On a recent family trip to Boston, we spent some time walking through the McKim Building of the Boston Public Library. I wasn’t at all prepared for how spiritual experience it would be—my sister had suggested it because there were supposed to be some good murals to see. They were that, but the entire structure was wired for sound, built up like a temple as much, or more than, a library. By the time I got to the top floor, to the John Singer Sargent murals, my mind reeled with excitement. This was a place that anchored a peculiarly Euro-American vision in deep and old mysteries that transcend them.
I wonder if the place could be set in motion ritually, set to humming, or if it is primarily a place capable of triggering latent patterns in the person contemplating them, but either way it is an amazing structure. I overlooked the gallery dedicated to time, but hopefully there will be another opportunity. As it is, I want to talk about what I did see and start to unpack the wisdom packed into it. I do so first and foremost for someone who might go to the building and use this to intensify their experience of it. Secondarily, though, I hope that the insights will have some general application even for someone who hasn’t experienced the building.
To do that is going to take quite a long post since I will need to talk about both the exoteric and esoteric dimensions of each gallery. Please, avail yourself of the title links to look at the actual murals; the Boston Public Library has a lot of other material beyond what I’m linking, so let yourself wander a little.
The entrance passes between two seated, robed female figures, Science and Art. Science’s gaze is fixed on the globe she holds in her hand, prying into it through unrelenting attention to its material presence. Art looks up from her palette and brush, perhaps toward her invisible subject or canvas. Into the building and upward, the marble stairs pass between two maned lions, each dedicated to the dead of Massachusetts who gave their lives in the U.S. Civil War.
We first glimpse Puvis de Chavannes’s work arrayed around the balcony beyond them in nine panels, each dedicated to a form of intellectual endeavor. His theme is continued as the stairs lead upward, to a large mural featuring ‘Lumiere,’ an angelic male figure, descending into the circle of the Muses. From there, the path continues toward either the Abbey Gallery featuring the Grail Quest of Galahad or to more stairs, leading up to the large Sargent Gallery’s The Triumph of Religion. The orientation here is well-chosen. Sargent’s work forms a capstone to this visual invocation, while Abbey’s is a coda or ancilla to it.
The building itself is built around a courtyard featuring a fountain which is home to dancing bacchante and young faun. Once exiled from the building, the two now serve as its bright and sunny heart. While people wandered along the inside singly or in small groups, with any room rarely seeing more than a dozen occupants, here they were gathered en masse. Tables along the edge of the courtyard were packed with people who overflowed into the center, reading, talking, writing.
Let’s take this step by step. This is a big project even though I am trying to keep this as simple as possible.
These two oversee the doorway in and out of the library, standing over the free flow of knowledge in and out of the library. They embody both what makes that knowledge possible (the inward motion that commits knowledge to the library) and also that which sustains and nourishes that knowledge (the outward motion that transmits that knowledge from the library to its community).
Science is engaged in an unromantic contemplation of a sphere. This is no crystal ball in which images appear, but the brute structure of the world that resists our hopes and fears, which carries on according to a set of principles that we uncover only through disciplined appreciation of nature on its own terms. The sphere evokes many of the advances in geometry contemporary with Science’s (e.g., Riemann’s non-Euclidian models which owe much to geometry on a sphere) which would drive advances in physics yet to come (e.g., Einstein’s theory of relativity) and suggests the Earth itself.
The sphere also serves as a memento determino for the scientist too eager to seek change, an abstract skull. This is not just the science we glorify so often today, the science of sudden breakthroughs, but also slower science, a science that dwells with what it studies in order to take as full a measure of it as possible. This is the fierce attention that rules curious experimentation and prevents it from becoming unmoored speculation and wasteful fiddling.
Relief from that fierceness is had from Art, but it’s vital to not turn away from Science too quickly. Modern conveniences and innovations have fostered an alienation from Science and it serves us well to appreciate her presence at the entrance to knowledge. Atop all that we achieve, all that we are capable of manipulating, all that we are capable of producing, there remain limiting determinations with which we must reckon. Still, for all that limitation, the sphere is full of inspiring possibility.
Art holds a brush and a palette, her gaze directed elsewhere, toward either her canvas or that subject which inspires her painting. In having neither before us, the gesture suggests both and sets the labor of art firmly between inspiration and creation. That is the magical moment par excellance and what mediates between the two moments is her palette. Upon the palette she places the colors that she will need and upon that palette she mixes new colors from them as her work demands.
