Transformed: New Pediment Highlights Historic Cathedral

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Posted June 7, 2013 by Scott Kearnan in Urban Living
St. Paul Cathedral

A drab, gray stone building doesn’t usually convey the vibe that it’s a warm, fuzzy place to visit in Boston. And when that building is a church, it also may have to overcome assumptions that only those of a given faith are welcome inside. So when leaders at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul recently decided to fulfill a vision for their building that had been left unrealized for nearly 200 years, they also saw an opportunity to make its doors feel more open and inclusive to the whole downtown Boston community.

“We wanted something that would make the cathedral more noticeable, and proclaim our presence on Boston Common,” says Reverend Jep Streit. “And something that showed we are a welcoming place.”

That “something” is the bold, beautiful new sculpture that now fills the long-empty pediment above the cathedral’s Tremont Street entrance. According to the building’s original plans, the pediment (an architectural term for a classic triangular gable) was originally supposed to be filled with a carved relief of Catholic figures. But when the cathedral finished construction in 1820—becoming Boston’s first Greek Revival building—money ran out. The pediment remained empty.

Until May, that is. That’s when the Cathedral Church mounted its new, welcoming work of art, created by New York-based artist Donald Lipski after a nationwide selection process led by the UrbanArts Institute at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Lipski, known for the large-scale public installations that grace Denver Public Library and Grand Central Terminal, was “head and shoulders above the rest,” says Streit.

St Paul Cathedral Lights Up

The pediment remains illuminated at night. Photo Credit: McCardinal Photo 2013

And his design, a nautilus centered among blue, wave-like spirals, captured exactly what Streit hoped to convey. This may surprise those who expected a more literal, explicitly Catholic image.

“I wanted something vivid and contemporary that looked to the future and not just the past,” says Streit. “I was hoping for art that was engaging and inviting, that somehow conveyed the sacred without being too narrow.” Although there was some feedback in favor of a more expressly religious installation, Streit says the suggestive, abstract approach was widely supported by the cathedral’s stakeholders.

Streit was moved by the symbolism of the shelled nautilus. “As the nautilus outgrows one chamber, it builds itself a larger new one,” he says. He thinks that idea mirrors the “perpetual growth” and constant evolution of a church and its members. And spirals are a pattern indicative of creation in nature—from the weather patterns that birth hurricanes to the subatomic particles that build molecules.

“It’s a symbol of transformation,” says Streit of the pediment’s new art. “We’re always going to new places, and an important part of the cathedral’s mission is transforming people’s lives.” And the cathedral’s history is certainly packed with a lot of progressive, forward-thinking facts. It was here, in 1846, that Alexander Crummell became the first African American ordained deacon in the state. In 1985, at the height of the AIDS crisis, the first public AIDS healing service in Boston was held at St. Paul’s. And in 1988, the first woman bishop in the Anglican Communion was elected. Today, says Streit, the church prides itself on providing a sense of public service—ministering to the homeless is an integral part of that mission—and fostering inclusiveness among faiths. Though an Episcopal church, it hosts Muslim prayer services on Fridays.

The cathedral’s new, attractive art is part of that overarching mission to make it a welcoming place to visit in Boston, says Streit. And it seems to be working.

“Just the other day I got an email from a stranger,” says Streit. He paraphrased her message: “She said, I was walking by the Common and saw the new pediment. There’s a passage in the Gospel of John that says, ‘My Father’s house has many rooms.’ It reminded me of that. I’m not a Christian, but I love the artwork. Congratulations on bringing something beautiful to the community.”

Making downtown feel like a warmer, more welcoming place was the hope of the pediment project. If that e-mail was any indication, those prayers have been answered.

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