American Aristocracy: Gods of Copley Square – Centerpiece 3
“The long history of . . . Boston as a quasi-independent city-state and . . . its ongoing negotiations with the imperial powers and commercial forces of the Atlantic world” is the subject of historian Mark Peterson’s forthcoming book, the thesis of which is that “Boston was the entrepot, the material and cultural broker for virtually all relations between Europe and America” from the 17th to the mid 19th-centuries. But notice the date range of The City-State of Boston: Ebb and Flow in the Atlantic World, 1630 – 1865. Peterson’s study ends in the decade embryonic Copley Square began to emerge.
The Square’s development and rise to prominence beginning in the 1860s and ’70s, although it signaled Boston’s rise – in the opinion of the British historian David Watkin, to world-class cultural stature – is also a reminder of the fact that a mother city – a center of civilization wherever – is always somewhat in the odd position of giving away so much it will diminish itself. John Winthrop’s sermon about the “city upon a hill,” delivered en route to his founding of the Holy City of the Protestant New World, to be which is forever Boston’s boast and burden as historically the Puritan capital (in the era of John Updike too!), occurred centuries before President Ronald Reagan spoke of the entire United States as thus shining on its own (larger?) hill. Some resent the appropriation, theft even, as they see it. But historians know better. Mother cities are inevitably victims of their own success in pointing the way.
I am, for example, forever quoting a Village Voice writer now on Gawker, Camille Dodero, who once wrote that Boston is “the founding city of the most powerful nation on Earth.” I do so because no historian would ever put it that way, only a journalist; yet such a blunt assertion compels attention to the fact that “global Boston,” in the intellectual if not the strictly cultural sphere, is a very old story; that, in fact, said Puritan capital’s earliest act on the world – not the local – but the world stage, sparking the American Revolution, was so formative historically, especially thereafter in the wake of the French Revolution a decade later, it seems hardly to allow for another act, which is to say what Copley Square launched.
Now the great inspirations of the square as they emerged in 1865-1915 (my much smaller date range), though they could be seen as art and science – Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (soon to follow Trinity in this series) and MIT and Harvard Medical School being among the chief landmarks of the square in its first iteration – are really, I think, much larger inspirations and in a much larger universe of discourse. Astonishingly, moreover, the inspirations I feel were controlling in the growing up of Copley Square in 1865-1915 are exactly the same as those that were formative in the Boston of John Winthrop in the seventeenth century.
Faith and learning. As there is no larger universe of discourse, it may be said of both Trinity Church and the Public Library there are no more famous flagships either, each facing each other in full dress, so to speak, perhaps the greatest American architecture in either realm in almost four centuries of our national history.
Trinity, earlier built and ever since the square’s centerpiece – transatlantic religious mecca because the seat of priest-poet Phillips Brooks, who would become Boston’s saint-bishop – birthplace of the first American architectural style to win international influence, Richardsonian Romanesque – remains still the agora’s heart, as it was too the heart of the original acropolis of Copley Square, of which MIT was the cornerstone. Yet as the Copley Square basilica neared completion in 1877 it was actually in a somewhat more edgy place than we now imagine.
I derive that impression from what I call “The Underground History of Trinity Church,” written in the late 1870s, though not published until the mid 1880s. A novel, actually: Esther was authored by no novelist but by the father of American academic history, Henry Adams. No Episcopalian either, nor a Christian, both Adams and his wife, Marian Hooper Adams, were, however, fascinated with Trinity. Witness Esther, an effort to chronicle the tug-of-war between Phillip Brooks’s Brahmin Unitarian ‘admirers’ – let’s call them, just for the fun of it, ‘the do-gooders’ – and the Episcopalians, who with equal hyperbole I will call ‘the true-believers.” Esther, furthermore, was not the half of it. The author’s wife needed many fewer words, as it turned out, to score a much more barbed hit against the new Trinity. According to Ernest Samuels, Henry Adams’ most authoritative biographer, “‘Clover’ [as Marian Hooper Adams was called] at some point described Richardson’s architectural style as ‘Neo-Agnostic’, and word of her opinion got [out]”.
In order to fully understand the issues that engaged the ‘do-gooders’, whether Trinity parishioners or not, and the ‘true believers’ (both the remnant and the converts to the Episcopal Church made by Brooks), one has only to walk one block east and two blocks south from Trinity Church to the First Church of Boston/Unitarian on the corner of Berkeley Street and Marlborough, in the shadow of which tower is a specially good place to consider the significance of the fact that Trinity’s architect, H. H. Richardson, was, insofar as he was, religiously, anything – Unitarian.
