Gifts of Massive Artwork from Boston Church to Furnish Trinity College Chapel

Pieces are Significant Additions to the College’s Rich Resources of Art and Architecture

The gifts to the Trinity College Chapel from St. John the Evangelist Church in Boston include a high altar reredos (altarpiece) by Ralph Adams Cram; screens with sculptures by Henry Vaughan; screens by Cram; and a great rood (hanging crucifix) by Vaughan. Martin Mower painted the central panel of the high altar reredos.​ The pieces are shown here in their former configuration at St. John's in Boston. They are being stored temporarily before complete installation at the Trinity College Chapel.

Hartford, Connecticut, December 4, 2015 – Trinity College has received a gift of large liturgical furnishings and artwork from a church in Boston, bringing the iconic Gothic Revival Chapel closer than ever to the full realization of the artistic vision cast by its principal architect, Philip Frohman, more than 85 years ago.

St. John the Evangelist Church (Episcopal) in Boston recently merged with the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, ending its century-long presence in its building and requiring new homes for all of its striking and ornate interior architectural appointments. According to Trinity College Chapel Curator Christopher D. H. Row ’91, M.Div., Ph.D., the position of St. John’s Church in the history of the American Gothic Revival style is significant. “Henry Vaughan and Ralph Adams Cram – two of the greatest Gothic Revival architects of the Third Phase of the American Gothic Revival – were not only parishioners at this church … but they contributed their artistic talents to the fabric of the building itself.” The works of liturgical art being given to the College are a 24-foot-tall high altar reredos, or altarpiece, by Cram; a Lady Chapel altar and reredos by Cram; a Vaughan screen with four sculptures; a set of Cram screens; and a 14-foot-tall great rood (hanging crucifix) by Vaughan. Martin Mower painted the central panel of the high altar reredos.

​The great rood (hanging crucifix) by Henry Vaughan.
Coincidentally, the Trinity College Chapel was designed to house precisely this type of artwork, which has been lacking since the building’s original construction. “The Chapel was the gift of William Gwynn Mather in 1928,” Row said. Mather’s initial bequest was for the building; its adornment with wood carvings, stained glass windows, and more; and its maintenance into the future. When the Great Depression arrived in the midst of Chapel construction, the decision was made to complete the building itself, leaving its entire adornment for later generations to complete. That time has finally come.

The Reverend Allison Read, College chaplain, said, “When St. John’s became aware of this space in all of its particularities, they were thrilled. There are not a whole lot of buildings of this kind and of this scale. These pieces fit here as if they were made for it: the style, the materials, the iconography, the architects, the artists themselves. These artists worked with Frohman during his lifetime. The architect intended for this building to be furnished in precisely in this way.

“The other piece that was exciting to St. John’s was the fact that they could house all of these liturgical furnishings together in one space, rather than send them out to various different parish churches,” Read added.

Row suggested that the historic value of the objects is priceless. “Given the provenance of these works and the list of patrons behind them, it would not be unreasonable to suggest their historic value is incalculable,” he said.

​The Lady Chapel altar and reredos by Ralph Adams Cram will be installed in the Friendship Chapel. Photos by Roy Goodwin
Associate Professor of Fine Arts Kristin A. Triff said that the choir walls and other areas of the Chapel have been noticeably bare since the building’s completion. “When I take students on tours of the Chapel, they always ask me, ‘Shouldn’t there be an altarpiece?’ And collectively, these pieces constitute that missing link. This is exactly what the College would have commissioned had Mather’s gift not evaporated during the Great Depression, and now we can recreate that gift. Trinity is very fortunate.”

A team led by conservationist Sean Fisher of Mussey Associates carefully disassembled the objects in October and transported them from Boston to Trinity’s Chapel, where they are being temporarily stored on site while Row, Read, Triff, and Fisher create a project outline with a proposed time frame for the installation. However, one piece is already on display: the central panel painting by Mower is hanging behind the altar on the east wall, where the full high altar reredos eventually will be installed. The Lady Chapel altar and reredos will be installed in the Friendship Chapel, and the screens will be installed at the west end of the choir.

Triff said that the Chapel soon will offer an example of a complete American Gothic Revival interior. “It’s an extraordinarily rare thing, and that really resonates with the students,” she said. “Paintings in museums are generally isolated from their original context. It’s very different to take students to environments that are complete, that are stylistically coherent, that include painting and sculpture and architecture, and really give them a sense of what the period was like. Now this will be a part of their own environment at Trinity, and they will have much more of a sense of being part of a historical continuum.”

Written by Andrew J. Concatelli