This is the eight post in a series on Boston’s Angels
It is fitting that my eighth and final post about Boston’s angels gives us eight elegant, gilded angels. These decidedly non-ethereal beings belong to a mural called “Dogma of the Redemption: Trinity, Crucifix and Frieze of Angels” by John Singer Sargent.
Charles Follen McKim, who designed the BPL, wanted to make his Classical Revival building an “ornament for the people.” To that effect, he hired a team of master artists and sculptors to create lush decoration that attracts the eye at every turn. The team included the eminent sculptors Bela Pratt, Daniel Chester French, and Louis Saint Gaudens. Artists Edwin Austin Abbey, Pierre Puvis de Chavanne and John Singer Sargent created murals for the walls.
The Third Floor’s Opulent Murals
The Frieze of Angels is located in the Sargent Gallery on the third floor of the Boston Public Library’s McKim Building, the entryway to the institution’s Special Collections.
Many people never climb to the BPL’s third floor. They ascend the magnificent main staircase to the second floor slowly and then walk through or study in Bates Hall, the large reading room on the second floor.
Make the effort, however, and you will find the third floor a revelation. Entering the Sargent Gallery at the top of the stair feels like walking into the house of Lorenzo de Medici in Florence. Sargent’s opulent murals leap off the walls and command your attention with their lush colors and shining gold accents.
The Triumph of Religion
Sargent painted these 17 murals in a series he called “The Triumph of Religion.” If, in today’s mind, this topic seems more appropriate to a church than a public library, consider the time in which Mr. Sargent painted the series—from 1890 – 1919. The BPL explains it this way:
“Religion’s triumph, according to the artist, was precisely the privacy of modern belief. Sargent grounded his mural cycle in an ideal fundamental to American religious liberty: the conviction that religion is an interior matter, to be determined solely and freely by the individual.”
“For Sargent this ideal was a sign of Western, especially American, progress. . . Consistent with its location in a public library, Sargent’s mural cycle represented the study of religion rather than religion’s practice. The artist deliberately ordered the room and its decoration to create an educational space, not a devotional one.”
The Frieze of Angels
Installed in 1903, the large mural with the Frieze of Angels running along its base is located on the south wall of the Sargent Gallery. Sargent created the mural in oil on canvas with plaster and papier-maché reliefs.
The artist painted the heavily draped figures of the eight angels in vivid primary colors. These are not the joyous angels of the Nativity, nor are they musical angels with horns and harps. They are solemn, as befits the theme of the lunette above them,. The angels stand solidly earthbound facing the viewer with their gilt-tipped wings unfurled in the background.
It’s difficult to imagine them actually flying, though, weighed down as they are by pounds of draperies: capes, tunics, leggings, dresses and cloaks.Each holds a symbol of the Passion of Christ: spear, pincers, hammer, nails, scourge, reed, sponge and crown of thorns.
The fact that the eight angels are encumbered by their voluminous clothing seems to represent Sargent’s feelings about Christ’s pure message being smothered by institutional and theological dogma. Today it could be a metaphor for the the meaning of Christmas being overwhelmed by commercialism.
Information and Directions
The McKim Building of the Boston Public Library is located on Dartmouth Street at the west end of Copley Square. Climb the sweeping staircase past the statues of Art and Science by Bela Pratt. Go through the cast bronze doors with bas-relief sculptures by Daniel Chester French.
Take the magnificent marble staircase to the second floor, then climb the smaller stairs to the third floor. Stand and look around at the 17 murals in the The Triumph of Religion cycle. You’ll find the Frieze of Angels on the south wall of the hall.
The MBTA’s Copley Station is the nearest public transportation. Pay attention to the cast-iron headhouse when you exit. Parking is available in local garages or hotels.