BOSTON (RNS) Forget crosses, saints and scenes from the Bible. The prominent face of a cathedral should be adorned these days with something more welcoming to all people: a seashell.

A crowd gathers in front of the Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. Paul, which overlooks Boston Common, during the dedication of a new aluminum sculpture depicting a cross-sectioned chambered nautilus. Photo courtesy of The Cathedral Church of St. Paul

A crowd gathers in front of the Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. Paul, which overlooks Boston Common, during the dedication of a new aluminum sculpture depicting a cross-sectioned chambered nautilus. Photo by Tracy Sukraw, courtesy of The Cathedral Church of St. Paul


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That logic has given rise to a bold new look for the front of the Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. Paul, which overlooks Boston Common. Since May, a giant aluminum sculpture depicting a cross-sectioned chambered nautilus has been lighting up the pediment in a brilliant blue and turning heads at one of Boston’s busiest corners.

It’s also igniting debate about what’s lost and gained when a church uses its high-profile facade to display an ambiguous symbol, rather than recognizable religious imagery.

The shell was chosen largely to draw attention to a granite, columned building that’s dwarfed by neighboring buildings and easily overlooked, according to Cathedral Dean Jep Streit.

“We feel like we do extraordinary things here, and we wanted to proclaim that,” Streit said. “One of our goals was to have something inviting that would attract attention and help us stand out.”

Stand out it does. Nine months after its dedication, bloggers are still writing about it. This winter, parish study groups around the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts are discussing how the nautilus, an organism that’s constantly expanding and switching homes, symbolizes the cathedral.

And the reviews are in. The Rev. Tim Schenck, rector of the Episcopal Parish of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham Mass., lamented in a January blogpost how the cathedral comes across as “theologically squishy.”

The nautilus “would be great on a seafood restaurant or a contemporary arts museum,” Schenck said. In the cathedral, “I want to see a place that is preaching Christ with reckless abandon. And I feel that by putting the nautilus up there, they are backing off on that.”

Streit insists a cross wouldn’t have been inviting to non-Christians.

“My question,” Streit said, “to people who wonder whether we’re selling out is: Does a cross say, ‘come and see’? Or does it say, ‘we’re Christians here’?”

For St. Paul’s, art on the facade has been a long time coming. Since its founding in 1820, the pediment had been empty because funds ran out for a rendering of the apostle. An $8 million renovation project marked the perfect moment for the cathedral to make a bold, public statement through art.

But the seashell marks a radical departure from mainstream traditions of church art and architecture. From garden statuaries to stained-glass depictions of the life of Jesus, church art has long strived to be in service to evangelism, awakening people to God’s grace and saving work in the world, according to the Rev. J. Robert Wright, professor emeritus of church history at General Theological Seminary.

For a cathedral to display exterior art that’s not recognizably Christian “is very unusual,” Wright said.

But perhaps not surprising in 21st-century Boston.

Massachusetts ranks fourth among America’s least religious states, according to a Gallup survey released this month. Boston is a young city with a large population of millennial-generation students and professionals, who are more likely than their parents to profess no religious affiliation.

Around the country, churches have been taking steps to broaden their appeal by distancing themselves from denominational affiliations, said Ronald Simkins, director of the Kripke Center for the Study of Religion and Society at Creighton University. He pointed to Presbyterian and Baptist churches, for instance, which have dropped “Presbyterian” and “Baptist” from their names in bids to draw from a larger pool of Christians.

Now the cathedral in Boston is going one step further, he said, in aligning itself with a symbol that isn’t loaded with sectarian or even Christian meaning, but is still ripe for new interpretation.

“A nautilus is not filled with any overt religious themes,” Simkins observed. “That’s not to say you can’t impute some religious themes, as it seems they have done. But you have to be informed about those. You have to go in and find out.”

Artist Donald Lipski, who designed the nautilus, said this “church for all people” needed a symbol that could “be spiritual but not be religious.” He cites Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem, “The Chambered Nautilus,” in which the poet likens the animal to a soul, continually expanding and relocating.

But some wonder how much communication is ultimately possible through an image that lacks familiar religious content.

“If it isn’t anything that connects with the tradition of Christianity in a very explicit way,” Wright said, “it’s very difficult for it to get across its message.”

YS/AMB END MACDONALD

16 Comments

  1. I’m an Episcopal priest who loves Jesus and tells people about him constantly, and I find great irony in this debate. People are upset at a facade that depicts something natural and beautiful created by God (apparently using the process of evolution!). And yet they fail to protest the architecture itself, which in many ways is a direct copy of Greco-Roman building styles found in pagan temples, and governmental buildings used by the Roman Empire that persecuted Christians. I mean, if we are going to be critical, lets go ALL the way down and get rid of anything that has been used by any non-Christian culture or that is “merely” natural.

    And this would pretty much get rid of all Christian architecture, vestments, rituals, a sizeable chunk of the Bible itself. And the cross too. Let’s not forget its dreadful origin.

