Friday, November 19, 2010

Part V: The Tour of the Boston Public Library

The last installment of the Boston Public Library Tour series is the main reason that I wanted to tour this library in the first place. One of the largest and most controversial murals of all time is known as the Sargent Gallery. This 84 foot long, 23 foot wide, and 26 foot high space is actually a hallway between the Chavannes Gallery and Bates Hall. The atmosphere in this gallery is rather somber as is the subject matter, which is the progress of religion from pagan worship to modern individual freedom and spirituality. Named the Triumph of Religion, Sargent worked for years on the murals that depict Christian and Jewish religious scenes from the Bible and other writings. The figures depict the influence of pagan gods on mankind, and religious law, redemption, and guidance. Figures of the Messiah, Madonna, the blessed Trinity, and angels are painted in storybook style illustration in large murals high on the walls.

Sargent began the Triumph of Religion mural project in 1890 in Gloucestershire, England, and later, when he moved to London, he constructed a one-third-scale of the Library’s Special Collections Hall. Some of that construction still exists today. He made hundreds of preparatory studies in graphite, charcoal, and oil and sometimes added text to his murals from religious writings. He traveled extensively abroad for inspiration, visiting museums, and making sketches of historical monuments abroad. He copied Byzantine style painting, Egyptian and Greek art and hieroglyphics, medieval sculpture and European architecture.

Sargent used plaster and gold inlays for the first time on some of his murals to give them a three dimensional appearance. A crucifix is the most sculptural of all the pieces in the Hall, with the arms and heads of the figures rising outward completely from the wall.

The Synagogue panel was the subject of much controversy when it was displayed. Both Jewish and Christian individuals and groups urged its removal.

The Massachusetts state legislature passed—and then repealed—a bill to remove the picture. In 1924, two months before the repeal of the legislature’s bill, an unidentified individual splattered Sargent’s Synagogue with ink. Sargent and Herbert Thompson from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, headed the restoration and were able to repair the damage done. Though it is unknown why, the controversy appears to have been the main reason that he abandoned Triumph of Religion before painting the planned keynote image, Sermon on the Mount. There remains one lone panel that is empty.

Another reason might be that after WWI, the artist’s metaphorical use of Jewish and Christian history and scripture to signal the progress of Western civilization from a pagan, dogmatic, and institutional past toward individual freedom and spiritual subjectivity became a less compelling subject.

The Triumph of Religion was completed in 1919.

Photos courtesy of the Boston Public Library.


Kevin Mizner said...

You've given one other reason to go to Boston besides Fenway Park. Great posts!

Patty Meglio said...

Glad that you liked the posts on BPL. What a great place to see some fine art. It's kind of a well kept secret.

Also, the Art of the Americas Wing is now open at MFA in Boston. I hear that it is spectacular. You should spend at least a day seeing that.