There has never been any secret about “Richardson’s own distinguished Unitarian background,” as Richardson scholar James O’Gorman puts it, referring to the fact that the architect’s great grandfather was Joseph Priestly, a founder of Unitarianism. Nor was there any doubt what “got Richardson his first Commission,” in O’Gorman’s words again, who points out that with the architect’s design for the Church of the Unity in Springfield, Massachusetts, “he began his career in service to a Unitarian congregation.” Brooks remembered, too, that Richardson “loved to boast” about his Unitarian great grandfather!
What has been distinctly obscured, however, is that Richardson’s connection with Unitarianism was not just a matter of family history. The young architect renewed it conspicuously in his youth by marrying a Unitarian. The reason the First Church of Boston arises here is that this is the congregation in which Henry Hobson Richardson and Julia Gorham Hayden were wed, and it was Rufus Ellis, the minster who built the Back Bay landmark, who married them in 1867 in the old downtown meeting house on Chauncey Street three months before Ellis laid the cornerstone of this Berkeley Street church.
Two years after the First Church was dedicated in the Back Bay – three years after Richardson’s marriage in that congregation – he was himself the architect of another new Back Bay Unitarian meeting house, the Brattle Square Church we dwelt on so lovingly here three chapters ago,(see “Fanfare”). Two years after that, of course, he was the architect of Trinity Church in embryonic Copley Square.
It being the most Unitarian thing in the world to belong to no church at all, there is little more data to work with. Indeed, the subject of Richardson’s religious affiliation, if any, is so mysterious, at least one source – A. G. Greenwood’s and M W Harris’s survey of Unitarian and Universalist Traditions, a 2011 publication of Cambridge University Press, suggests the architect was actually formally a Unitarian, but that he “left the denomination for the Episcopal Church,” presumably to design Trinity Church. This is a similar tale, in fact, if true, to the story of the Chairman of Trinity’s Building Committee, philanthropist Robert Treat Paine, a long-standing friend of Brooks since high school, who was representative of something very common at Trinity in those days. Indeed, in his chapter on Paine in The Making of Trinity Church, Thomas Paine nowhere indicates Paine was converted from Unitarianism to Anglicanism; instead he writes, it was “for Brooks they [the Paines] gave up a church, King’s Chapel, and a faith, Unitarianism . . . The Paines simply could not get enough of Brooks, typically attending both of his Sunday services and the Wednesday night service as well”.
No wonder O’Gorman feels bound to allow that Trinity Church was “good work” for an architect about whom it was said there was “nothing spiritual.” But then it was also said, O’Gorman recounts, “that architecture was Richardson’s religion.” Architecture!
I dwell somewhat on a this because it highlights both the negative and the positive aspects of Trinity’s tug-of-war – and there were both aspects – in a time of shifting religious loyalties which Phillips Brooks was both caught up in and of which he was also an important shaper. The same Chauncey Street building of First Church where Richardson married Julia Hayden was the base in the mid 19th-century of Peter Chardon Brooks, the head of the Brooks clan, and of Phillips Brooks’s parents before their conversion to Anglicanism.
All that said, not only true believers eyebrow’s went up at Richardson’s winning of the Trinity commission from a church whose rector was so widely thought to be a closet Unitarian. An agnostic herself, Clover Adams actually aimed her “Neo-Agnostic” barb not so much against Richardson as against church-goers generally, who tended to oppress her with repeated invitations to mend her ways. It was almost in self-defense that Adams struck back. As to the style itself, she liked ‘Neo-Agnostic’, liked it so much so she and Henry chose Richardson as the architect of the Adams’s own Washington town house. In this connection Otto Friedrich, in his biography of Marian Adams, recounts:
the strange episode of the Assyrian lion. Richardson installed a large stone carving of the lion, backed by a cross, right between the two arches that sheltered the front entrance of the new house, Henry was horrified. ‘If you see the workmen carving a Christian emblem, remonstrate with them,’ he wrote [the person] keeping watch on the house. . . . After he had returned to Washington that fall, he was still angry about the mysterious figure, ‘whose nose I hope to see broken off every time I look at him.’ He pleaded with Richardson to remove the lion, but Richardson declined, and Adams lapsed into sulking. . . .One of the scholars of the Adams papers in Boston, Marc Friedlander, has raised the interesting question of why Adams could not persuade his own architect to remove from his own house a carving that he disliked so intensely. . . . ‘The conclusion seems unavoidable,’ Friedlander wrote, ‘that Adams was constrained to suffer silently . . . because Richardson, in carrying out the application of the cross and carving to the facade, was following the wishes of Mrs Adams. ‘Here too, then, Clover and Henry must have experienced, in twisted form, the controversies that had animated Esther‘.