Consider the system of correspondences that we magical folk employ in that light, as a palette of colors. Each color stands apart from the other and that separation is what allows the worker to regard them in relationship to each other and allows them to think about how they might be mixed. While there are patterns and tones that will take shape only upon the canvas, only in the world to which the magical work is discharged, the first movement of comparison and mixture occurs in the palette, in the system of correspondences.
The correspondences aren’t eternal forms resting out of time. They are the array chosen for a work, an array guided by the subject that inspires the vision. For the magical worker, the subject is subtle, perhaps truly esoteric, invisible to the eye or the mind that fashions the categories. But on the palette, in the system of correspondences, we fashion patterns of relation that make manifest some aspect of that subtle or esoteric inspiration. This isn’t so different from some of the challenges faced by a painter who attempts to capture an emotional tone in their work, for that emotional tone lies outside the colors and instead must project the spectator who will receive the image.
Like the painter’s colors, the correspondences aren’t brute facts. A dash of red may be violent or vibrant, enthusiastic or exhausted, according to the interplay with form, texture, and other colors. It may vary, too, according to the light of the room in which it is shown or the mood or temperament of the person who sees it. It has an element of contagion and mutation, it can achieve its aims in one circumstance while achieving results quite alien to those aims. It may ensnare a lover and drive another pair of lovers to fighting.
Beneath all that play, of course, is Science’s determinations, the optics of light, the structure of the eye, the neurology of specific brains, the chemistry that gives birth to paint.
We haven’t walked in the door yet, so onward.
The lions that flank the stairs are difficult to miss, massive creatures carved in stone. The war dead form the gate into the library. That for which the Union pressed their cause in the U.S. Civil War is here enshrined and, too, the intimacy between violence and understanding. It seems frivolous to say too much before and about this enduring commemoration, but it is necessary to keep in mind that it is these spirits, willing to destroy in order to lay a more true foundation, that stir the fires of truth.
Acknowledging this helps us to avoid the stale directions some forms of esotericism take. The relationship between esoteric and exoteric dimensions ought not be treated as the relationship of two fixed patterns. Rather, what is esoteric is a vital force that rests within a stable form, a force that can be roused and transmitted. The esoteric force can also consume and exceed the concepts in which it is contained. Like a hermit crab, it can outgrow its current mode of transmission. The spirit of the dead and their commemoration operate in a parallel manner and can serve to negotiate this danger.
The inspiration of the muses flows into the space opened by the lions like the sunlight through the wide windows above. To the left stands Chemistry given the form of a fay woman bearing wand. The spirits of matter attend to her work and an animal skull rest in the foreground, death and transformation tightly linked. To the right is Physics, given form by two messengers racing down electrical wires. One clothed in white, the other in black, they are the good and bad news that travels through our wires, but also the good and bad that flows from technical development.
Read from left to right, these two panels from the center of the nine. They distinguish two domains, the left encompassing Philosophy, Astronomy, and History and the right Epic, Dramatic, and Pastoral Poetry. This separation sets the two into parallel series that inform each other across the balcony. Epic Poetry faces Philosophy, Dramatic Poetry faces Astronomy, and Pastoral Poetry faces History.
What is the significance of this division, though? Chavannes’s Chemistry and Physics are technical operations, the means through which human beings transform the material world to suit them. To the left, Chavannes explores the sort of world-awareness that makes possible these technical attitudes. To the right, he explores the different forms of self-awareness that parallel these sorts of consciousness. They are differentiated from each other but also inseparable. Technical practices make possible forms of world- and self-awareness while being made possible by them.
Philosophy as the first is born from Chavannes’s conviction that “there is an eternal conflict between Matter and Spirit” because “Man is a plant of heavenly not of earthly growth.” If there is violence in Chemistry and Physics, it is because through them an alien intelligence takes hold of the world and seeks to make a home for itself within it. Plato stands within this panel and in the next two panels, the tension between matter and spirit is mediated by the Platonic trope of the cave. Eyesight directed to the world animates both Astronomy and History.
