Category Archives: Stones of Boston

Arlington Street Church

Except where noted all Photos are by Iory Allison

MADONNA OF THE FLOWERS

In this window, the central female figure or Madonna, tenderly embraces her child. But here she is intended to be more than the character of the biblical Mary; she also symbolizes the universal qualities of the feminine and motherhood. At her feet a host of flowers spring to life with abundance. By the Madonna’s right foot is a blossoming stalk of a pure white lily, symbolizing both the annunciation of Archangel Gabriel and the resurrection of Christ. On the Madonna’s left, entwined around a tree is a blue passionflower vine with all its references to the passion of Christ crucified. The tree on which the passionflower grows is itself in blossom, supporting and protecting the Madonna and her child, symbolizing the resilience and eternal aspect of spiritual awareness. Two attendants flank the central figures, they are playing a violin and lyre and they symbolize the harmony of universal bliss.    

The stained glass windows of the Arlington Street, Unitarian Universalist, Church in Boston were designed, made and installed over a period of 31 years from 1899 to 1930 by the Tiffany Glass Studios of New York. There are 14 main “story” windows and two of ornamental design. Each window employs richly colored iridescent glass, painted / enameled glass and layered opalescent glass using “jewels” to further enliven the borders. The overall effect of the highly chromatic windows in the all white neo-classical interior architecture is dramatically sumptuous.

The central oval and diamond “jewels” used in the borders of a window

The Arlington Street Church was the first public building built in Boston’s Back Bay, completed and dedicated in 1861.The building was designed by Boston architect, Arthur Gilman. The exterior is inspired by the famous church of St. Martin in the Fields in London.

 The interior is divided into a nave with two side aisles by a range of twenty-five foot high Corinthian columns set on plinths elevating them to the height of the tops of the pews. The pews are made from chestnut wood with black walnut rails with silver/gray brocaded upholstery. The spectacular stained glass windows and the red carpet running down the central aisle are in glorious color contrast to the rest of the pristine white interior. A barrel vaulted ceiling rises 68 feet to the apex of its five arches and is decorated with foliated rosettes.

Photo from the website of The Boston Organ Studio

Interior of Arlington Street Church

Each window is dedicated to the memory of various members of the parish who were also prominent Bostonians of their time. The iconography of the windows reference Christian biblical stories and a variety of spiritual concepts.

The Wigglesworth Memorial Window 1922

The angel in the center has a lyre resting on her shoulder and the two flanking cherubs play different instruments. The cherub on the left plays the ancient Greek instrument, a double aulos, which was instrument like a modern oboe. It was held in place by a leather strap. The aulos had a shrill, piercing tone  like a bagpipe and therefore had a compelling and strong sound.  The cherub on the right plays the cymbals.

The message here is a jubilant promise of the afterlife, the window is inscribed on the arch above the group, “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad for great is your reward in Heaven.” I would say my reward is seeing this astoundingly beautiful work of art right here and now. The wings of the cherubs have sculpted, three dimensional passages of iridescent glass while the face is enameled.

Playing the double aulos

The Osgood memorial window (1930)

This window is entitled, “Blessed are ye when men shall revile you and persecute you.” At face value, this is not a sentiment that I share, nor am I fond of the bellicose weapons and armor. I shy away from the depiction of philosophic or religious beliefs with knights or warriors smacking of  – “onward Christian Soldiers.”  I believe that true invulnerability against the forces of evil is to learn to deflect such competitive discord, such as a master of Judo will deflect the force of attack by turning it back on itself. That said, I have to admit to an irresistible fascination for the allure of body armor and helmets because of the stylized and enhancing decorative aspects of polished steel following the contours of the body. In this case, the central angel wears a long chain mail skirt which drapes beneath her breast plate. I suspect this representation is accomplished by painting the design on with enamels on the back side of the glass.

