Seeing the Chapel in a New Way
Adult Forum, September 16, 2012
by Lois Oliver, Head Docent for Duke University Chapel
[For context, on the Sunday this class was held, the Chapel was closed to the public for an engineering inspection of the ceiling. The 11:00 worship service was held in Page Auditorium.]
I am not going to deliver a tour of the Chapel verbally, though that is the only way you can see the inside today. Rather, I am going to convince you that there is beautiful and amazing craftsmanship and artistry that you can be inspired by, and that you may not have known about.
Every usher and docent knows that the commonest question asked by visitors to the Chapel is “where is the bathroom?” On weekdays, this is usually followed by “where is Cameron Indoor Stadium?” A typical visitor to the Chapel walks in, goes up the steps to the nave, takes a picture of the great Chancel window, gazes about, walks down the aisle a bit, turns and takes a picture of the Flentrop organ and then leaves. The Sunday docent program, suggested by Robin Arcus, and organized by Bob Dunham gets a few visitors to really see the Chapel. In 2006, Molly Keel and Lucy Worth convinced me to try to find docents for weekdays. We have a number of docents on board, but if any of you find yourself inspired today to become one, I am happy to say you would be welcome to join us. After all there are about 1000 visitors a day to our Chapel, and many welcome knowing more about it than “it is beautiful”.
I am now going to ask you to become 13th century peasants in the time the great cathedrals of Europe were going up. You are awed by the soaring new Gothic architecture which seems to reach up to heaven. You can’t read, but you have been taught Bible stories by your priests, your teachers and your parents, and you are not dumb. As you know, cathedrals are built of three materials, stone, wood and glass. Gothic architecture allowed for openings in the walls and at first the builders put colored glass in these spaces to put some color on the grey stone. When stained glass made it possible to have pictures in the glass, the priests saw a way to teach the bible to illiterates, by using the windows. Now most of the characters, saints and sinners, are known to you from the stories, but how would you recognize them in pictures? Knowing the story, it was possible to give each character a symbol, so that you could identify him or her and be reminded of the story. This carried over to the stone, and any wooden carvings. So, you could visit your local cathedral, and before and during and after the mass, you would find bible stories to learn from the building itself. For example, you see a half naked man holding a shovel. Who was the bible’s most famous farmer? Why Adam, of course. And you can now think of all the wonders of the creation story, especially if around Adam you see some animals, some greenery, two boys, and a woman. Now you can use this picture to teach your children the bible story with illustrations, no less.
If you are a sculptor or a wood carver, and you are creating a saint for a side chapel, or a niche in the cathedral, the same rules apply. John the Baptist will be carved in his camel’s hair robe, Moses will hold his stone tablets whether made of wood or stone. I hope you as illiterates get the idea and, of course, the lesson.
What follows now is how I want you to see the symbolism and beauty of the Chapel that you may have noticed or not, but might inspire you to see things differently. We will start in the narthex and work our way forward to the chancel.
The next time you enter the Chapel into the narthes, look up—way up. Follow the largest organ pipes to their very top where you will find angels. They are holding hymnals and their mouths are wide open, so they are our own singing angels. And while your neck is stretched you might admire the great women of the old testament in the windows. Why are they in the narthex? Because women worshipped at home, not in the temple, so our ladies are outside the main worship area.
As you step into the nave under the Flentrop organ, give a nod to the two women in their niches, knowledge and piety. They represent the motto of Trinity College and Duke University. If you aren’t sure which is which we think the one with the book looks like knowledge, but it could be Piety’s bible.
The body of the nave is of course where we all spend a lot of time. Most of us creatures of habit sit in the same place or area each Sunday. Do you know the story in the window beside you? Or the character in the window above it? As you probably do know, the upper, or clerestory windows tell the major old testament stories, and the lower windows confined to the nave tell the NT ones. You should be impressed, as I am, with how the stories in their cartoon form show most of the story. We can follow Jesus from the annunciation window all the way to the cross, and his resurrection and ascension into heaven. How would you picture Jesus’ ascension?. The very clever window designer, Charles Jaeckle, shows us in the next to the last window on the right as you face the pulpit. There is a pair of bare feet with a gold robe around them leaving the top of the window square. So the last sight of Jesus in our windows is his bare feet—rather humbling don’t you think? The last window is the story of Paul, but the very last square in Paul’s window pictures the death of John. A poignant end to the NT.
One window on the left pulpit side is of King Melchezidek, who only merited a few lines in the Bible. He sort of stars in that window, because in it is God’s call to Abraham, and Abraham’s window is the next one.
The two windows at the end of the OT windows, back by the attendant’s desk depict Tobit and Judas Maccabeus. Their stories were in the bible in the 13th century but are now in the apocrypha. The designers needed a couple more central characters, and in keeping with the architecture these important figures deserve to have their stories included.
