McKim Building Interior Tour
Part 2: The Art and Architecture of the Boston Central Library in Copley Square
The entrance to the McKim building is through three double doors on Dartmouth Street across from Copley Square, where today it is used as a research library, museum, exhibition facilities, and administrative offices. At its opening in 1895 it was described as a “palace for the people” by such notables as Oliver Wendell Holmes.
In the vestibule is a sculpture of Sir Henry Vane, by Frederick MacMonnies. Sir Henry Vane was a Governor of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, and advocated for free thought in religion, and maintained that God, law, and parliament were superior to the King of England, which ultimately led to his beheading in 1662.
From the vestibule are three entrance doors to the lobby that are sculpted in a bas-relief bronze by Daniel Chester French. The allegorical figures represent Music, Poetry, Knowledge, Wisdom, Truth, and Romance. Below each bas-relief are quotes which reads:
Music: Such sweet compulsion doth in music lie, to lull the daughters of Necessity, And keep unsteady Nature to her law. (by Milton)
Poetry: True Poetry is Like the Loadstone Which Both Attracts the Needle and Supplies it With Magnetic Power.
Knowledge: By knowledge shall the chambers be filled with all pleasant and precious riches. Proverbs 24:3
Wisdom: There is in Wisdom a spirit subtil, clear in utterance, loving what is good, pure, stedfast.
Truth: Truth is The Strength and The Kingdom and The Power and the Majesty of all Ages A Romance to Rede and Drive the Night
Romance: Away from me thought it Better Play than Either at Chesse or Tables.
From the Entrance Vestibule is a Lobby with arched passageways and vaults lined in marble, leading to a Grand Staircase. The system of vaults incorporated new thin wall technology developed and patented by Rafael Guastavino Moreno, a Spanish engineer that immigrated to the United States in 1881, and set up shop in New York for the next three decades. In all, the McKim building incorporated seven different types of Guastavino vaulting, using pink Knoxville marble, yellow Seina marble, and gray limestone.
Two couchant lions guard each side of the Grand Staircase as memorials to the second and twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry regiments from the Civil War. Each lion was carved from single blocks of Sienna marble by sculptor Louis Saint-Gaudens.
Louis Saint-Gaudens, 1854 to 1913, was a brother of Augustus Saint-Gaudens who was also a sculptor and created several works for the McKim building exterior. Louis was born in New York City and studied in Rome, later joining his brother in Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts.
Surrounding the Grand Staircase are 9 murals by Puvis de Chavannes known as the Chavannes Gallery of the Muses of Inspiration. Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, 1824 to 1898, was born in Lyon France and educated at the Amiens College, and Lycée Henri IV in Paris France, intending to follow in his father’s footsteps as an engineer. A journey to Italy changed his mind and so on his return to Paris he pursued studies with the artists Eugene Delacroix, Henri Scheffer, and Thomas Couture, and took anatomy classes at the Académie des Beaux-Arts.
Chavannes, at age 72, began preparation of the murals at his studio in France but chose not to travel to Boston due to his age, and did not see the final products installed in the library, but instead relied on his assistants to complete the work.
The following descriptions for the 9 Panels of the Muses of Inspiration are from the Massachusetts Collections Online at digitalcommonwealth.org.
1. The Muses of Inspiration hail the Spirit, the Messenger of Light: Set against a background of soft green heather fields, a strikingly blue sea, and a golden pastel sky, nine, white-robed muses regard Enlightenment, a winged figure who stands above the doorway to Bates Hall, emitting rays of light from his hands.
The swath of fabric was added to the figure by an artist’s assistant after the panels arrived in Boston, as his nudity was not widely accepted. Also pictured in this panel are the figures of Study (left of the doorway, holding a tablet) and Contemplation (right of the doorway, with her finger to her head in thought).
2. Philosophy: Representing the discipline of philosophy, Plato and one of his disciples discourse in an Athenian courtyard, with the Acropolis pictured behind them. Notably, the seated figure at left reads a bound codex book, a form of text that did not exist in classical times.
3. Astronomy: Representing the discipline of Astronomy, Chaldean shepherds lean against a rocky outcrop and observe the stars, which are rendered as small light flecks in the top portion of the canvas. In this scene, the shepherds discover the law of numbers. A woman peers out of a shelter in the lower left section of the image.
