a series on “Church Planning” in The British Architect and in Building News, by John D. Sedding, a leading British architect. In that paper, published nine years after Trinity’s consecration, Sedding illustrated the plan of Trinity Church as one of fourteen mostly European churches, including several Venetian basilicas. Commenting there somewhat sourly that “in this matter of church planning . . . [it] is only the American” – neither Richardson nor Brooks nor anyone else is named – “who is quite original,” Sedding emphasizes, moreover, and of this more later, an aspect of Trinity’s plan known to derive from Brooks, not Richardson.
“The glory of America forever,” a sort of national cathedral before any other was thought of, is what Phillips Brooks wrote to his friend, Robert Treat Paine, he wanted Trinity to be. What happened was that and more: embryonic Copley Square became a transatlantic spiritual center in the 1870s. So much so the late Harvard professor Peter Gomes has called Trinity “the most significant religious edifice in America.”
Many a perhaps puzzled pilgrim was doubtless as shocked by the church, however, as sparked – or consoled – by the preaching. This is why O’Gorman writes of the church as “a cultural revelation” in its time, asserting that “Trinity represented American culture’s coming of age.” Yet here again it is Brooks – and as well the New York artist John La Farge – who made Richardson’s central tower that “glimpse of Venice and Constantinople” he exulted over – who is responsible, of which aspect of the design we now know much more thanks to La Farge scholar James Yarnall responding so generously to my need of the full text of a source until now only partially available. The result has been to discover yet another example of how important a role Brooks played in the design process, how often his ideas have been forgotten, or misunderstood, sometimes even suppressed, because they were so often big ideas, ideas that were and often remain controversial.
Indeed, so much has this been the case it is increasingly clear that there arose in the wake of those ideas a sort of tug of war about them – it is an old Christian tradition: witness the female apostle of St Paul’s epistles who was remade by later editors into a man – which means that one should limit ones study of the matter to the testimony of the creative triumvirate that created Trinity – Brooks and Richardson, whose career as an architect on the world stage this church consolidated, and La Farge, the first serious artist to decorate an American church – and their small circle of friends and allies – men like William Lawrence, Brooks’s successor, and Alexander A V Allen, his first biographer.
As to the tug of war, it is easier to say what it never would be about than what it was immediately about. Bearing in mind the first article of this series, the tug of war was never about Darwin. Brooks was a friend and ally of William Barton Rogers and was an influential trustee of MIT. Brooks had read Darwin; had even met Huxley (Darwin’s great ally in the Oxford debates on evolution with Bishop Wilberforce, so often compared to the Boston debates between Rogers and Harvard’s Louis Agassiz) and dismissed evolution-deniers succinctly: “Behold, man is this,” Brooks argued they were to apt to say, “shutting down some near gate which falls just beyond, quite in sight of what human nature has already achieved,” then he would add: “to man, all lower lives have climbed, and having come to evolution may go on forever.” In short Brooks argued for evolution, documenting for us that he was not the low churchman so many mindlessly repeat he was, nor a high churchman either, but a broad churchman, which is to say a liberal and a modernist.
This central fact of Trinity Church’s builder emerges with particular clarity in the illuminating historical comparison made by C F Thwing of Brooks with another Victorian prelate who has since been canonized, John Henry Newman. Each, Thwing writes, was alike in being “a liberal, one for the liberal branch of the [Roman] Catholic Church,” and [as Thwing defined the Episcopal Church] the other for a liberal Protestant faith.” They were, however, Thwing thought, very different kinds of liberal. Wrote the president of Western Reserve University, which Thwing had become by the 1930s, in his Friends of Man,
From my desk as I write I look up and see two pictures, one of Phillips Brooks and one by its side of Cardinal Newman. Each of these men in different ways has great meanings for one who was young fifty years ago [in the 1880s when Thwing was a student at Harvard]. Newman . . . is a believer in and a follower of doctrine. Brooks is a believer in dogma. Newman’s intellect is bathed in symbolism; Brooks’s is founded in emotional rationalism . . . Newman is both a mystic and a skeptic . . . Brooks a mystic, his skeptic-isms being absorbed and forgotten in his beliefs. Newman’s intellect is subjective and analytical; Brooks’ objective and synthetical. Newman is never a modernist; Brooks is a modernist from the beginning.