Kathleen Pyne agrees. In her Art and the Higher Life, Pyne asserts that Marian Adams “ironically insisted that the Christian symbol of a cross be placed on the facade of the house being constructed for the Adamses . . . by Richardson. Since Marion Adams had earlier referred to Richardson’s Romanesque style architecture as a ‘Neo-Agnostic’ style because of its somber color and gravity, the fabric of this house in which she died may be viewed as a metaphor for her own crisis of faith”.
Trinity Church as heralded by a Unitarian church (see “Fanfare”), even Trinity Church as mosque (see “Centerpiece 1”) was admissable in antiquarian and progressive Brahmin Boston. So was the much less well known fact that La Farge worried that Trinity had “no heart” (see Centerpiece 2) in some sense surely because by his own measure it was a malady healed when Brooks and he charged Lathrop with painting the Madonna, Child in hand, to preside high over Trinity’s vast interior. But a ‘Neo-Agnostic’Trinity Church as any sort of “metaphor for [a] crisis of faith” was perhaps more difficult, even aside from Brooks’s so-called Unitarianism, Trinity being, after all, a church conceived by Brooks specifically in the light of of the fact that he was “fully alive to the special intellectual conditions which obtained in Boston, and of the existence there of a spirit of agnosticism.”
I am quoting from an obituary of Brooks of many years later which appeared in the 1895 volume of Contemporary American Biography, which identified that spirit of agnosticism pretty clearly as exactly the spirit personified by the city’s Unitarian Brahmin establishment, so drawn to Brooks but not necessarily to Anglicanism. It may well be the case that the underlying Unitarian/Episcopalian tug-of-war that I see as early appearing in Trinity’s history began, not as I suggested last time here, when Brooks informed his building committee they had on their hands not only the celebrity preacher they wanted but also a very ambitious church builder determined to erect “the glory of America forever,” but when the building committee rejoined that it had pretty much chosen a Unitarian architect.
All of this becomes so much more important than the gossip of a hundred and more years ago in Copley Square because of the fact that, notwithstanding Brooks’s need to revive the Episcopal Church in Boston, his was a yet larger task. All the more because of his presence on the governing Corporation of MIT, whose founder’s defense of Darwin’s new thesis on evolution Brooks agreed with so conspicuously, the fundamental teaching task of the new Rector of Trinity, all things considered, had to be to guide his people through the era of Biblical criticism and scholarly research on the “historical Jesus” that we now call “Jesus studies.” I like the way the modernist Roman Catholic theologian Hans Kung puts the matter in On Being a Christian in our own time, when the issue continues to be important in the post-Christian era:
The believer, like the lover, has no conclusive proofs to give him complete security. But the believer too, like the lover, can be completely certain of the Other by committing himself entirely . . . . If then the ultimate reality of God is revealed only to trusting commitment to faith, it is obviously not accessible to historical investigation. /Does faith presuppose historical-critical Jesus research? No . . . . [M]any believe without regard to the results of research. / Such a faith, however, must be described as naive . . . . Naivete in matters of faith is not evil, but [is] at least dangerous . . . . [I]intelligent, justifiable faith today presupposes — directly or indirectly — historical research, at least in its general results.
In respect to all this, Brooks’s usual modernist attitude stood him in good stead. Who, for instance, would argue today with his defense of the Creed? “We all believe it,” he wrote, “and no two thinking men hold it alike . . . Dogmatism loses the liberty and life of personal conviction, skepticism loses the largeness of the universal faith.” We know too through Allen’s report that this subject came up repeatedly in the discussions of the Clericus Club, Brooks’s inner circle, where there was much talk in the 1870s and 1880s about whether “it was the duty of clergy to give to the people the results of modern Biblical criticism, or how it should be done, in order not to weaken, but, if possible, increase the people’s confidence in the Bible. [Brooks] had no difficulty on this point. He kept back nothing.”