4. History: Personifying history, a red-robed woman calls up the spirits of the past from the cavernous ruins of a temple below. The figure to her right carries a bound codex book and the torch of science.
5. Chemistry: In this panel representing Chemistry (mineral, organic, vegetable), a fairy waves her wand over a flaming substance undergoing “mysterious change”, as three spirits look on.
6. Physics: Two figures pass along telegraph wires, representing one of the latest technological advancements of the late 19th century. The white-robed figure above bears good news, while the gray-clad figure below bears bad news, her hand clasped to her distraught face. At lower left, a telegraph pole is depicted, while at upper right, a thin bolt of lightning acknowledges the presence of electricity.
7. Pastoral Poetry: In this panel, Puvis depicts Virgil, author of the Aeneid and one of the artist’s personal favorites. In the foreground sit two beehives, set by a stream in a grove of trees. The robed Virgil stands amongst the trees, laden with their golden leaves. As written in the Aeneid, golden leaves marking the entrance to the under world must be picked in order to gain passage to the land below. In the distant background, Puvis depicts two shepherds.
8. Dramatic Poetry: Depicting a scene from Prometheus Bound, the bearded figure of Prometheus is chained to a rocky outcrop above the sea while a vulture circles above and the Oceanides (sea nymphs) surround him. Situated in the foreground, Aeschylus reclines on a cliff’s edge holding a script.
9. Epic Poetry: Two figures representing the Iliad and the Odyssey approach Homer, who sits holding a staff with a lyre nearby.
From Chavannes Gallery is Bates Hall, which has several entrances, but the main entrance is set inside the first mural under the Messenger of Light in reference to this being the place to gain enlightenment. The hall is the public reading room that spans the full width of the front of the building where its large windows and vaulted ceiling provides excellent light.
Bates Hall includes numerous sculptured busts of notable individuals important to the library and local history. Joshua Bates was a banker and the library’s first major benefactor. He had grown up without a library and wanted to leave one that was “free to all”.
The sculptured busts and their sculptors include:
Wendell Phillips, attorney and abolitionist for Native Americans; by Martin Milmore, an American sculptor, 1869.
Thomas Gold Appleton, writer and artist; by Nicola Cantalamessa Papotti, an Italian sculptor, 1873.
Alice Stone Blackwell, social activist and chief editor of the Woman’s Journal; by Frances L. Rich, an American actor and sculptor, 1960.
Lucy Stone, an American orator, abolitionist, and suffragist; by Anne Whitney, an American sculptor, 1892.
Sir Walter Scott, a Scottish historian, novelist, poet, and playwright; reproduced by John Hutchinson from an original work by Sir Francis Chantrey, 1899.
George Ticknor, academician of Spanish language and literature; by Martin Milmore, an American sculptor, 1868.
Joshua Bates, an international financier and first major contributor to the Boston Public Library; reproduced by Matthew Noble, from the original work by William Behnes, 1866.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, an American poet and educator; by Samuel James Kitson, an American sculptor, 1879.
James Fenimore Cooper, a writer of historical fiction; by Horatio Greenough, an American sculptor, 1831.
Edward Everett, a politician, pastor, educator, diplomat and 15th Governor of Massachusetts; by Thomas Ball, American sculptor, 1867.
William Whitwell Greenough, merchant and president of the Boston Public Library from 1868 to 1888; by Richard Saltonstall Greenough, an American sculptor, 1889.
Adjacent to Bates Hall and the Chavannes Gallery is the Abbey Room. It was formerly known as the Book Delivery Room where books were ordered and distributed, but is used today as a gallery for special events, and the permanent exhibit of the murals depicting the “Quest and Achievement of the Holy Grail”, by Edwin Austin Abbey. The murals were completed and installed from 1895 to 1902, and beginning on the west wall, tell the story in 15 Panels, taken from multiple versions of the Grail story.
Edwin Austin Abbey, 1852 to 1911, was born in Philadelphia Pennsylvania, and educated at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He moved to England in 1878, which is where he completed these works for the Boston Public Library over an eleven year period.
Here is a brief for each of the 15 panels taken from an outline of this version of the legend by Henry James, found at digitalcommonwealth.org.