One of the most insightful penetrations of Brooks I know of, Thwing introduces if he does not entirely resolve and comes as close as anyone to clarifying the nature of this tug of war, which (because it is always in such situations in both sides interest to try to downplay it) is everywhere denied in Trinity’s history, surfacing for the first time with an intensity and virulence impossible to ignore only after Brooks’s death in the matter of what I have called elsewhere “The Cult of Philips Brooks: Contested Images.” That subject will arise in Centerpiece 2 next time. Meanwhile, we must look much further afield. And become devout Venetians.
Nothing is more important to understand about Trinity Church than that it is supremely the expression of Phillips Brooks’s intimate relationship with his beloved Venice, to the great basilica of which, San Marco, he was as devoted as Richardson was admiring, though Trinity’s architect would not actually visit the Venetian cathedral until 1882, while Brooks would make his pilgrim way to the heart of Venice as often as he could, life-long. About this Brooks’s first biographer was very clear, remarking on the “great hunger in [Brooks's] soul” for Venice’s greatest lover, John Ruskin, author of The Stones of Venice, which almost certainly Brooks had in hand as in mind when in 1866 first he entered San Marco. And how like the future Trinity Church on Copley Square Ruskin’s description of the Venetian basilica sounds:
There opens out before us a vast cave, hewn out into the form of a cross . . . Light is from [hanging] . . . silver lamps . . . The roof is sheeted with gold . . . [T]he glories round the heads of the . . . saints flash . . . [O]verhead a continual succession of crowded imagery, one picture passing into another, as in a dream . . . [A]ll leads at last to the Cross, conspicuous most of all . . . raised in bright blazonry against the shadow of the apse.
The comparison is not exact. In Boston then there were actually two spectacular jeweled crosses to either side of Brooks’s original chancel painted by La Farge himself, each the size of Trinity’s one central chancel cross today. And the modern church eschewed, of course, the silver oil lamps. Instead Trinity rejoiced in an enormous golden corona of dancing gas jets that The Boston Evening Transcript described as breathlessly as Ruskin the Venetian churches’ silver lamps: “down through the midst of this aerial gallery [of the saints high up in the great tower] , with its golden walls, its prophets, angels and Gloria in huge Roman letters of flat gold upon gold”, wrote the editors, “hangs [this] . . . crown-like circle of lights suspended by thick, gilded chains, dropping sheer from the lofty vault of the tower.”
Surely it must have been a dramatic sight, that corona of lights. Though the evidence suggests it somewhat lost its magic when later in the 20th century it was electrified, the corona’s original effect seems the equivalent inside of what moved Brooks so about San Marco’s exterior, which one must imagine Trinity’s rector contemplating of a Venetian evening: “San Marco,” Brooks wrote, “looks down upon all in the moonlight, and it seems to smile.”
Brooks’s enchantment reached its highest point in some of the best poetry he ever wrote:
As one who parts from Life’s familiar shore,
Looks his last look in long-beloved eyes,
And sees in their dear depths new meanings rise
And strange light shine there he never knew before;
As then he fain would snatch from Death his hand
And linger still, if haply he may see
A little more of this Soul’s mystery
Which year by year he seemed to understand;
So, Venice, when thy wondrous beauty grew
Dim in the clouds which clothed the wintry sea
I saw then thou wert more beauteous than I knew,
And longed to turn and be again with thee.
But what I could not then I trust to see
In that next life which we call memory.
Certainly in Phillips Brooks’s imagination it did. Everybody who knew him at all well knew of his special love for Venice and for San Marco, including Helen Keller, the blind girl who Brooks counseled, and who, she wrote, “used to h[old] my hand as he always did and talked to me . . .and I tried to teach him the manual alphabet, and he laughed so gaily over his mistakes.” Keller of course could never see the Aladdin’s cave’ of Trinity, as some called it, but that he described it to her we know because she wrote, “how you would have enjoyed hearing him talk about Venice! His beautiful word-pictures made us feel as if we were sitting in the shadow of San Marco.”
