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Judaism and Christianity

Art and Architecture Descriptions

Detail of mural
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Detail of mural

More information about Sargent

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A sequence of mural decoration executed between 1895 and 1916.

By John Singer Sargent, R. A.

The Sequence begins at the north end of the hall; at the end, that is, farthest from the head of the stairs.

This portion has for its theme the confusion which fell upon the children of Israel whenever they turned from the worship of Jehovah to that of the false gods of the heathen nations. The story is concisely told in the passages from the 106th Psalm inscribed upon the gold ground of the rib which separates the lunette from the ceiling "They forgat God their Saviour, which had done great things in Egypt and they served idols which were a snare unto them. Yea they sacrificed their sons and their daughters unto devils and shed innocent blood, even the blood of their sons and their daughters unto the idols of Canaan. Therefore was the wrath of the Lord kindled against his people and he gave them into the hand of the heathen; and they that hated them ruled over them. Their enemies also oppressed them and they were brought into subjection under their hand. Nevertheless he regarded their affliction when he heard their cry and he remembered for them his covenant."

The lunette represents the children of Israel beneath the yoke of their oppressors: on the left the Egyptian Pharoah, on the right the Assyrian King, with arms uplifted to strike with scourge and sword. The Israelites bow despairing, their central figure with arms uplifted in prayer for deliverance, while from behind the wings of the seraphim, screening the face of the Lord which no man may look upon, his mighty arms stretch forth to stay the oppressors. Prostrate victims beneath the feet of both Assyrian and Egyptian represent the other nations that were oppressed by them, while behind each are figures symbolizing the national deities.

In the ceiling are represented the pagan deities, the strange gods whom the children of Israel went after when they turned from Jehovah. Underlying all, with feet touching the cornice on one side and uplifted bands, that on the other, is the gigantic shadowy form of the goddess Neith, mother of the Universe. Her body is the firmament and about her neck she wears the dragon of the sun-myth with its symbolism of the eternal conflict between summer and winter.

The central figure on the left of the ceiling arch is Moloch, god of material things, a hideous monster above whose bead stands the sun with rays reaching down to draw forth the earth's bounty. On the right opposite, in contrast, is the beautiful, soulless figure of Astarte, goddess of sensuality, veiled in blue, standing upon the crescent, and surrounded by enticing, female figures and prostrate victims.

The third division of this portion of the work is the frieze of the Prophets with Moses as the central figure holding the tablets brought down from Sinai. Thus is symbolized the foundation of the religion of Israel upon the structure of the Law. The Prophets in their order from left to right are: Zephaniah, Joel, Obadiah, Hosea, Amos, Nahum, Ezekiel, Daniel, Elijah, Moses, Joshua, Jeremiah, Jonah, Isaiah, Habakkuk, Micah, Haggai, Malachi, Zechariah.

The portion of the decoration in corresponding position at the opposite end of the hall sets forth the Dogma of the Redemption, and to this the three Judaic lunettes on the east wall, above the staircase, lead up. Of these the subjects are: in the center "The Law;" flanked on the left by "Gog and Magog;" and on the right by "The Messianic Era," while the three on the west wall, opposite, set forth the development of the Christian concepts of "The judgment," in the center; with "Hell," on the right; and, on the left "The Passing of Souls into Heaven."

In their turbulent, terrible, and chaotic qualities both the "Hell" and the "Gog and Magog" agree in spirit with the work in the adjacent Old Testament end dealing with fear-grounded primitive beliefs. In the other four paintings beauty and concord dominate. In "The Law" Israel is seen under the mantle of Jehovah fulfilling the mission of his race in yielding himself to the exclusive study of the Divine Law laid down for the guidance of the Chosen People. Inscribed in Hebrew below the arch are the words of the Jewish ritual spoken before the recitation of the Commandments, a portion of which appear upon the scroll of the Law.

"Gog and Magog," the subject of the lunette on the left, pictures the final conflict when all things earthly perish and the universe comes to an end.

In contrast with this, at the other end of the wall, we see dawning "The Messianic Era." The race, purified and perfected of soul, under the leadership of the promised Messiah, a lad, the Son of Man, enters into a new paradise. Upon the scroll is lettered in Hebrew the prophecy of Isaiah, "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace." Other prophecies of Isaiah are indicated by the wolf, and the lamb, and the child and the lion.

At the south end of the hall is set forth the Dogma of the Redemption with the related theme of the Madonna.

Just as the figure of Moses, with the Law as the central fact of the religion of the Jews, forms the focal point in the first decoration, so here the Crucified Redeemer, as the central fact of Christian dogma, through the symbol of the Crucifix fulfills a like function.

In the lunette above, seated in state upon a magnificent throne are three colossal figures, the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. That the Three are One is made manifest by the exact similarity of the faces and by the fact that one vast garment envelops and unites them. This cope of red has an orphrey of gold which runs through the picture like a ribbon winding about each Person of the Trinity and inscribed with the word Sanctus, meaning Holy, continually repeated. The heads in the Trinity are crowned each with a different form of crown significant of the three attributes of divinity, while each figure raises the right hand in benediction in the Eastern manner.