1. The infant Galahad: An angel carrying the Grail approaches the infant Galahad, who is raised by nuns and learns the ways of the ideal knight in his upbringing.
2. Sir Lancelot and Sir Bors outfit Galahad with his spurs: Upon completing a nightly vigil, Sir Galahad is outfitted with spurs by Sir Lancelot and Sir Bors.
Galahad wears red throughout the mural series, as the color denotes spiritual purity.
3. The Arthurian Round Table and the fable of the Seat Perilous: Led by Joseph of Arimathea, Sir Galahad approaches King Arthur’s Round Table and the Seat Perilous. No man had yet sat with safety in the Seat, as only a blameless occupant can do so without being killed instantly. The knights of the Round Table watch in horror as Sir Galahad assumes the Seat, but the young and pure knight survives. Thereafter, the structure is known as “The Seat of Galahad.”
4. The knights of the Round Table set forth on the search for the Holy Grail: Sir Galahad and King Arthur’s knights of the Round Table set forth on their Quest for the Grail.
5. King Amfortas and the castle of the Grail lie under a spell: King Amfortas, the Fisher King, lies under a spell along with the other inmates of the Castle of the Grail. The spell has rendered them “spiritually dead;” although the Grail passes by them, they cannot see it. According to legend, only a blameless knight can free them from the spell. Sir Galahad is such a knight, but fails to ask the Question on which everything depends.
6. Sir Galahad contemplates his quest: On the morning following his visit to the Castle of the Grail, Sir Galahad contemplates his quest, as voices mock him for failing to ask the effectual Question, which would have freed the Castle’s inmates from their spell. Against their will, a trio of damsels under the spell try to use their powers to destroy Galahad. Years of the narrative pass between this panel and the next, bringing many challenges and ordeals to test Sir Galahad.
7. The seven knights of darkness: The seven Knights of Darkness, the seven Deadly Sins, have imprisoned the Virtues, a company of maidens, to keep them from contact with man. Sir Galahad accepts the mission to overcome these sins and set the Virtues free to redeem the world.
8. Sir Galahad receives the key to the Castle of Maidens: A monk blesses Sir Galahad and provides him with the key to the castle.
9. The Castle of Maidens: The castle of maidens, who by a prophecy have been expecting the ideal knight to free them, welcome Sir Galahad.
10. Sir Galahad wedded to Blanchefleur: Sir Galahad has wed one of the maidens, Blanchefleur, but must leave her in order to remain a Virgin Knight and continue the Quest, as only a Virgin Knight can achieve the Grail.
11. The passing of King Amfortas: Having grown wise through his trials, Sir Galahad returns to the Castle of the Grail and succeeds in asking the Question. As such, he manages to free King Amfortas from the spell. Now cleansed of sin, the old man is allowed to die. An angel bears the Grail away from the Castle.
12. Sir Galahad passes from the land: Sir Galahad passes from the now peaceful land upon a white steed.
13. Sir Galahad crosses the seas in Solomon’s ship: Sir Galahad crosses the seas to Sarras in Solomon’s Ship, guided by the Grail borne by an angel. Sir Bors and Sir Percival accompany him, while three spindles for the Tree of Life rest upon the stern of the ship.
14. The city of Sarras: The island city of Sarras, as viewed from the sea. While the island is a fictional one tied to the Arthurian legend, the story locates it near Egypt.
15. The golden tree: Sir Galahad, now the King of Sarras, builds a golden tree. When he is presented with the Grail, his spirit and the Grail ascend to heaven.
Like other elements throughout the mural cycle, the golden tree and the Grail are depicted in gilded raised relief, a method that Abbey may have learned from his studio partner John Singer Sargent.
The Sargent Gallery is located on the third floor above the Chavannes Gallery. The collection of murals in the Sargent Gallery are known as the “Triumph of Religions”, depicting the history of religion and the gods of polytheism.
John Singer Sargent, 1856 to 1925, was born in Florence Italy and educated at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris France.
The Triumph of Religion is described here in 19 Panels from the Massachusetts Collections Online at digitalcommonwealth.org.
1. Pagan Gods: Detail depicting Astarte, the goddess of sensuality. Notable are her thinly-painted blue robes over the bodies of entrapped female figures. Her jewels represent some of the mural cycle’s 600+ elements of raised relief; these ones sparkling in metal and glass.
