By Matthew Alderman
“Jesus is consistently startling,” said the dean as small children shrieked and screamed somewhere behind me. It was drizzling lightly outside the sidewalk table umbrella, and across the way was a large storefront full of Muppet-themed tchotchkes. Due to chronic overbooking, I had stolen away from a winter family reunion at an Orlando, Florida, theme park to talk by phone with John P. “Jep” Streit, dean of Boston’s Cathedral Church of St. Paul. Even with the incongruous surroundings on my end, Dean Streit’s enthusiasm was palpable.
Despite its prime location facing Boston Common, it is easy to walk past St. Paul’s sober Greek revival portico and mistake it for a shuttered bank. Until now. The new renovation, the dean explained, would embody the parish’s spirit of outreach with a bold design for the church’s unfinished pediment. It would become a physical embodiment of Christ’s words, “Come and see.” And like Christ, the renovated structure would have that same arresting, inviting, and surprising touch.
As cathedrals go, St. Paul’s is a bit of a historical accident. The church had been founded in 1818 by a collection of Boston patriots seeking to “create an edifice that was wholly American, and undeniably representative of its democratic ideals,” as an official brief for the renovation notes. It was not designated a cathedral until 1912. Before then, Massachusetts had simply gotten along without one, despite the entreaties of architect Ralph Adams Cram, who fantasized about building one on an artificial “St. Botoph’s Island” in the Charles. The sisters Mary Sophia and Harriet Sarah Walker later bequeathed a million-dollar-plus estate to the diocese for the construction of a proper mother church. Their money was redirected toward ministry support, and St. Paul’s got the nod instead.
When the church was first designed by Alexander Parris and Solomon Willard, an appropriately classical relief of St. Paul preaching before King Agrippa was planned for the front. Funds ran short, and the pediment remained blank. Last March the diocese announced that a new design had been selected. The work of internationally recognized Philadelphia artist Donald Lipski, the new sculpture will be a “non-traditional” presentation of a “cross-section of a chambered nautilus” set against an illuminated blue glass background, an image meant to wed classical ideals of proportion to a spiral shape representative of a spiritual journey.
“We are doing something bold and extraordinary with the front of our cathedral church because what God has given us to share with the world in Jesus Christ is bold and extraordinary,” Bishop Thomas J. Shaw, SSJE, has explained. The new pediment will accompany a number of alterations to the interior, including the installation of a new, environmentally friendly heating system, skylights in the nave, and a rearrangement of the narthex incorporating more glass and a new day chapel. The pews will be removed to create a more flexible worship space.
Official reactions have been almost universally affirming for this thorough makeover. Jen Mergel of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has been quoted calling the design’s message of “limitless potential growth and inclusion” significant “not only for the mission of St. Paul’s, but for the arts in Boston.” Dean Streit does recognize the design has a few critics. A chorus of digital hecklers vented their frustration on Universalhub.com shortly after the official announcement. “This is an abortion!” cried one, and another described the design as a “Greek Revival casino.” This was interlarded with comments of “beautiful,” “nice!” and “cool.” Elsewhere, commenters at archBOSTON.com criticized it as “empty street-view calories,” “obnoxious,” and resembling a Pythagorean meeting-house. (The discussion thread wandered off into a tangential discussion about local panhandlers and, for some reason, Howard Stern.)
Both the proposed interior alterations and the pediment have much to recommend them. While the skylights are a somewhat unconventional addition, they will certainly open up the dim nave, as will the addition of more glass to the narthex wall. The removal of pews, though, will unfortunately undermine the processional orientation of the interior, but the chancel will remain largely untouched. The pediment’s design is, in purely aesthetic terms, imaginative and arresting — a true eye-catcher that will demand all to “come and see.” Its “obnoxious” color scheme recalls the original paintwork of Greek temples and medieval church interiors, and will do much to liven up an otherwise staid façade. And the parish’s desire, via such a showstopper bit of art, to promote its extensive program of community outreach and care for downtown’s homeless population, is a laudable one.
But the “complex symbolism” praised by Bishop Shaw is more elusive than allusive. Dean Streit responded, when I asked him about comments that the design was “not overtly religious,” by saying that yes, it lacked denominational and doctrinal specificity. The strength of the design, as both he and Lipski have said, is that its symbolism is “accessible to virtually everyone.” But this universality gives it a disembodied, Rorschach-like quality. The geometrical elegance of the nautilus can symbolize God’s hand in creation, but it only hints at the act of re-creation at the center of Christ’s work on Calvary. A hanging cross planned for the portico will remedy this to a degree.
Lipski’s apologia for the work does mention the “Madonna blue” background, derived from the robes of the Virgin and the flag of the Episcopal Church. This color he also sees as a symbol of Christ’s humanity, derived from that of Mary. But this remains secondary to the spiral imagery of the nautilus, “the archetypal symbolism of cosmic force,” which he links to proto-New Age psychologist Carl Jung and to Oliver Wendell Holmes’s poem “The Chambered Nautilus.” In the latter, the poet enjoins the sea-creature growing outward to “[l]eave thy low-vaulted past,” suggesting anything but doctrinal continuity traditionally understood.
The dean has said, “Jesus invited people to become his followers by simply saying, ‘Come and See,’ not by identifying himself as the Messiah or detailing his theology.” Yet the Christ of the Gospels is not always shy in asserting his divinity, as seen in John 6:62: “Does this shock you? What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” As to doctrine, it is his injunction to “eat the flesh of the Son of Man” (John 6:54), a statement otherwise horrific, that his disciples find most shocking.
Lipski’s nautilus is another of contemporary art’s earnest attempts to grapple with the divine which fall back on the natural world and mathematical abstraction in their expression of religious experience. The results are intriguing but strangely inarticulate. Consider the elaborate but impenetrable symbolic geometries of Craig Hartmann’s Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland, California, or Renzo Piano’s peculiar Padre Pio Shrine Church in Puglia, Italy, with its unsettlingly Lovecraftian tabernacle and spiral floor-plan. Each time, the best and brightest of contemporary culture has struggled with God, and been only able to convey a vague and numinous presence rather than a true Being. Returning to review the storehouse of that “low-vaulted past” would have at least provided them with an artistic starting point as they wrestled with angels.
I admire Dean Streit’s passion for the people who populate his parish community, and his desire to render the cathedral a conscience for downtown Boston. But the vision the new pediment presents is incomplete. The apostle Paul’s mission was not just one of hospitality and good works, but the unglamorous, uncomfortable and countercultural act of preaching Christ, and him crucified. On the Areopagus, before a similar Greek temple, he unveiled the Unknown God to the city all around him. Christian art is not merely about expressing the believer’s journey, but providing an encounter with God in the flesh. Like Christ, it is startling and inviting at once, but it is also incarnate and highly specific — revealing a Person rather than a platitude. “Come and see,” but what, and Who? Christ’s ministry begins with “Come and see,” but our life in Christ begins with the angel’s implied “Whom do you seek?” at the empty tomb. A truly startling image might have been a bold, glittering mosaic of the resurrected Christ in Majesty, gentle and strong — so old that it, like the Lord himself, is new again.
Matthew Alderman frequently writes and lectures on traditional church architecture. He works at Cram and Ferguson Architects in Concord, Massachusetts, a successor firm to that established by Ralph Adams Cram in 1889.
Artist’s concept images courtesy of the Cathedral of St. Paul