Astronomy shows us two men and a woman emerging from a cavern, nearly naked, their eyes heavenward. Their attention to the heavens allows them to project their thoughts beyond the material cave. The regularities they discover there become the model of a mathematical order. History, by contrast, shows a well-dressed woman looking backward into the cave, striving to project within its torch-lit darkness that same order, here represented by the Doric column embedded within the cavern’s wall.
Homer and his divine inspiration figures in the first of poetic panels, Epic Poetry. This forms a strong contrast to Plato’s Philosophy, for the guiding metaphor that animates the philosophical panels are ones of sight whereas Homer is famously blind. Chavannes immediately draws attention to poetry’s concern with human subjectivity; Homer is inspired whereas Plato is enlightened. Poetry is a means through which people present to themselves their emotional and spiritual reactions to the world around them.
The next two panels also feature great poets, Aeschylus for Dramatic Poetry and Virgil for Pastoral Poetry. Aeschylus is shown besides the Oceanids, daughters of the Ocean. The ocean itself appears, too, and between the ocean and these nymphs we have both the tragic immensity and comic hope that comes to characterize drama. Virgil stands alone in Pastoral Poetry, the most humane of classic poetry’s children. The pastoral gives voice to the humble affairs of common people, bringing the daily life into the hands of spirit.
The mirroring between the left and right in theme is carried through between each panel with the two series. Epic Poetry’s scope prepares Philosophy for its sweeping differentiation between Matter and Spirit. Dramatic Poetry follows the strands of fate through the life of the great people, giving Astronomy the flesh it requires to acquire astrological insight. Finally, the common life raised up in the Pastoral forms the foundation for the History’s interest in the nature of human life that preceded it.
Understood in this way, Chemistry and Physics are well placed in relation to the series they create. Chemistry’s transmuting magic gives expression to the Platonic quest to see the world as it is and, in so seeing, acquiring understanding and influence over it. Physics, with its electrical wires sending good and bad news, is downright prescient, forecasting the interplay of electricity and information which will make possible the modern form of Poetry, Televised Drama.
The unification of classical imagery and contemporary science provides the viewer with the point of access into the esoteric dimension of this gallery. Following the staircase upward, we are presented with Messenger of Light descending into the circle of the Muses. Light in the sense of both that which furthers actual sight and that which furthers insight joins the two series of panels through which we have just passed, suggesting a common spiritual movement within understanding itself, one animated by human interaction with other sorts of spirits.
What the final panel suggests is that these spirits, which we might call faeries, are themselves inspired by the presence of this Messenger of Light to take interest in the development of humans as agents of reason and ethical beings. These spirits are divided according to their affinities, one toward the heavens and the other toward the ocean, but communications pass between them such that the heavens and the ocean form two poles in humanity’s spiritual compass.
The communication is heralded in the mural by a chiasmatic movement between the panels of Chemistry and Physics. The lightness of information passing through the wires, though it expresses and gives substance to the emotional world of human beings, operates according to the mathematical structures revealed in the series initiated by Philosophy. The darkness of the chemical moment, though it manifests the willful sight of human beings, operates according to the churning and oceanic movements explored in Poetry’s series.
The fifteen panels of Edwin Abbey’s murals encode a network of esoteric domains, but it should be emphasized that their placement to the side of the rising action within the library suggests something of their nature. This is an esoteric operation undertaken by a few people, not the operation undertaken in common throughout the rest of the library. The hero’s journey is not for all, even if it undertaken for all. There are also other journeys that a soul might take which would carry it through the same terrain as that encoded by Galahad’s tale.
This is important to keep in mind because Galahad’s tale encapsulates a spiritual lifetime rather than a discrete set of ritual operations. The panels begin with Galahad a babe in arms and conclude with his death. It can be tempting to read the tale in Jungian fashion, a la Robert A. Johnson’s He. This doesn’t work well, though. It forces to elide and reason away the exceptional behavior of Galahad throughout. At key points, Galahad must give up what would be good choices for a ‘well-adjusted’ or ‘integrated’ person, like a relationship with his wife (or his anima).
Treating it as a magical text allows us to treat those exceptions in a satisfactory fashion. From the start, then, we have the angelic visitation to the infant Galahad as the holy guardian angel who safeguards and delivers to him his peculiar destiny. The next two panels confirm Galahad in this destiny, first with his father and cousin applying the spurs to his heels, and secondly with Joseph of Arimathea seating him safely on the Siege Perilous before the court of King Arthur.