2. Israelites Oppressed: At the center of this half-moon lunette, a group of bare chested figures, the Israelites, crouch under the weight of the yoke of their oppressors. Among those inflicting their strife are the Egyptian pharaoh wielding a staff at left, and the Assyrian King at right, releasing a sword from his sheath. Behind the Israelites are the bright red wings of a seraphim, which obstruct the face of the Lord. Portions of Psalm 106 run along the gilded edge of this lunette, telling the story of the Israelites’ oppression.
3. Frieze of Prophets: The Frieze of Prophets bands together the north end of the gallery beneath the Pagan Gods vault, wrapping along the west, north, and east walls. The prophets typify Sargent’s portrait style with softy-rendered features and sweeping robes of black, white, and umber. Sargent traveled to the Middle East to study the vernacular of the region and to compose studies for the figures in this portion. In this north segment of the wall from left to right are Amos, Nahum, Ezekiel, Daniel, Elijah, Moses, Joshua, Jeremiah, Jonah, Isaiah, and Habakkuk. At center, the image of Moses is rendered in high plaster relief, bearing two tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments.
4. Frieze of Prophets: The Frieze of Prophets bands together the north end of the gallery beneath the Pagan Gods vault, wrapping along the west, north, and east walls. In this west segment of the wall from left to right are Micah, Haggai, Malachi, and Zechariah.
5. Fall of Gog and Magog: This chaotic scene depicts the point of collapse when all things on earth are destroyed and the universe halts. The wheels of a flipped chariot at top and the inverted horses pulling it suggest that the earth has been thrown violently off course, while bright gild frames in Lincrusta-Walton at left signal further destruction. Backing the scene is the bright swirl of a galaxy at left and a dim outline of Saturn at right.
6. Israel and the Law: This lunette, installed at the center of the east wall, illustrates Israel perched beneath Jehovah’s mantle, studying the Divine Law. The outstretched scroll contains some of the words ceremonially spoken before the reading of the Commandments.
7. Messianic Era: In this idealistic scene the Messiah, pictured as a young man at center, proceeds through golden doors into paradise. The verdant land is celebrated with garlands of vines and pomegranates. A lamb, wolf, and lion represent prophecies of Isaiah.
8. Handmaid of the Lord: This full-length depiction of Madonna and Child sits in an alcove at the southern end of the east wall. The baby raises his hand in benediction, while two angels hover above the figures. Their scrolls bear the Latin translations of the “Vessel of the Spirit,” the “Chosen Vessel,” the “Closed Garden,” the “Tower of David,” and the “Tower of Ivory.”
9. Synagogue: The Synagogue panel brought Sargent’s great commission a new controversy, with many from within and beyond the Jewish community criticizing its representation of the figure as defamatory — as though representative of a religion at a collapsing point. One patron expressed dissent by splashing a vile of ink across the work in 1924. Amidst criticism, Sargent insisted that the work drew not from any ill opinion but rather from medieval imagery, depicting Synagogue as a blindfolded figure clasping her staff as the ruins of her religious space fell among her. Sargent based the figure for this work on Michelangelo’s Cumaean Sibyl. It is thought that this piece — alongside Church to the far right — is embedded with imagery of World War I, in which Sargent lost his dear niece, Rose-Marie Ormond, in a bombing of a Parisian church.
10. Sermon on the Mount: (Unfinished)
11. Church: In this Pietà image, Sargent depicts Madonna seated with Christ at her feet, the wounds from the crucifixion nails clearly visible on his exposed foot and hands. Sargent designed the ornamental frame for this work prior to the canvas’ installation in 1919. Situated on the southern end of the gallery’s east wall, where other images from Christianity feature, Church was completed as a counterpart to Synagogue, installed on this wall closer to the north end.
12. Fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary — Joyful, Glorious, and Sorrowful Mysteries: This arch, formed in gilded raised relief and painted panels, crowns the south end of the Sargent Gallery. Its fifteen scenes correspond to the placement of two accompanying images of the Virgin Mary. Five images representing the Joyful Mysteries correspond to Handmaiden of the Lord on the east wall. The central gilded portion at the top of the vault shows the Glorious Mysteries, while the five scenes in the Sorrowful Mysteries meet the image of Madonna of Sorrows along the west wall.