Phillips Brooks’s role in Trinity’s selection of H. H. Richardson is not at all well understood and probably never will be. Richardson’s second commission was an Episcopal one, Grace Church in the Boston suburb of Medford. The fact that its rector of the time, Charles Learoyd, was an old friend and Harvard classmate of Richardson has always seemed significant. As much so, surely, was the fact – usually ignored – that Learoyd (class of 1858, overlapping Richardson’s and Brooks’s classes) was also an old friend and Harvard classmate of Phillips Brooks. Trinity’s rector may well have inquired of his priest friend in Medford about Richardson when Brooks found himself so admiring of Richardson’s third commission, Unitarian again, the Brattle Square Church in the Back Bay. No wonder Margaret Henderson Floyd in her Richardson study commented acidly on “the myths and mystery” of Richardson’s appointment as architect of Trinity Church!
Especially is this true because nothing is clearer than that Richardson did not meet the requirements Brooks outlined for a church architect quite publicly in his Yale Lectures on the Teaching of Religion. Given in 1878, the year after Trinity’s consecration, by which time rector and architect had become good friends and allies, these lectures find Brooks resolute in setting standards no one would suggest Richardson met. Wrote the Rector of Trinity: “The architect who builds the perfect church for any age must be a man who believes in the Christian truth which that age realizes . . . He must be neither the pious medievalist nor the modern skeptic. He must be the modern Christian.”
Although Brooks nowhere identifies Richardson as “the modern skeptic,” Trinity’s rector did candidly address Richardson’s lack of spirituality in a heartfelt obituary of his friend years later in Harvard Monthly in which Brooks suggests, by the way, he and Richardson were not unknown to each other in college. In fact, Richardson (Class of 1859) arrived in Harvard Yard in the fall of the year, 1855, in the spring of which Brooks (Class of 1855) departed. However, Henry Adams, like Learoyd (Class of 1858) overlapped both Brooks and Richardson.
“[Richardson’s] buildings opened like flowers out of his life,” Brooks wrote in his obituary, “true genius certainly was in what he did,” though “he was not a man of theories,” Trinity’s rector insisted, and “[Richardson’s] life passed into his buildings in ways too subtle even for himself to understand.” That said, Brooks pulled no punches. Of what Brooks called “the moral qualities of his architecture”, there was this probing paragraph: [N]ever attaining the highest reach of spirituality and exaltation, for his own being had its strong association with the earth, and knew no mystic raptures or transcendental aspirations [emphasis added]; [it was yet] healthy and satisfying within its own range, and suggesting larger things as he himself always suggested the possession of powers which he had never realized.”
Richardson, so far as we know, was as silent on all this in life as in death. Amazingly, no scholarly biographical study such as have been written of both Brooks and La Farge and of Adams too, has ever been attempted of Richardson. Even in Esther, though Brooks and LaFarge dominate the novel, there is no Richardson character at all.
As for Brooks, however, there can be no mystery. Although he was certainly the complete intellectual – he actually looked forward according to both his biographers to preaching on “the high intellectual festival of the Christian Church” – Trinity Sunday! – he was more often seen as demonstrating what was apt to have been called then the ‘artistic temperament.” I can never look at Burne-Jones’s magnificent pre-Raphaelite art at Trinity without recalling Brooks’s response to his brother Arthur’s gift to him of Rosetti’s poetry: “they are pre-Raphaelitism in verse,” Brooks replied; a sensibility in poetry – stained glass too one is entitled to think – Phillips Brooks thought best approached, he wrote his brother, “in the right mood, perfectly dreamy, entirely untroubled with practical affairs, or perhaps a little drunk might answer.”
In fact, in the best and not the worst sense of those words, Brooks’s vision for Trinity Church overall is of like mind; I doubt he hesitated for long in agreeing with La Farge about Trinity’s Madonna. Devoted as he was to this image, Brooks knew the icon of the Mother of God, the God-Bearer, the supreme earthly agent of “Divine action” would make compelling through personification – what Boston’s typically Unitarian Brahmins, near agnostic and no believers in “Divine action,” at all, inevitably brushed past. That they did so in aid of manifold good works and with a boldness and persistence characteristic of these great civilization builders, is to win our admiration twice over. But as Brooks taught then, and Niebuhr later, overturning ‘right order’ is, from the Christian perspective, quite fatal.