Each of these forms of confirmation also serve as indications of Galahad’s destiny. In the legendary of Galahad, he is related by blood to all of these figures. Bors and Lancelot are kin and so in their placing the spurs on his heels Galahad’s ties to father’s paternal lineage are affirmed. In Joseph of Arimathea, his mother’s distant paternal ancestor, his ties to mother’s paternal lineage is also affirmed. Dressed in red, color of Christ’s blood, Galahad is affirmed as the son of the father, and of the Father.
Joseph of Arimathea’s presence is key to appreciating the esoteric dimension of the murals. In his connection to the line of Amfortas, Joseph affirms Amfortas’s involvement in the work of the crucifixion. The Grail, born of Christ’s last days and bloody death on the Cross, serves as a continuance of his redemptive force. The next panel shows the blessing of the questing knights receiving “episcopal benediction,” affirming the quest’s roots in the Christian mysteries but indicating, too, that the mysteries are pursued outside of the Church itself. Since the redemption of original sin transpires in the crucifixion itself, we must ask why the Grail remains on Earth; we must ask how its mission differs from that of the Cross.
The next panel reveals the core of the Grail’s operation and it suitably receives an entire wall to itself. Amfortas and Galahad divide the wall into right and left sides. The left features the court of Amfortas in gloom, their gazes turned away from the brightly lit Grail Procession that dominates the right. Galahad, shown in his failure to ask after the procession’s meaning, looks from the left side of ignorance toward the right side of illumination.The red-veiled Grail leads the procession held by figure in white, followed by a woman in red bearing a haloed severed head on a gold platter, a man bearing a menorah, a man bearing a bloody spear, and another bearing a menorah. All of the men wear winged helmets.
The mural provides the viewer with plenty of material with which to speculate after the meaning of the procession and the Grail’s purpose, but it does not provide them with any resolution. The most obvious answer, that these are all elements that attend to the Crucifixion is obvious but clearly inadequate. The bloody cup, the spear that sped Christ toward death, and the head of John the Baptist must have a deeper meaning. At this point, the viewer must walk behind Galahad and depart from the scene without an answer to that.
The first hint of the mystery’s import comes from Galahad’s encouner with the Loathly Damsel atop a mule bearing a dead king’s head in the crook of her arm. Accompanied by a crowned woman and another bearing a scourge, Galahad is shown crumpled before them. As he contemplates his situation, her appearance and chastisement bear witness to the question that must be answered of the Grail. Dressed in red and carrying a severed head, she is a clear instance of the woman in red who carried a haloed head in the procession.
This suggests that Grail Processions is an image of its successful operation. The dancing woman with haloed head is the same woman we see as the Loathly Damsel. There is good reason, then, to think that the Loathly Damsel is none other than Herodias (aka Salome) and that the operation of the Grail sees her and John the Baptist redeemed. If we think then of the court to which she belongs, it is the family of Herod and to the kingdom of Edom. It is this same family to which Galahad is linked, thus revealing him to be the holy witch whose task it is to sanctify his line.
Herodias becomes the template for the queen of the witches in the middle ages (i.e., Aradia) and through her the kingdom of Edom becomes code for a dangerous divergence from the sacred line of Judea. Edom joins the mystery to that of Esau (who is also beheaded in some accounts) and to the archetype of fraternal rivalry, Cain and Abel. The Grail’s operation thus seems to entail the redemption of the witches under the auspices of John the Baptist activated by the Blood of Christ.
The next stage in Galahad’s quest makes more sense in this light. Confronted with the fallen figure of the witches, Galahad requires that which will rejuvenate their virtue. The Castle of the Maidens is just this source. There are seven dark knights, the deadly sins, which he must overcome. The introduction of the seven is important, because it relates them to the next member of the Grail Procession, the first menorah-bearer. In overcoming the seven deadly sins, Galahad acquires the key to the Castle of Maidens from a monk in white.
Their connection to the menorah suggests that these seven knights are more than mere villains. Like the Loathly Damsel, they are the forces of Edom in fallen form. They still serve to protect what is sacred, the virtues, and in being conquered are transfigured and affirmed in that higher purpose. Welcomed by the virtuous maidens within, Galahad accepts a wife from among the virtuous maidens. The panel shows him departing from her to preserve his virginity, ensuring his capacity to heal Amfortas.