Henry James, interestingly, who first saw Venice in 1869, three years after Brooks’s first visit, painted no such word pictures at all. His reaction to Venice and San Marco was very different, and James, Unitarian if anything, seemed quite immune from Venetian enchantment. In “Traveling Companions,” a short story James brought out about a year later, the protagonist describes himself in St Mark’s Square as “half-stupefied . . . . I had left Europe; I was in the East”.
Brooks himself had seen this too, at once, but unlike James, he was so drawn to it he readily accepted this Eastern aspect very matter-of-factly. After all, Brooks’s response to Venice is as revealing as his response to Darwin. If the response to the idea of evolution showed him to be a liberal and a modernist, the response to Venice and San Marco, 800 years old when first he saw it, documents Thwing’s view that Brooks was also a mystic. James, though in some sense his fellow New Englander, was not.
Listen to Brooks talking to himself in his journal about why St Mark’s was not more influential, wondering if it was because it was “beyond all chance” of being equaled, or, perhaps, more likely he seems to say, because “the Eastern influence, which made St.Mark’s [emphasis added] died away, and western influences came in.”
James probably didn’t know that he had stumbled upon an essential historical fact about Venice: its intimacy with the East,” writes the Indian essayist and New York Times writer, Pankaj Mishra, who goes on in an article of 2004 to recount the views of various previous western visitors to Venice’s famous basilica. The 18th century French writer, Theophile Gautier, for example, described San Marco as an “Oriental dream.” The English author, William Beckford, in 1772, went further, much further: “I cannot help thinking,” he wrote, “St. Mark’s is a mosque.
That would certainly do it – limit San Marco’s influence – in the age of the crusades. And in the era of so much ignorant American opposition to to building mosques today wherever, Beckford’s response to Trinity’s inspiration will doubtless trouble some. Trinity Church’s inspiration modeled on a mosque! Oh dear.
Actually, Phillips Brooks was one of the few then with an experience of this complicated discourse. Richardson, recall, did not visit Venice until well after Trinity’s consecration. Neither had Richardson ever seen Hagia Sophia, the great cathedral of Constantinople that was San Marco’s own inspiration, though he did have a large framed interior perspective of the Church of the Holy Wisdom by his desk in his studio. Brooks, on the other hand, had seen both churches, one of the few westerners who had himself visited Hagia Sophia when it had been turned into a mosque after the Turkish conquest of Constantinople. Seeing the greatest church in Christendom, as once it had been, as a functioning mosque, Brooks found both “curious and impressive”. As the Indian essayist and NY Times writer Pankaj Mishra observed about San Marco, ”Venice often chose the road of compromise with the Islamic world.”
Brooks, of course, was accused of that sort of compromise all the time throughout his life, never mind the tamer instances with Unitarians, but with much more potent religious traditions world wide. In fact, he was fascinated with what we call today the study of comparative religion.
Does all this seem fantastical? Consult Paul Hill’s Venetian Colour: Marble, Mosaic, Painting and Glass, 1250-1550, a very authoritative volume published by Yale in 1999, where Hill notes that inside San Marco “Saracenic, Oriental and Western sources are interwoven in a visual bricolage.” Or if you would like something larger and more obvious, consult perhaps Professor Cherif Bassiouni’s “Islamic Architecture” on the website of the Middle East Institute, where he points out that the great “campanile . . . of San Marco in Venice is inspired by the minaret which was first built at Quairawan, Tunisia.” (Similarly, to bring up again Brooks’s only Boston rival in such matters, art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner, Gardner Museum curator Alan Chong writes: “Mrs Gardner understood that Islamic art was intimately connected with Venice.” Hence her Islamic objects.
The well known Harvard professor of comparative religion, Diana Eck, observes: “no one spoke in [Brooks's] day of Buddhist-Christian dialogue, but that’s what was going on with [one of Brooks's close friends and parishioner, William Sturgis Bigelow," writes Eck; "after a visit from Boston's charismatic Episcopal bishop [as Brooks would become] . . . Bigelow wrote to him: “I was especially glad to get to talk to you about Buddhism, as you are, I think, the only man whose preaching ever made a sensible difference in my life.”