Brooks’s decision for the Madonna inside Trinity, endowing it with the “heart” the La Farge of Esther argued it lacked, found its parallel on Trinity’s exterior in the rector’s decision not just to build but to himself pay for (through a bequest in his will) the West Porch designed by Richardson’s office after the architect’s death. Whatever else it was – “glib archaeological exercise” according to Henry-Russell Hitchcock, accurate enough architecturally – Trinity’s entrance porch, a spectacular example of sculptural art, is certainly a sovereign remedy for “Neo-Agnostic” style! The porch’s weight of sculpture is a kind of weight of witness, not just historically, but physically, massive sculpture and massive witness, hundreds of saints and prophets bearing that witness on every side. It remedies what Marian Adams saw as the fatal flaw of Trinity’s exterior as much as the Madonna did what La Farge – Brooks too – saw as the chief flaw of the interior.
May 10, 1875: “The great circle of the apse is almost done and is very majestic with its seven great windows.” So wrote Phillips Brooks to a friend of what La Farge called in a letter to Brooks a year later, “the part of the church so uniquely yours.”
In that chancel sixteen years later Brooks’s triumph would take place, when despite a good deal of opposition throughout the country because of his supposed Unitarianism, Massachusetts elected him bishop and a majority of dioceses in the United States having assented to his elevation to the episcopate, the Primate of the Episcopal Church came to Boston to consecrate Brooks in a liturgy the splendor and significance of which never dimmed for many of those present. For some, like those today who cannot accept that President Barack Obama is American-born, it would never be clear that Phillips Brooks was a believing Anglican. However, what everyone did agree about was the cathedral setting.
Is there anything more obvious than that Trinity Church was conceived as a cathedral? Brooks goal that it be the nation’s artistic glory has already been noted here. Richardson too, architectural historian Anne Jenson Adams writes in the Art Bulletin, in “The Birth of a Style,” saw Trinity as his opportunity “for the first time in his career to create a truly urban church-cathedral,” like Brooks, perhaps, a national cathedral in the national intellectual capital, not the national political capital or the national economic capital. In one sense,of course, it has become that – “the greatest religious edifice in America,” Peter Gomes called Trinity – but what it has never been is an official diocesan cathedral, and whether that more local purpose was central to Brooks’s conception is not clear. Certainly he knew the tug-of-war in his day would not have permitted it.
The local press, of course, took sides at once. As early as the 1877 consecration of Trinity, the Boston Traveler predicted its future as “a fitting cathedral for the present and future heads of the great Diocese of Massachusetts.” But that was perhaps more local Boston speaking, not global Boston. Although Harvard President Eliot might have disputed the accolade, one of Brooks’ biographers makes the claim he was the best known Bostonian in America or Europe, and Brooks himself was more apt to notice that, like the Byzantine empress Theodora in ancient days, who commanded St. John Chrysostom to court to preach to her, when the great queen-empress who gave her name to Brooks’s age, commanded the first American clergyman to Windsor in 1880 to preach in the Chapel Royal, it was Phillips Brooks who Queen Victoria summoned. Perhaps, too, Brooks’s own colleagues confirmed to him what they later wrote after his death: when Trinity was consecrated, Allen notes, “Phillips Brooks took his place as in a cathedral . . . The enthronement of an ecclesiastical dignitary could posses no deeper symbolism.”
More than one person attending Brooks consecration probably noticed the unfinished chancel. Many more, however, were likely amazed by its magnificence, unprecedented in the Puritan capital, despite the fact La Farge had only decorated its top tier, between and just below the windows and not the lower tier below. “Extensive consideration and expense were devoted to the chancel,” H. Barbara Weinberg has written, something one must try to hold in mind in the face of all those washed-out, glary black-and-white photographs of what it looked like in Brooks’s day. A case in point is the supposed lack of a large cross, so splendid and conspicuous a feature of Trinity’s chancel today. In fact, if you look very carefully at the old photographs and read the descriptions of the colors, Brooks’s original chancel had not one, but two huge golden Latin crosses, each equally splendid, “bejeweled” in the Byzantine manner, painted by La Farge himself on either side of the chancel, framing the range of windows, each cross quite as large as today’s one central cross. Writes Weinberg:
The ribbed ceiling was laid in gilt, relieved by bits of mosaic. The penetrations of the seven apse windows were also gilded . . . Solid gold formed the ground for six panels between the windows [displaying] elaborate Latin crosses . . . [and] . . .extracts from the communion service. . . the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles Creed. [Under the windows] was a broad band of scroll-work containing white doves flying through . . . flowers painted in gold and bright colors . . . suggested by one of the borders seen in the Basilica of Saint Mark’s in Venice [and painted by Francis Lathrop].