While it is easy to focus upon the importance of Galahad’s purity for the healing of Amfortas, there is good reason to think that Blanchefleur must also remain pure in order. The logic of the narrative suggests that it is not only Amfortas who must be healed, but the Loathly Damsel and her retinue as well. In marrying Galahad, Blanchefleur puts herself in alliance with Galahad and preserves her virginity along with his own in order to realize the next phase of the Grail work together.
The Orientalism of these scenes can’t be overlooked, in part because they provide an important clue to understanding the logic of later panels. While we (hopefully) have long since moved past the romantic fantasies of the harem that Westerners invented, such fantasies were quite popular when Abbey composed his mural. In having Galahad overcome dangerous guardians to liberate a community of women isolated from the world, Abbey is placing the maidens in an Arabic and Islamic frame. The mysteries that animate these murals are here rooted in the Middle East.
The next scene shows Amfortas in the midst of his redemption, after which he is able to die into his salvation. Blanchefleur and Galahad have healed Amfortas and the Loathly Damsel (Edom), but the Grail’s work is not done. The Grail departs from Galahad, leading him to follow after it. Galahad’s departure on a noble white horse is the thematic and visual antipode of the Loathly Damsel upon her mule.
Noble horse and low mule are just the first of many structured oppositions. While the mule looks back to Galahad’s failure in the court of Amfortas, the horse looks forward to his final success. Here an elegant woman kneels before him while before the Loathly retinue Galahad kneeled in defeat. Even the lighting of the two panels differs profoundly. The panel of the Loathly Damsel is dark, cluttered with trees, while a patch of bright blue sky leads Galahad forward.
With Edom redeemed, what is left to the Grail’s work? The final panels carry Galahad to Sarras, a name that evokes both the Saracens and Mount Seir of the Edomites. This last phase, then, takes Galahad from Europe to the Middle East. He travels in the ship of Solomon, bearing three staves from the Tree of Life with him. These staves, taken by Eve before her departure, reference Eve’s purity (white), Cain’s birth (green), and Cain’s crime (red). Abbey’s mural carries Galahad back both geographically and temporally to the source of Christianity.
These staves also link the final scenes visually to the next element of the Grail Procession, Spear of Longinus. The murder of Abel and the spearing of Christ are entangled, comingled in the Grail and capable of being redeemed. The Grail myth here affirms the (heretical or at least extremely heterodox) doctrine of apokatastasis, that the work of redemption initiated by Christ finds its completion in the purification and restoration of the order of creation that precedes the Fall.
The ship and the staves illuminate the nature of this revelation. Traveling in the ship of Solomon evokes both the wisdom of the great king, but also his downfall as an idolater. Carrying the Grail and the staves from the Tree of Life, the vehicle of wsidom (gnosis) which became entangled in idolatry is redeemed, providing the vehicle for Galahad’s return to Edom, the idolotrous and dangerous double of Judea.
Tellingly, the white stave reflects the purity of Eve, indicating that she has here already been redeemed of the Fall. The redemption brought to her by Christ is here being drawn through her to transform her entire line. While Bors and Percival are important here as witnesses who will bear a truthful account of Galahad’s work back to the court of Arthur, the court of the world, they are more than that. Bors, as relative of Galahad, is bearing witness to the final work of redemption of his line and so, presumably, will be its inheritor.
Percival is present in part because Galahad’s story here is largely drawn from an earlier legendary in which Percival was the hero. He is a sort of subtle double of Galahad, and makes sense of the woman who sits in the prow, for she must surely be his sister, Dindrane, whose sacrifice in the broader legendary of the Grail invokes the redemption of Loathly Damsel with her life. The blood of Dindrane, through the Grail, completes the healing operation that liberates the court of Amfortas as well as mirroring the original blood sacrifice of Christ.
The body of Dindrane subsequently sanctifies the city of Sarras with the interment of her corpse (a gesture which doubles the interment of Sarah by Abraham). That gesture is elided in the mural by the full panel depicting the city of Sarras, but it is present in that elision by the presence of Percival in the ship of Solomon. Percival’s presence also affirms that Dindrane is his sister, not Galahad’s, for in the conclusion of the mural the two sacrifices must be wedded to give birth to the Grail and the appearance of incest needs to be avoided.