As for Brooks’s interest in Islam, it was very serious, peaking, in fact, just in the years before he first visited Venice, when in 1864 he undertook a year-long course of study of that religion. Islam impressed Brooks. “The truth of Islam, its central and more general truth, was needed,” he wrote. However, he was not uncritical. “Mohammad has done vast harm, but I should dishonor God if I did not believe that Islam had done good.” Indeed, what a different context Brooks gives us for the Unitarian vs. Anglican aspect of Trinity’s tug of war when he writes in his journal of “the affinities of Islam with modern Unitarianism”! What, one wonders, would his friend Charles Eliot Norton have made of that?
In that war Phillips Brooks was a convinced and eager and, as his official Episcopal church biographical note claims, a relatively conservative priest and, later, bishop. But as much because he came out of the increasingly liberal/modernist Puritan-Patriot-Brahmin tradition in the Emersonian era as because he rejected much of its theology for what he saw as the wider religious horizons of Anglicanism, Brooks was nothing if not secure in his deeply Trinitarian and incarnational faith.
Very much a Boston Brahmin, even if his parents had converted from Unitarianism to Anglicanism, Brooks easily took a very global view of everything, not least his travels, which extended to Russia and India and Japan. And as a Brahmin he was deeply conscious of the fact that on the world stage Boston has been if anything the anti-Rome, but in the New World very much the Holy City nonetheless, as much as Rome or even Jerusalem in the Old World, rivaled only as the Puritan capital by Calvin’s Geneva, founded as Boston was by English Dissenters determined that their City Upon a Hill should be the reformed capital of a reformed Christendom.
Especially because as we will see later in this study, not only in Italy in his middle years but everywhere all his life, Brooks was as much moved by Catholic liturgy as by Catholic architecture, Eastern or Western – significantly, like Emerson, though in Brooks’s case it not only soothed but religiously excited him. Trinity’s rector experienced San Marco to the fullest. And he did so as an Anglican, not like Charles Eliot Norton as a Unitarian, who loved the art and architecture but abominated the liturgical life.It does not then altogether surprise that Brooks made more of his Venetian enchantment, much more than any other 19th century Bostonian. (His only rival in this respect was Isabella Stewart Gardner). If San Marco was the challenging Venetian response to Constantinople’s “Great Church,” Trinity Church on Copley Square dared even more, Brooks’s genius of conception engaging Richardson’s and La Farge’s genius of execution so confidently that the result would be an American Hagia Sophia.
Energized by Richardson’s bold central tower – itself a concept (how often it has been said of Trinity that the church is the tower, the tower the church?) that reflects Brooks’s concept of the Church – it was the third of the creative triumvirate who created Trinity, La Farge, who took the lead. And not only in execution, but in conceiving the iconography. Indeed, in both cases, the murals which he and his assistants painted are so important (virtually the first in any American church by a serious artist) that H. Barbara Weinberg is surely correct to say that their “extreme importance in American cultural history must be acknowledged.” Certainly at Trinity they define its own Eastern character, and, finally, as overwhelmingly Christian rather than Islamic (the human figure is never depicted in Islamic art), the reason British scholar J. B. Bullen is able to say in his important book, Byzantium Rediscovered, that Trinity’s interior “has an unusually strong Byzantine character.”
There are other interpretations of Trinity’s interior. Neither Henry-Russell Hitchcock nor James O’Gorman is quick, for instance, to mention the word Byzantine in connection with Trinity; nor Margaret Henderson Floyd in her Richardson study. And only Theodore Stebbins has ever come right out and said that Trinity’s interior is “not Romanesque at all.” This is true also of H. Barbara Weinberg, though she does note Brooks’s visits to Hagia Sophia and Moscow, and that in contrast with how impressed he was in both those places, the French Romanesque churches never much interested him. But even historian Kathleen Curran, who feels Trinity is better seen as the culmination of German neo-Romanesque by way of Munich and American Evangelicalism, a view I strongly disagree with, acknowledges in her fine book on the Romanesque in American architecture that “as the design process evolved . . . especially following the hiring of John La Farge in the fall of 1876, Trinity’s originality increasingly emerged.” Bullen again: “The most Byzantine feature of [Trinity] Church is John La Farge’s decorative interior.”