Chain mail skirt

The Brown memorial window (1900)

This window depicts an angel telling a group of shepherds of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Now here is a theme I can thoroughly admire, revelation. I believe that the alignments of the physical structures of our world are a constant “revelation” and within that miraculous discovery is the great joy of true love.

 Whereas I no longer identify as a Christian, I do believe in the divinity of the universe and in its infinite expansive evolution there is collective super intelligence, design and harmony. This divine presence can be seen and felt in the “murmuration” of fast flying birds that, in concert and rapid movement, swerve and divide, reunite and spin off again creating patterns of flight that are seemingly gone before they form. Never once, in a host of thousands the birds, will a single individual collide with another. This is an example of collective intelligence and  is only one  infinitesimal example of the design for living that animates even the spiraling “arms” of our own galaxy, “The Milky Way.”   These are miracles, not the magician’s sleight of hand turning wine into water. It is cooperation not competition that powers evolution! 


“These beautiful starlings were filmed in Israel – thousands of starlings fly in a massive murmuration in the skies above Rahat,” Zoo. (Sorry about the pop-ups you may have to endure or click out of, but in this case these distractions are worth tolerating because the clip is an amazing revelation. )

The next three windows illustrate three of the “beatitudes,” quotes from the book of Mathew in the New Testament of the Christian Bible. The beatitudes are from the Sermon on the Mount that was preached by Jesus and is a probable compilation of his overall teachings. 

The astounding beauty of the colored glass and the extreme quality of the craftsmanship paired with the innovative technology of the Tiffany Glass Studios are revelations in themselves, ever reminding us of the truth in beauty.  The Peacemakers, The Meek and The Merciful, in my mind, embody wise individuals who can deflect and sidestep negativity in order to preserve harmony. 

The Wheeler Memorial window (1907),

“Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.”

 

The Greene memorial window (1908),

Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.”

The Estabrook memorial window (1920),

“Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.”

To see more photos click here

The Decorative plinth of the Leif Erikson Monument

The inscription in Runes reads, “Leif the Lucky, Son of Erik”

Photo by Iory Allison

Leif Erikson is said by some to have been the first European Explorer to have landed in North America. Here in the Boston area, this claim is supposedly evidenced by certain stone structures in Cambridge, Watertown, and Weston “discovered” and “excavated” in the 1880’s by

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Prof Horsford by Ann Whitney 1890, Davis Museum Wellesley College

Professor Eben N. Horsford a Harvard Professor of Chemistry. So beware of men bearing impressive credentials that they do not, by power of a prestigious brand name. steal reason and twist knowledge to their purpose.

Horsford was also the principal patron to fund the Leif Erickson memorial sculpture that decorates Commonwealth Avenue at Charlesgate East. Professor Horsford made a fortune from reformulating baking powder with calcium biphosphate rather than cream of tartar. Fortunately, Professor Horsford’s attempt to “reformulate” history was not as successful as his chemical profundity. The theory that Leif landed in North America and founded a settlement called Norumbega, along the Charles River was a particularly nasty brand of Nordic / Aryan race superiority cooked up by a certain bunch of Boston Brahmins who were intimidated by the immigration of Irish and Italians into their territory in the late nineteenth century. It was the intent of Horsford and his ilk to debunk the accepted history with “alternative facts” proposing the idea that an “Aryan”, not a Mediterranean Catholic discovered North America.

In Horsford’s defense, it should be noted that he was an early supporter of women’s education and benefactor of Wellesley College. Presumably, his support of women is also why Ann Whitney was awarded the commission to sculpt Leif. This is my guess without documentation but I think it is a safe bet.

 

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Drawing of Ann Whitney 1821 – 1915

photo by Iory Allison

The Leif Erikson monument consists of an over life-size bronze statue of the explorer by the sculptor, Ann Whitney (1887). He stands on a brownstone plinth that terminates at its base with a curving prow and stern of a Viking long boat.