Trinity’s original lighting design, always overlooked, is an important clue to how the interior was first experienced. The lighting focused on tower and chancel and on La Farge’s work in both. There was on the one hand, “a row of gas jets encircl[ing] the central tower close to the roof” – the reason the Madonna you can’t see today stood out so then – while the great corona flooded the lower tower with light. On the other hand because of equally focused architectural lighting around the chancel arch, the high vault of the chancel, solid gold in finish originally (now it is a very muted antique gold) must have seemed as a flaming golden crown above the splendor of the upper tier of the chancel art. Indeed, there is a hint of complaint in the Boston Globe report that “on the chancel side of the tower columns, out of view, are perpendicular rows of gas jets, lighting up almost with glare the gilded vault of the apse.”
The chief decoration of the chancel, the seven great stained glass windows by Clayton and Bell, worked very well with La Farge’s plaques and Lathrop’s scroll work. As critic Irene Sargent pointed out so well in her essay on Trinity’s art in The Craftsman in 1903, whereas the tremendous drama of La Farge’s tower frescoes were on the scale of a “Wagnerian orchestra” – swelling and pulsating as so much of Trinity’s music then did (the Sanctus of Brooks’s consecration solemn mass was by Gounod from his work of that name) – Clayton and Bell’s glass was more liturgical in feeling. Sargent likened it to a “Gregorian chant of color.” Every element in the proper liturgical way seemed to pray a greater prayer than its own.
The 1888 Trinity Guide announces these magnificent windows definitively, each representing a crucial hinge event in Christ’s life. On the north both the “Nativity” and the “Discussion with the Doctors in the Temple,” and on the south, the “Resurrection” and the” Commission to the Apostles” frame the three central windows – the “Baptism” to one side, “The Lord’s Supper” the other, of the central window, “The Exhortation at the Feast of the Tabernacles.”
If anyone familiar with the iconographical scheme so widely advanced so often today finds themselves wondering where the so-called “Preacher” window is in this catalog, that title, it turns out, is not in the authoritative 1888 Guide’s list of titles of the seven windows, but was a bit of editorializing later on in the text by author Chester Arthur in his detailed description of the window: “Here our Lord is represented,” Arthur wrote, “as the Preacher,” thereby declaring where he stood in the tug-of-war, having positioned ‘the Preacher’ in the center, between the two sacraments! He entirely misses the point, however.
On all seven days of Tabernacles, a celebration of God’s blessings to Israel during the nation’s forty years in the wilderness, water was poured over the temple altar as a reminder of the water Moses produced from the stone when all were in danger of perishing. It was on the last day of Tabernacles that Christ made his move. I like New Testament scholar Norris M Webster’s reading of Christs exhortation in his essay on “The All-Sufficient Saviour” for the Association for Christian Counseling, Teaching and Service 92004):
[It was on] the last great day . . . that Christ promised not symbolism merely, but in reality a living water . . . Certainly if Jesus ‘stood and cried out’ [“If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink”] at the moment when the priest at the altar had lifted up his hand to signify the completion of the rite, the effect of the cry on the multitude would have been as a thunderclap from heaven. Everyone would know have known whose cry it was, and its significance, namely that everything embodied in that rite of past experience, present prayer and and future hope was available and offered through Jesus. John’s description of the effect of the cry upon the crowd and upon the temple police was inclusive of all possibilities – joy, consternation, turmoil, anger, confusion, fear. These verses illustrate all of these emotions [evoked by Christ’s] . . . claiming to be the Messiah.
In the face of the huge symbolism of Christ’s self-disclosure, “the Preacher” hardly seems adequate. If illustrating Christ as preacher was the point, the Sermon on the Mount would surely have been more to the point. Perhaps Brooks, or one of his successor rectors, pointed this out. If so that may be the reason Chester Arthur’s take on the event was not repeated in subsequent guides for nearly 100 years, until in the worst guide of them all, the 1979 version. By then of course, the role of the church’s guides in the tug-of-war had become something of a tradition. As the highly unusual “Madonna and Child” had become the commonplace generic “Mother and Child,” so “The Exhortation at the Feast of Tabernacles” became “the Preacher.” It is in this context that it becomes so clear that that, notwithstanding the more pointed thrusts in the tug-of-war – “Neo-Agnostic” – “The Preacher” and so on – were by lesser players – it was John La Farge and Henry Adams, aside from Brooks, who were playing for the highest stakes here.