When new, “these murals elevated La Farge to the status of a superstar in America decorative art,” according to art historian James Yarnall, who in his book John La Farge: A Biographical and Critical Study describes their reception as causing “a sensation.” Rushed and ill paid, the New York artist, a somewhat lapsed but culturally very Roman Catholic artist, was never satisfied by his work at Trinity. But as Yarnall quotes him, “this much I was able to accomplish – that every bit of it would be living.”
The great heroic figures of the tower particularly are singled out by Yarnall as “exuding personality,” as did The New York Times when in February of 1877 it published a series of descriptive articles to greet Boston’s new basilica, a series that emphasized the interior paintings, and not only because La Farge was a New Yorker. That Trinity marked the first serious architectural mural painting in this country is history now; then it was “news.”
The aspect of the Times‘s report most surprising to read today is the emphasis placed on the fact that because “the tower has a row of gas jets high up under the twelve narrow windows near the top” one could see very clearly the tympanums above the windows, filled with paintings that the Times insisted, though small, were “wonderfully distinct.”
No more. Knowingly or not, Trinity’s present lighting design takes sides in the tug of war! (This would suggest, by the way, the original Building Committee, who Stebbins reports, “wanted to leave the interior of the building bare” has found a like-minded posterity!) For whether by misunderstanding or suppression (a not far fetched suggestion here considering the controversy involved) one of Brooks’s most original and significant ideas is today entirely obscured. Reference to the first complete official guide to Trinity Church ever issued, eleven years after the Times‘s reports on the new church of 1877, Chester Arthur’s guidebook of 1888, the only authoritative guide to Trinity ever issued because the only one published in Brooks’s and Richardsons’ lifetimes (and thus not marred by later hagiography and surmise) underlines the Times‘s reporting. In fact, Trinity’s first guide features these topmost tower paintings prominently.
Behold, “Section Five” of “The Tower,” where the titles of the paintings are given in full, and there one learns something startling: the topmost central mural of Trinitys mural scheme depicts the Madonna, Child in hand, presiding over Trinity’s interior. Now there are several Madonna’s at Trinity, some rather celebrated, mostly in stained glass, and including work by Sir Edward Burne-Jones and La Farge himself. But all in somewhat secondary positions. However, to learn from the 1888 guide, as H. Barbara Weinberg put it in her doctoral dissertation of La Farge’s work of 1974, that ”the central tympanum of the east wall,” that wall being in her words “the focus of visual and theological attention” inside Trinity, in the place of greatest honor in the church, a Madonna, Child in hand, presides over the great central place will startle many. Not the least reason it will startle is that it has been for years virtually invisible.
In part this is as I say because of Trinity’s very different lighting design today; there is no longer any row of lights under the tower’s topmost tier of art. However, it is also true that subsequent guides describe the art – still there, quite unchanged, of course – very differently. By the 1978 guide the original title of the 1888 guidebook – “Madonna and Child” – was no more heard of. Instead of ”Madonna and Child” there now appears “Mother and Child,” which if it did not change the letter of the thing, so to speak, certainly changed the spirit of it overwhelmingly. “Mother” is on one level an accurate enough translation. But on another more important level it is a translation that changes everything, banishing as it does – still today – the clear Marian emphasis of Brooks’s and La Farges’s scheme for Trinity. There is in church art, in church history, only one Madonna.
Brooks’s scheme? This is where Professor Yarnall’s assistance has proved so invaluable, helping me achieve access to a source which documents definitively why Trinity’s Madonna, so distinctive as La Farge presents it, has certainly been downplayed and then obscured in subsequent guidebooks after Brooks’s death.
La Farge himself, it turns out – when he wrote the New York Herald in 1909 to clarify the role of he and his “chief assistant” (in Barbara Weinberg’s words) in executing Trinity’s art, Francis Lathrop, later himself a well known muralist, and the artist at Trinity who La Farge reports “executed most beautifully from a suggestion in St Marks [in Venice]“ work in the nave – is witness to both the the significance and the controversy attending Trinity’s Madonna.