On the cross is the figure of the dead Christ, with the figures of Adam and Eve, typifying Humanity, kneeling on either side. They are bound closely to the body of Christ, since all are of one flesh, and each holds a chalice to receive the Sacred Blood. About the feet of Adam is entangled the Serpent of Temptation. Above the arms of the cross there is inscribed in Latin "The sins of the world have been redeemed." At the foot of the cross the Church is symbolized by the Pelican feeding its young, while around it doves symbolize the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit.

On the cornice that separates the frieze from the lunette is a Latin inscription meaning "Being made man, I am maker of man, and redeemer of what I have made. God in the flesh, I redeem body and soul."

In the frieze of the Angels which flanks the Crucifix on either side, we have a balance for the frieze of the Prophets opposite. These Angels bear the instruments of the Passion: the spear, the pincers, the hammer, the nails, the pillar, the scourge, the reed, the sponge, and the crown of thorns. The two Angels upholding the cross also bear wrought on their garments, the symbols of the Sacrament: the wheat and the vine.

In the niche on the east wall is portrayed the Handmaid of the Lord, Our Lady with her Divine Child. The figure is full length, seated, and the hand of the Infant is raised in benediction. From two angels above, holding a splendid crown bearing the symbol of the Holy Spirit, there proceed scrolls upon which are inscribed in Latin the titles: Vessel of the Spirit, Chosen Vessel, Closed Garden, Tower of David, Tower of Ivory.

Opposite this on the west wall is Our Lady of Sorrows. The figure stands behind a screen of lighted candies and is borne upon the crescent moon. The seven swords thrust into her heart represent the Seven Sorrows.

Upon the vault of the ceiling between these two niches are represented the fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary.

Above the Madonna and Child the panels devoted to the five joyful Mysteries make the principal feature of the east side of the vault. The first in the group "The Annunciation" fills the large rectangular panel. The Angel Gabriel appears to the Virgin who, kneeling before God's messenger, receives in submissive humility the marvelous tidings. Upon a decorative scroll appear the words of the angelic salutation "Hail, thou that are highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed are thou among women," and the reply, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word." The Virgin appears to have been reading from the open book the prophecy "Behold a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel." In the oblong panel to the left we have "The Visitation," the greeting between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth. The panel below depicts "The Nativity." Mary and St. John the Baptist adore the new-born Infant, flanked by two angels bearing the crown of thorns and the nails. In the small panel above is depicted "The Presentation," at the moment when Simeon taking the Child in his arms breaks into his song of departure. In the panel on the right is represented "The Finding of Our Lord in the Temple."

Opposite, on the west side of the arch, the five Sorrowful Mysteries occupy the corresponding panels. In the small panel at the top is the first of the series "The Agony in the Garden." In the panel on the right is shown "The Scourging," while that on the left depicts "The Crowning with Thorns." The small panel below is occupied by "The Carrying of the Cross." These four compositions lead up to the last of the group, "The Crucifixion and Death of Our Lord."

In the center of the arch are the medallion and surrounding reliefs which represent the five Glorious Mysteries. To the left of the medallion, below, is shown "The Resurrection," and to the right, above, "The Ascension," while in the remaining quarters are shown "The Descent of the Holy Ghost" and "The Assumption of the Virgin." The great circle of the medallion is filled by the relief representing "The Coronation of the Virgin," the interpretation of the inscription within the rim being: "Hail, Queen of Heaven. Come, my chosen one, and I will set thee on my throne."

In the spaces outside the panels are numerous subordinate figures and designs. In the upper corners are the emblems of the four Evangelists, above the Madonna and Child are Eve and the Mother of God, and in similar position above the Madonna of Sorrows are figures of Adam and the Good Shepherd.

On the ceiling between the two long walls appear various conventional symbols. On the east, from left to right, the Seven-Branched Candlestick, the Scapegoat, the Head of Burnt Offering, the Ark of the Convenant, the Seven-Branched Candlestick again, and the Instruments of Music. On the west, the Peacocks of Immortality, the Tabernacle of the Eucharist, the Petrine Crown and Keys, the Monogram of Salvation, and the Eucharistic Chalice.

In the central lunette on the west wall "The judgment" balances "The Law" opposite, the Angel holding before him the great scales in which are weighed the mortals called forth from the opening graves by the sound of the trumpet. From the scales the condemned are thrust down by demons into hell-fire while the souls of just men made perfect are received into the arms of angels.

The two companion lunettes on this wall continue the central composition. In the "Hell" is seen a Satanic monster swimming in a sea of flame and devouring the multitude of lost souls. The handling suggests interminability, tempestuous with evil - a unity of discordance.

In contrast with this the composition on the left expresses the divine harmony which attends the entrance of the Blessed into the Kingdom. The movement begun in the central lunette is here continued. The celestial choir is symbolized by the three groups of singing angels with their harps, and weaving itself in and out around each pair of angels is the endless chain of the redeemed manifesting in physical perfection their spiritual attainment of that Oneness with God which is the end and aim of striving in the Faith.