In the first place, La Farge emerges as absolutely the controlling factor in creating Brooks’s interior as it developed, not just for his brilliant iconographic schema, nor for his long-suffering patience with a building committee he could have been excused for thinking more than a little philistine. For one thing, as an example of the risks he ran and the dedication he showed, the frescoed interior La Farge endowed Trinity with was very much the real thing. Whereas, as Margaret Henderson Floyd points out in her Richardson study, “murals were usually painted in America in modern times on canvas in the studio and subsequently attached to the interior walls,” at Trinity, Floyd notes, La Farge “adopted a modified fresco technique” that required painting in place, sometimes on high scaffolding, a technique he learned from the English artist Henry Le Strange, who had implemented “such an encaustic system at El Cathedral in 1855”. Interesting, Floyd implies that the effect of Trinity’s frescoes had something to do with the fact that they were “executed directly on the plaster by La Farge . . . a technique that has been fraught with precarious endeavors from Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper in Milan (1495-97). Sufficient to say that this level of dedication reflected La Farge’s belief in the power of Catholic art. He once told Augustus Saint-Gaudens “there is no such thing as a Protestant in art.” As Kathleen Pyne writes in Art and the Higher Life:
La Farge found himself at the spearhead of the Protestant convergence with Catholic forms of worship — not solely because he was Catholic, but because he had been responsible for the interior decoration of Henry Hobson Richardson’s groundbreaking Trinity Church . . . the first of the Protestant and Episcopalian churches to regenerate its practice of worship into an affair of the heart
It was a significant phrase to apply to La Farge – “an affair of the heart” – in view of Henry Adams’s testimony that the artist thought Trinity had “no heart” – for which La Farge s proposed Madonna was the sovereign cure, and if it suggests Brooks had assembled in his Unitarian architect and Roman Catholic painter a startlingly ecumenical team after all.
If for La Farge Trinity was chiefly an “affair of the heart,” for the more cerebral Adams it was distinctly an affair of the head. Increasingly, moreover, scholars see Esther as very important. In the 2003 Tanner Lectures at Yale for instance, Gary Wills in his “Henry Adams: The Historian as Novelist,” argues that what the building of Trinity Church gave rise to was a novel that qualifies as “one of the more profound reflections ever written on American culture, and especially on American religion.”
In fact, in that novel Adams deals successively and directly as no one else ever really does anywhere, including both his major biographers, not only with Phillips Brooks’s Anglicanism, and his modernism or liberalism, but also his religious imperialism! Agnostic or not, Henry Adams was too good a historian to misrepresent Brooks as Unitarian. Writes Wills: “[Nathaniel] Hawthorne is very much in Adams’s mind . . .but Hazard [the Brooks character] is not a hypocrite, like the minister in The Scarlet Letter. He is a threat to Esther . . . because he believes in the creed . . . It is his creed that Esther must fight.” Similarly with Brooks’s liberalism or modernism: In Esther the opening scene is a sermon by Brooks “that is an epitome of theological liberalism . . . ‘The hymns of David, the plays of Shakespeare, the metaphysics of Descartes, the crimes of Borgia, the virtues of Antoinne, the atheism of yesterday and the materialism of today [are] all emanations of divine thought . . . It was the duty of the Church to deal with them all, not as though they existed through a power hostile to the deity, but as instruments of the deity to work out his unrevealed ends.”
Adds Wills, “This gospel, which seems so open and accepting, is resented by Esther . . . for its imperialism,” which she resents all the more because it is advanced as a part of something false – for she finds “something false about the church [building]as a work of art, something theatrical.”
Both what is heard and what is seen – oratory and fresco – was “not only out of accord with the worst of the congregation at this first sermon . . . who view with the church decorations for display”, but Wills adds, “it was just as discordant with the best of those who have shown up [em[hasis added] . . . and Wharton takes that best to be Esther Dudley,” whose father, he adds some paragraphs later is also “notorious . . . as a religious skeptic.” Notorious in New York, but quite the establishment in Brahmin Boston. It is a nice question who saw the Preacher and who saw Saint Cecelia.