Wherever you sit in the nave, unless it is beside a column, you can study the windows near you while you listen to the prelude, or as you arrive and leave. It might help you to bring your opera glasses, or binoculars, and I promise that people will just think you are eccentric as long as you don’t use them during the service. There might be quizzes sometime about your neighbor windows.
If you sit in the area of the chairs, the only furniture not hand carved, you are in the crossing with the north and south transepts on either side. In a real medieval cathedral, no laymen would be in this space, as the great arch at the end of the nave marks where the people stand or sit, and the crossing is where the sacred space begins, for priests and acolytes. Or you might sit in one of the transepts. Here your knowledge of symbols, or your use of your binoculars will enable you to identify the great saints of the old and new testaments in portrait windows. In the great chancel window and the two transept windows there are five old testament figures on the bottom row, and over their heads are ten new testament figures.
Now everyone in the nave and the chairs can see the great chancel window. In the quatrefoil is the artist’s idea of the face of God, and below it is Jesus. However, because of the OT figures mostly prophets at the bottom of the window, there is only room for nine disciples. The most dramatic symbol in this window is St Peter’s key which looks like it would open a serious door—to the kingdom of God. Those sitting in the south transept should be able to find the three missing disciples in the north transept window—Thomas, Simon, and Matthias, along with gospel and epistle writers. Those sitting in the north transept can locate Lazarus in his shroud at the top, and perhaps you know St. Veronica, holding her scarf with Christ’s face on it. But you might search for Mary and Martha and the others. Of course their names are all there in the glass, but unless your vision is particularly good, you might need binoculars to be sure.
There are more windows for the transept folk, as there are east and west windows in each transept. In the north, on the east you find John the Baptist and his mother, and on the west three archangels watch over you. In the south transept, on the west you have your own archangels, and on the east Christ’s earthly parents, Joseph and Mary.
Over your heads, in the center of the crossing is a huge capstone (1 ½ tons) which supports the arches and has an angel blowing a trumpet, so you need to lean back and give it a nod, and hope it stays up there.
Even though the ministers and the choir and the ushers are the ones who spend more time in the Chancel, it probably has the richest Christian symbolism. At the front, the stone, which most of us can see, has sculptures, two figures under the pulpit flanking three shields, and a figure under the lectern. The latter is Ambrose said to have introduced hymn singing to the mass, so can be called the saint of church music. The two under the pulpit, represent the old and the new testament—you could work on which is which. The shields are three—the top on contains the crook of the good shepherd, triangles representing the trinity, wheat for the body of Christ, and a fleur de lys for purity. The middle shield has 3 lions representing Christ, the lion of Judah, and the bottom one has 3 crowns for Christs victory over death.
There is no record that I can find of who did the design of the woodwork in the chancel, but it is as amazing as the windows. Over the pulpit, the canopy has all eight archangels, each with a symbol, carved around the middle, and on top the figure of Christ the king with the world in his hand. You could work on figuring out all eight archangels.
The reredos, or screen is another masterpiece. You probably can identify the scenes in the lighted niches, as Christ teaching in the temple, Christ on trial and Christ being laid in the tomb. But on high either side of the big cross at the top center are two figures. They are Paul with his ‘sword of the spirit’ and John the Baptist in his camel hair robe. Surrounding the lighted niches are four saints, Saint Gregory, Saint George, Saint Augustine, and Saint Francis. George is the one with the dragon, and you have to work out the others’ symbols. On the back wall are Abraham, David, Samuel and Moses. Then to make up for the absence of some of the disciples in the great chancel window, the wood carvers lined up all 12 in fifteen inch statues, six on either side next to the PA speakers ( which of course they never knew was going to happen)
Carved into the dark oak screen are dozens of symbols of theological concepts, a sheaf of wheat (body of Christ), a nine pointed star (the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit), passion symbols, thorns, nails and thirty pieces of silver. Probably we can’t even identify all of the symbolism, but we can appreciate the workmanship and beauty of the woodwork. It might be worth going to any service where you can sit in the chancel and spot the Christian symbols around you.
The side windows in the Chancel are not often seen by us or by visitors, Moses, Joshua, Gideon and Samson, plus the windows behind the organ pipes, on the south side, portraits of Enoch, Seth and Methuselah and on the north side, Joseph, Rachel and Benjamin.
Lastly there are a few things that you should know about color. White is rarely used in the windows, but most often it is in the halo around Christ’s head. Whether white or not, his halo is always pierced by three insets, symbolizing the trinity. Everyone’s halo has multiple pieces of glass, but no one else has these insets or notches. Green serves two meanings. It is the color of new beginnings, so dominates the creation window and is the color of the rainbow over Noah’s praying figure when he is on dry land. The other use is for evil. Green devils appear in the fourth window from the back on the lectern side when Jesus is tempted by the devil. Another devil is behind Cain in the Creation window as he is killing Abel. However there are two devils said to be blue. One is at the very top of the Creation window where he sits on the halo of a saint, and the other in the Joshua window similarly smirking at us. We can prefer to call these devils aquamarine, and assume that the only Blue Devils are the live students on campus.