    Or, we can embrace the core Incarnational affirmation that God entered human form in Jesus to heal, transform, and sanctify the whole created order, including nature and culture. If God’s incarnation means something like this, then it is completely logical to take beautiful forms– such as pagan architecture and natural beauty– and use them as sign posts pointing to Jesus. If a sea shell facade draws people into the Christlife, then great. If granite temples do that, great. If the old rugged cross does that, great.

  2. Silly.

    The symbol of a Nautilus reminds me of the vapid and minimalist Christian dove of the hip 1970s. Somehow the shell is even less meaningful. (You had to tell me it was a shell.)

    Religious art is not a minor matter. To the general public what counts is aesthetic – and this is just ugly.

    Lost is the confidence of Divine Declaration of the great cathedrals. Perhaps Christ is finally (appropriately) one more option in a world which is too familiar with competing God claims. The art reflects the times.

    In recent years we’ve heard the enchanting Muslim wail from the tops of the minarets – and though few in America accept Allah as God, we respond to the beauty of the call to prayer. It pushes the right button!
    I don’t believe God has anything to do with it – but the beauty is irresistible.

    And when we see St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City we are swept up in its majesty – the skyward pull of its delicate sandcastle-grand tendrils is almost enough to convince even the most nihilist atheist that there is something of truth and beauty – perhaps even God Himself – hidden somewhere in that stone facade!

    The shell is nothing more than another logo, a ‘shell’ if you will. And just as hollow.

    I am glad religion is dying. There is so much unheralded beauty elsewhere. But if a church can’t fashion a beautiful declaration it should at least avoid making things worse.

    • Thanks Max. This, alas, is a far more interesting argument than whether a seashell dishonors Jesus, or demeans his role in the economy of salvation. Putting the theology aside to ask the aesthetic question: Does this art and architecture– with its blue background and corporate logo feel– strike the right notes of awe, transcendence and the numinous, that is befitting the function of the cathedral? No it doesn’t. Our atheist friend is right on. It feels more like a bank than a cathedral. It has an air of the frivolous and kitschy. So, do I mind that it is a sea shell rather than a cross? No. Not necessarily. But I do mind that it is a poorly done sea shell that doesn’t fit it’s aesthetic function.

  3. It looks lousy. Here is a neoclassical facade with ionic columns crapped up with a shopping mall neon sign. I’d rather see some pagan gods there–that would look much better. The issue isn’t religious: it’s aesthetic. And IMHO the whole purpose of the Episcopal Church is snob appeal–to promote high art and fancy stuff for those who enjoy it. If you don’t like it, go somewhere else. So there!

    Let’s see if I can post under this email since I’ve been blocked from my usual address for being a nasty crank.

  4. Wow, so look at that: my primary email is blocked. And now, I suppose the powers will lock out my gmail address. There’s probably a lesson here.

  5. The poem “The Chambered Nautilus” was, if I remember my literary history correctly, one arising out of Transcendental thinking. By the middle third of the Nineteenth Century, most of the intellectuals in New England were Unitarians, and the Transendentalists added some Eastern thinking into their denial of the Trinity and of the divinity of Jesus Christ. Thus, a nautilus is most definitely not a Christian symbol, even if it depicts a creature made by God to reflect his glory.

    If they had wanted a Christian symbol that had not been overworked in the public’s mind, they could have used a scallop shell, which is often used in baptismal ceremonies. That would have pointed to Christ but yet not have been a symbol to non-believers that “only Christians need enter.”

  6. It seems to me to be a reasonable symbol for a place that welcomes the baptized and offers to all who seek it. I actually like it as a piece of art too.

    FWIW
    jimB

  7. My problem with it is that it doesn’t look like a church, except maybe Unitarian. if you are Christian and lonely or desperately need to pray, and you see a church, you know you can go in and find something familiar and pray there. With this blue tarp/aluminum thing, do you have to walk in to find out if its a church inside? Would you? Symbols are important — why does the cathedral not want to look connected to anything Christian? There are so many Christian symbols with infinite artistic possibilities. Why do this? Does the “growing” and “evolving” mean they are turning UU?

  8. Coming from the Anglo-Catholic wing of the local church, I find this addition to St.
    Paul’s to be misguided and unfortunate. I’d expect a clearly Christian symbol
    or representation to be present to the world. The Dean’s remarks are illogical,
    illustrative of his “new age” sensibility, I suppose. I suspect few people are familiar with Holme’s poem. We might be entering an Aquarium. The cathedral
    interior also reflects a spiritual vacuity. So sadly, I seldom enter my diocesan
    cathedral unless my presence is requested at a liturgical function.

  9. It strikes me that the author mentions nothing about the impact of the nautilus installation on the young people of Boston that it was so clearly installed to intrigue and invite. Given this trend toward removal of symbols and denominational identity among churches, I think someone ought to be asking the intended audience if it makes any difference at all.

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