Writes La Farge: “On the top of the tower I gave him [Lathrop] a special place to put a Madonna and Child [emphasis added] ” – notice the title he gives it – justifying the special place because he believed Trinity’s Madonna to be the “only one in any Protestant church” (elsewhere he explains himself as meaning any non Roman Catholic or ‘high’ Episcopal church). Now that’s the sort of claim almost impossible to verify, but it obviously rings true to anyone who has studied the life and work of Brooks, so startlingly ecumenical, that La Farge should claim Brooks himself was the initial author of this decision. It was, La Farge writes, Trinity’s Madonna, “a charming infringement of rule suggested by Dr Phillips Brooks.”
In fact, it is one of only three documented suggestions made by Brooks to La Farge – the other are for the nave paintings depicting Christ and Nicodemus and the Woman of Samaria – although Weinberg does point out “there is little doubt [Brooks] was involved in planning the scheme [of the interior] as a whole.” She understands La Farge to mean that it was at “Brooks’s suggestion” that he gave the Madonna “the central tympanum” of the most important congregation-facing wall high over the chancel arch.
La Farge, who knew Richardson better than Brooks, may not have known (as who does now, though it was in his lifetime no secret to Brooks’s friends), of Brooks’s devotion to this image. As early as in 1866 he would write – and both these quotations from Brooks’s journals and letters come from Allen’s biography – of one such: “it has the picture of the world which I have waited years to see, Raphael’s Madonna di San Sisto . . . it is something unspeakably beyond what [I] had dreamed.” And of another, making very plain he was talking as religion and worship much as art or motherhood, he wrote of one secular gallery: “There was that room more like a church than anything I know in Europe, where the Madonna stands. Of it let us say nothing, but that it was something unspeakably different as well as greater than anything I have dreamed – to all pictures henceforth what the Bible is to all books.”
Notice in both cases there is the suggestion of the inadequacy – or is it the suppresion? – of language; and the candid admission of what one can only call Phillips Brooks own dreamscape. Poetry was sure to follow whenever Brooks was deeply moved: his poetry, like his journals and travel notes, have sometimes more to say than his sermons. Thus of one Madonna he writes: “All else are restless; she alone is still. / In pure devotion all desire doth cease; / There is not tide of thought or wind or will / On the broad ocean of her peace.”
There is not tide of thought or wind or will a hundred feet high in Trinity’s great crossing either, all the more so because as Trinity is presently lit the Madonna is virtually invisible.
Hiddenness was something as it happens Brooks wrote about in connection with this image, so important to him. Writing in his notebook of another Madonna, there was another poem: “In the old church which fronts the square, / By the third altar in the southern aisle, / There hangs a picture radiant and fair, / The Virgin Mother with the heavenly smile.” Brooks added: “Then describe the same picture standing there still, even in the dark with no one to see, but the same beauty in it all the while. The blessing of knowing it is there. So of God’s unseen grace”.
Copley Square became in Brooks era a great transatlantic religious mecca, and there is no doubt what was on the minds of the thousands who flocked to Trinity to hear the saint-bishop. But for years people have speculated over what Brooks might have had on his mind as he preached to them in his great church. Never documented stories about La Farge glass abound! Now we know definitely of Brooks’s initiative in respect to the Madonna, for which La Farge claimed a special importance generally and a special place in Trinity, we are perhaps better poised to ask the question implicit in Thwing’s study: what kind of a church does a modernist mystic build?
Two churches, really. Two in one, as we’ll see next time. Sunday morning there was the chancel; the crossing being secondary. Sunday afternoon there was the crossing; the chancel being secondary. The climax of both was the tower, presided over by Trinity’s Madonna.
Now we can factor into our thinking the image to which Brooks and La Farge accorded the place of honor in Trinity Church.
Douglass Shand-Tucci is an historian of American art and architecture and Boston/New England studies. His most recent book is the second volume of his study of the architecture of Ralph Adams Cram (Univ.of Massachusetts Press, 2005) and he also teaches at the Boston Architectural College in the Masters degree program in Historic Preservation. He is the founder of the innovative new history site, Back Bay Historical | Boston CentricGlobal Studies, where his monthly longform blogs have become his principal publishing outlet.