The final panel concludes in Sarras with the completion of the Grail work and Galahad’s death. He adds his sacrifice and body to Dindrane’s to complete the Grail work. The fullness of the grail is revealed to him as a golden tree in bloom and he dies, leaving a crown and sceptre behind. The Grail is unveiled and doubled—it appears both as a small wreathed silvery vessel floating between Joseph of Arimathea’s upheld hands and as a large golden vessel at Joseph’s feet, the golden tree growing from it.
That unveiling and doubling manifests the wedding of Galahad and Dindrane, the gold and silver an invocation of Galahad’s active solar role and Dindrane’s receptive lunar role. While the sceptre and crown at the feet of Galahad indicates his departure from the earthly realm where such power matters, it also indicates the sanctification of a spiritual authority within this world that bears witness to the Grail’s sanctification. There is a kingdom of Sarras-Edom that remains which is holy.
There are seven angels who bear witness to this moment and with them we see the conclusion of the Grail procession, the final menorah standing for these seven. Between the knights of sin and these witnessing angels falls the redemptive work that makes possible the foundation of a new and redeemed lineage for the children of Caine, Esau, and Solomon, the children of idolatry and violence who stand under the banner of the spear.
The Tree of Life, the Saracens, the Kabbalistic imagery, highlight the nature of this work, one that joins traditions of witchcraft and gnosticism to the cords of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, and seeks their unification under a common spiritual charge even as it differentiates the material kingdoms under which they operate. The tale emphasizes that this other kingdom of Sarras share a common root with these other kingdoms and that it operates specifically under the auspices of Christ, perhaps even his proper demesne, the mystery of the blood.
It also bears witness to the crusades and to the entnaglement with Islam that the crusades initiated with Europe. Under the auspices of this encounter, we find the demonology of which the Templars were accused as well as the Islamic roots of the European Enlightenment. Here the work of Sarras is also the work of knowledge and science, its redemption the redemption of the scientist who plumbs the mysteries of nature as well as the mysteries of Christ. Here, too, is the fuel that will feed the Protestant break and feed the witch trial manias. Not just a redemption of the witches and the idolaters, but of the historical moment that gives birth to their isolation and persecution.
I’ll admit, that as I began working on this section, I was a little intimidated by the amount of work it would take to explicate this material. Thankfully, as I have discovered, much of this work has already been done, and done better than I could have, and with an excellent multimedia presentation to boot. So, rather than try to recuperate that at length here, let me point my reader to this website. Take your time with it, then come back. I’m just going to push out a little further from it.
I was pleased to see from the outset that my sense of what Sargent was up to was in line with the spiritual excitement the building instilled in me. Indeed, Sargent intended this to be a spiritual capstone to what he saw as a proper temple.
The interpretation also confirms my own, which is that the mural does not privilege one religion over another so much as make the floor a sacred space for their dialogue, through which the viewer constitutes in their own body the truth of that dialogue. Moving through the space, contemplating the elements deployed and the manner of their deployment, the two-dimensional paintings acquire three-dimensional realization in the person who views them. So, rather than account of Christianity’s triumph, it is an active constitution of religiosity itself in the viewer.
The top floor is rectangular, significantly longer than it is wide. The two walls (the east and west walls) that run the length of the room each have three murals along their height which run parallel to each other. Two vaults (north and south) define the width of the room and each of those vaults has been filled with painted images. As the murals along the long wall mirror each other, so too do the vaults. If we follow the lines of communication back and forth across the room, the pattern would define a three-barred cross.
That three-barred cross is ‘crowned’ at both ends by the vaults. The horizontal arrangement of the vaults in relation to each other affirms a certain fundamental equality of them. They communicate across the space of the room without negating each other. Internally, too, each vault’s elements are sustained. The images of pagan gods are not erased, but vividly summoned.
Each individual mural is drawn into duet, the duets pair with other duets, until the entire room becomes a swelling chorus. Visually, the mural seems a prescient embodiment of Simone Weil’s understanding of Christianity’s true center, one that eschews all forms of inherently toxic missionary work in favor of an embracing and nourishing Good News, i.e., a pansophic Christianity.
When we consider what this three-barred, crowned structure, what we discover is a that it is a visual Tree of Life diagram. The three bars of the cross define the mother lines. Each of the major murals, then, defines a sefirot. The vaults are Keter and Malkuth, and each lengthwise wall defines a pillar. The two lower murals on the eastern wall, Synagogue and Church, complete the middle pillar defined by the vaults.