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photo by Iory Allison

The prow, in the form of a dragon, was intended to be a fountain head spouting water into a granite basin that surrounds the monument and is roughly shaped like a boat with four curious granite finials. Today the basin is filled in with earth and planted with seasonal flower displays.

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photo by Iory Allison

There are also two bronze plaques on the right and left sides of the supporting plinth. In the right plaque we see Leif and his crew landing on a rocky promontory, mooring their long boat and scrambling up the precipice where Leif has already gained ascendancy. He stands with hand shielding the brilliant dawn of a new era with a penetrating gaze inspecting the new land.

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photo by Iory Allison

The second plaque depicts Leif and his crew, presumably back home, reporting to the elder Vikings their discoveries. This scene takes place in a Viking long hall decorated with trophies of weapons: swords, shields, a sheath full of arrows and helmets.

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photo by Iory Allison

The brownstone plinth also has four corner masks at its base, each with a slight variant of design surrounded by distinctive hair or sea-weed flourishes arranged in decorative swirls that make the specific identity of the creatures ambiguous and thereby “mystic.”

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photo by Iory Allison

In the same vein of mystery are four granite finials that mark the termination of the water basin surrounding the monument. Each of these creatures is unique. The front left is a zoomorphic head with a threatening beak (octopus, giant squid, sea bird?) between two “eyes” of tightly coiled spirals that stare up at the viewer with menace.

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 photo by Iory Allison

The front right guardian finial is slightly more anthropomorphic with a hint of a human nose and mouth emerging from a tempest of sea weed “hair” that also contains two coiled spiral “eyes.”

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 photo by Iory Allison

The rear two finials resemble seaweed vegetation being curled into graceful balls by invisible ocean currents.

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 photo by Iory Allison

These four granite sculptures are in marked contrast, both in  texture and color, to the dominant vertical brownstone plinth and as such form a foundation of mystic forces representing the perils ever present in the wilderness, especially the unfathomable ocean.

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 photo by Iory Allison

At the top of the supporting plinth are two bands of decoration. The top-most band is different on all four sides but the lower band is uniform all around, depicting two rows of a Viking / Nordic knot design. On the top-most band starting in the front of the monument, there are two birds whose wings are shaped like shields. Their tails curl up with rows of beading terminating in tight spirals,. On the view’s right  a flourish of   tail feathers drapes over the bird. On the viewer’s left, a wrinkled leaf fills the space.  At the center of this band the dominant  birds face each other, each with a leaf of the central flowering plant in their resspective beaks.The flaring corners of this band are protected by strange creatures half bird and half lion, each one different and distinct.

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 photo by Iory Allison

Going round to the viewers left, the top band of decoration is composed entirely of a group of writhing animals in high relief sculpture. These strange creatures have a peculiar larval anatomy somewhat between a caterpillar and a salamander.

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photo by Iory Allison

The topmost band of decoration at the back of the plinth reveals two winged dragons with scaly tails and griffin heads turned back to center and glaring at each other breathing fire. They flank a radiating fan (rising / setting sun?) with a four pointed star (morning / evening star?) suspended within the spokes of this fan. This decorative band terminates at the corners with flames rising from a mysterious vessel or is this intended as a log fire?

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photo by Iory Allison 

The right hand band at the top of the plinth shows what may be a woodpecker and a squirrel facing each other and feeding on a flower that has two rows of five petals each. This flowering plant in the center spreads scrolling branches of leaves terminating in flourishes of anthemion or palmette.

I suspect that the plinth and fountain basin were the work of another designer, not Ms. Whitney. The eclectic “Nordic” design motifs employed are inventive and perhaps include disguised esoteric meaning. I wish I could discover the actual collaborative designer and read about the full intent of that artist.

It could well be that the bronze plaques on the sides of the plinth are by Ms. Whitney but I don’t know that as a fact, they are not visibly signed. The extent and complexity of the overall design is interesting and remarkable. Without being fussy or overdone, the ensemble stands together to make a handsome if fanciful exposition in historicity.