Animating a Pediment


Pediment n. 1. Architecture: the triangular upper part of the front of a classical building, typically surmounting a portico.

Ship of Pearl 300 cu nite 2
Donald Lipski, The Ship of Pearl, 2013, aluminum 75 x 17 x 1′. Photo: Donald Lipski.

Prominent on the design stage since ancient Greece—think Parthenon—the pediment has continued through history as a device used to convey undeniable majesty.

Majesty came to Boston earlier this year, with the unveiling of Donald Lipski’s sculpture for the pediment of St. Paul’s Cathedral in the heart of the city, just down the hill from both the State House and the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Boston’s greatest 19th-century work of public art. Nick Capasso, Fitchburg Art Museum director and public art authority, has already called Lipski’s piece Boston’s most important of the 21st. Against its background of vivid blue, reminiscent of the color of the Virgin Mary’s robe in so many Renaissance paintings, a huge spiral springs forward in shallow relief. It swirls and expands sideways to fill the triangle, animating it.

The Greek Revival cathedral, dating from 1820, was originally meant to be topped with a sandstone relief of St. Paul preaching before King Agrippa. But the money ran out, and carvers in Boston then were in short supply. “They were all in Italy,” says Murray Dewart, who is a founding member of Boston Sculptors and impassioned champion of both public and ecclesiastical art. “Appalling” is how he describes the space that languished empty and blank for nearly two centuries. The sentiment is shared by the cathedral’s dean, the Very Reverend John P. Streit, Jr., who says maybe it’s a good thing the first design was never realized. Passersby who recognized the biblical tale wouldn’t stop because they already knew it; others wouldn’t stop because they didn’t know it; basically, nobody would stop. Now they do.

“We wanted it to be religious but not too religious,” Streit says of the new pediment. “It was a tall order.” But it was one appropriate to the mission of the cathedral, which holds a service in Cantonese every Sunday for the Chinese community, hosts Friday prayers for the Muslim community, and has welcomed the homeless for decades. Nailing the pediment down to a single Bible story wasn’t going to captivate or expand this wide public.

Dewart and Streit, friends for many years, started forming a plan, enlisting the help of Ricardo Barreto of Boston’s UrbanArts. An open call for proposals was sent out. The budget was to be just $200,000, peanuts for a major public piece. Attracted by the unusual nature of the project and the prominence of its location, 130 artists applied, international big guns among them. The number was eventually whittled down to four finalists who were invited to present proposals in person to a selection committee that included leaders from the worlds of art and religion. Streit, a committee member, says he actually didn’t like one or two of the final proposals and that he was “in a sweat” over one of those being his lasting legacy to his congregation and city.

The New York-based Lipski proved the unanimous choice of the committee. He’d had extensive experience with the thorny public art process, with impressive results from New York’s Grand Central Terminal to the Miami International Airport. He often uses natural subjects. The Miami piece is made of fiberglass fish; Grand Central got a giant upside-down olive tree hung with Swarovski crystals.

“I had the idea of a spiral in mind before I came up to see the church,” the artist says, citing the spiral’s associations with everything from ancient labyrinths to mathematical principles such as the Golden Mean to the shape of galaxies and weather systems. There is a long history of labyrinths in worship, the most famous example being the one in the pavement of Chartres Cathedral. Lipski notes that there was already a labyrinth painted on the floor of a downstairs room in St. Paul’s before his arrival on the scene. People walk labyrinths as a contemplative exercise.

Most people, though, will recognize in the pediment the shape of the chambered nautilus, which has existed in the earth’s oceans for millions of years. The creature’s habit is to leave one chamber of its shell as it outgrows it, moving into a new and larger one, eventually creating a perfect equiangular spiral. In his poem The Chambered Nautilus Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., (“a Boston guy,” Lipski notes) compared this process to the growth of the human soul. “The nautilus,” says Streit, “is a great symbol of the eternal expansiveness of faith. You can’t go back.”

The new pediment transforms a formerly mundane stretch of Tremont Street. Originally, the cathedral stood in commanding isolation, set back from the street. When newer, nondescript stone and brick structures eventually swamped it visually, it became an almost anonymous presence. It could have housed a bank, or an indoor mall. The only color in the neighborhood was provided by the coffee shops and convenience stores at ground level. Lipski’s blue lifts the eye from all that transient clutter to something more permanent.

Of course the piece is not universally loved. Streit points out that Jesus was also provocative. One objection to the pediment was that the imagery isn’t sufficiently Christian. Another compared the piece to a marketing ploy. (Doesn’t most religion have a marketing component?) Yet especially when it is illuminated at night, it is an inspiring beacon that transcends these quibbles.

Lipski recalls the day in autumn, 2011, when he came to Boston to present his proposal. While strolling on the Common he saw a woman who had fashioned a spiral out of fallen leaves and was walking along it. He says he took it as a sign that he was on the right track. Lest this seem too in-the-clouds, he instantly adds, “She was on her cell phone the whole time. So it wasn’t meditation. Or maybe,” he then adds, “it was.”

Christine Temin was the art and dance critic at the Boston Globe for over two decades and now writes for a variety of international publications. She has taught at Middlebury College, Wellesley College, and Harvard University. She is author of Behind the Scenes at the Boston Ballet.

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