This makes the mysteries of the Zodiac and the mysteries of the Rosary two aspects of the same mystery, the mysteries that form the diagonal inner lines of the tree. The mobile forms of the zodiac and the movement of prayers through the rosary define the inner structure of the room itself, the one that the viewer is constituting in their appreciation of the murals.
That constitution relates to both forms but refashions them within the individual spectator. The movement through the building mirrors and is related to the movement of the stars in the zodiac while the subjective reactions to the structure mirrors the subjective states cultivated by the rosary. While all of this affirms the individuality of the personal experience, the experience transpires betwixt all of these collective images. Even as Sargent affirms the individuality, he also affirms the dogmas that provide it with a foundation and inspiration.
Sargent’s choice of title, The Triumph of Religion, is an affirmation of the dialogue between outer religious forms that can give birth to and sustain an experience than transcends them. It becomes active only with an individual to experience it and the experience is only possible through an appreciation (not necessarily an affirmation) for the dogma. What religion is, then, exceeds and sustains religion in one sacred circuit. Even the tensions and controversies that have followed the mural form part of that circuit, a necessary klippotic drag inherent in all spiritual undertakings.
(Regarding Synagogue, I should say that I didn’t have a negative response to it, though that owes much to a number of personal associations it evokes. The image of the old woman suggests eldership and wisdom, the fabric gathered to her wealth but also the burial practices of some Kongo traditions in which the body is heavily-wrapped. The blindfold brings to mind the blindness of the dead and it sets me to thinking of a mystery cultivated atop the burial of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.)
VI. Dancing Wisdom
The bacchante is a delightful counterpoint to the heaviness and depth of the muraled ascent. Placed amidst sprays of fountain, in the open light of the courtyard, the dancing woman brings a raw joie de vivre not elsewhere found in the building. The youthful faun on her shoulder, a glimpse of wild nature, shares in the pleasure of the dancing woman. Intoxication and pleasure are enshrined within the library, not exiled to some world threatening world beyond it.
Assigned their proper place, they form the heart of the shrine. The liveliness is neither shallow nor merely ornamental. It gives expression to a structural relationship between understanding and its object, as well as the relationship between an enlightened humanity and the natural world. While we could have found enshrined the great conquering scientist, instead we find a naked woman sharing the pleasures of knowledge with nature itself. Knowledge becomes grace, a natural glory added to natural glory.
VII. The Harmony of Voices
While each of these spaces functions as an independent meditation, themes and associations link them together, bringing them into harmony. This harmony joins them in a common purpose that far exceeds simple agreement. In this, the Sargent murals are both the capstone of the building’s artistic mysteries and a lesson in how to appreciate the building’s mysteries in their entirety.
The interplay of themes joins each room to the other and strengthens them individually and communally. The figure of Christ lends its weight to both the angel of light in the Chavannes murals, the figure of Galahad in the Abbey murals, and the faun born on the bacchante’s shoulder. In turn, the faun gives the angel of light, the achievement of the Grail, and the sacrifice of Christ an innocent joyousness. Sargent’s Moses and Christ become sort of dual suns, animating the twin moons that Galahad and Dindrane become.
The sculptures of Science and Art are developed in Chavannes muses, but so are both found in the Castle of Maidens in which Galahad takes a wife, in the figures of the Synagogue and the Church provided by Sargent. This gives Galahad’s departure from Blanchefleur more meaning, expressing the mystical departure from reason that his quest demands.
The violence and nobility of war are mirrored in the panels to Chemistry and Physics by Chavannes, by the violence of decomposition and the good and bad news that his wires report. The angel of light, then, appears not just in the midst of the muses, but amidst the soldiers fighting for an end to the Confederacy.
And so on at great length, with each point of resonance that the viewer achieves in their journey through the building.
There is a lot of America that isn’t to be found in this temple, but it is along this chain of harmonies that they are capable of being recognized from within it. It summons other virtual temples from within itself in response to these other Americas. We are capable of realizing these other temples, these other shrines, should we be so disposed. While Hunahpu and beheaded Xbalanque cannot be found in the McKim’s walls, Christ and the Baptist are capable of calling out to them.