Only Esther knew. And lest anyone think I’m going rogue here, I quote from a news report in The New York Times, September 25th, 2004: “A miracle of sorts occurred nearly ten stories above the pews of Trinity Church on Wednesday. Workers restoring the vibrantly ornate Episcopal church found a mural hidden for some reason by a canvass overlay the last 127 years.”
Hidden Trinity. It’s a pattern. Not just the Madonna, but the whole story of the Madonna. Which raises the question why something so significant and interesting according to LaFarge himself about the art of Trinity Church that it rejoices in the only (or perhaps now the first) Madonna and Child in what the artist called Protestant America, the rule-breaking suggestion of Brooks himself, has never surfaced in any history of or guide to Trinity Church and is, in fact, published here for the first time in over a hundred years since its first appearance in a New York newspaper in 1911.
Hiddenness was a theme of Esther, itself a book well-hidden. Ernest Samuels is clear that while Henry and Clover “hoped people would discover the book and take it up” on behalf of “the Agnostics,” Henry asked the publisher, Holt, to do no advertising and send out no review copies. (I have been able to discover one review, and that very brief, in Publisher’s Weekly, on May 10, 1884). Saint Cecelia, hidden at Trinity, just seems like another glimpse of the pattern, a two-part pattern – not just the physical fact of the art itself but the historical record as well
Even in the British edition of Esther there is hiddenness. In England Adams’s novel was much more stridently titled. It was called Esther; or the Agnostics. Adams encouraged reviews and even advertising, and although there too I have been able to find only one review, it appeared in The Athenaeum, the leading English literary journal where the reviewer judged the novel’s Philips Brooks character a “rather theatrical young clergyman” – this in July, 1885, just two months after the real-life Brooks had preached (the first American clergyman to be asked to do so) – in Westminster Abbey to widespread praise.
Notice that Brooks too is thus hidden in Adams’s novel, as much so as Saint Cecelia may or may not be in Trinity Church itself, a matter I bring up because the lack of any female saints in all the frescoes and stained glass of the church of so liberal and progressive a parish stands out amazingly by contrast with another Episcopal church nearby, equally notable as a High Church conservative stronghold, the Church of the Advent on Beacon Hill. The very next year after Trinity’s frescoes were painted, the Advent balanced its South Transept window of the Apostles – all men of course – with a North Transept window of sixteen female saints (including the Abbess Hilda with her crozier) which was sixteen more than Trinity boasted. Cecelia, organ-pipes in hand, is among the sixteen.
Nor was it just in Adams’s novel that St Cecelia figured in Trinity’s interior; H. Barbara Weinberger, the authority on Trinity’s interior art, is quite specific about where in Trinity La Farge had intended to paint her, writing in her doctoral dissertation:
the tympanum . . . nearest to the entrance to the chancel in the the south transept . . . / One may only speculate on La Farge’s intentions to fill this latter era. Henry Adams’s description in Esther, of the painting of a figure of Saint Cecelia, in a church closely resembling Trinity by an artist closely resembling La Farge suggests that a female saint might have been planned for Trinity, possibly for the south transept. This specific is reinforced by the inclusion of a bust-length sketch of a female figure . . . in a portfolio of studies for Trinity sold in 1911 by La Farge’s estate.
Brooks, recall, seemed almost to anticipate all this, disarming any who saw a problem with hiddenness: “even in the dark, with no one to see,” Brooks wrote in his poem of the European Madonna of “the blessing it is there. So of God’s unseen grace.”
Such are the passages of our lives. The woman who pronounced Trinity’s style “Neo-Agnostic,” in the first place, Clover Adams, had no more to say that I know of before her suicide in 1885, a year after Esther‘s publication. The next year, 1886, Richardson died, and – agnostic or not – or Unitarian or Episcopalian – Trinity’s architect was buried from Trinity Church. Phillips Brooks delayed a trip to the west to officiate, writing afterward (to whom his biographer does not say): “Richardson is off alone on his long journey. I wonder how long it will be.” Phillips Brooks’s query suggests both that the religious differences between he and Richardson were real and also the priest’s consciousness that, perhaps because the architect was neither “true believer” nor “do-gooder” (but as good a friend as he was an architect), in their alliance at least the tug-of-war at Trinity had yielded exceptional results on both sides.
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.