13. Trinity and Crucifix: At the top of this large half-moon lunette, three crowned figures representing the Holy Trinity share a single red robe, the trim of which bears the Latin word Sanctus, or “Holy,” in repeated gild relief. At center in high plaster relief is the figure of Christ on the cross, flanked by Adam at left and Eve at right. At the base of the cross sits a pelican, considered the sacrificial bird in medieval depictions for its tendency to pluck its own skin in order to provide food for its young when no other nourishment was available.
14. Frieze of Angels: Running along the bottom of the lunette is the Frieze of Angels, figures in primary tones holding symbols of the Passion of Christ, including the spear, pincers, hammer, nails, pillar, scourge, reed, sponge, and crown of thorns.
15. Madonna of Sorrows: The west side of the arch along the south end of the gallery bears gilded raised relief and painted imagery depicting the Sorrowful Mysteries. These include the “Agony in the Garden,” “The Scourging,” “The Crowning With Thorns,” “The Carrying of the Cross,” and “The Crucifixion and Death of Our Lord,” rendered at the center of this section.
16. The Passing of Souls into Heaven: This heraldic scene, the left-hand lunette on the gallery’s west wall, depicts the fate of those good souls who had approached the gates of Heaven in the Judgment lunette at the wall’s center. The white-robed figures ascend into the sky, holding hands and entwined with others, some playing golden harps. The hair of many figures is rendered in Lincrusta-Walton, a gilded, corrugated material that illuminates the painted forms.
17. Judgment: This central lunette along the west wall illustrates the weighing of souls that had approached the gates of Heaven. A trumpet calls souls to the scales held by an angel at center. Those who are “just” will be directed to the Heaven panel, at left; those who are deemed unjust will proceed to the bowels of Hell, the neighboring lunette to the right.
18. Hell: Situated on the right end of the gallery’s west wall, Hell depicts a muscular green monster clasping its sinewy limbs and fierce fangs down upon the souls of those deemed “unfit” in the Judgment scene, alongside this panel to the left.
19. Frieze of Prophets: The Frieze of Prophets bands together the north end of the gallery beneath the Pagan Gods vault, wrapping along the west, north, and east walls. In this west segment of the wall from left to right are Zephaniah, Joel, Obadiah, and Hosea.
Sargent worked on the murals from 1895 to 1919, but never finished the last mural, Panel 10, to depict Jesus delivering the Sermon on the Mount, due in part to the stress caused by public criticism over his depiction of The Synagogue.
As you exit down the stairs, look up, and you will see the sculpted “Lion of Saint Mark” above the stair, and a beautiful skylight in the ceiling above giving the Sargent Gallery a warm glow. The lion is the patron saint of Venice, which is where three of these sculpted reliefs were obtained and believed to date back to the 16th century.
At the base of the stair is the Venetian Lobby and the entrance to the Children’s Room. The sculpture adjacent to the entrance is “Child and Swan” by Leopoldo Ansiglione, 1832 to 1894, and above, a lunette mural by Joseph Lindon Smith, which includes another Lion of Saint Mark.
This concludes the McKim Building tour, but a finding of note through this exploration of its Art and Architecture is that the architect, Charles McKim, and many of the artists and sculptors involved, studied and refined their artistic abilities at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris France. I’m adding that to my travel bucket list.
This trip included tours in Hartford Connecticut, Boston Massachusetts, and Bar Harbor Maine; plus spending time with family in Boston and Bar Harbor. It’s a long drive that takes two days from Huntsville to Boston and another half day up to Bar Harbor.
One of the things I’ve learned on these trips is to avoid going through New York City, even though there is a lot of touring I plan to do there some day. The NYC route is nerve racking because there is so much traffic that you inevitably end up in a bumper to bumper traffic jambs along the way. There is a Tesla Supercharger in Moosic Pennsylvania, just outside Scranton, that I navigate to on an interstate route around the big apple. It maps out a few minutes longer, but is well worth the time to enjoy lower traffic volume and beautiful scenery.
Notes and References
Story and photographs by David Smitherman, except as noted, with site visits made in August 2023.
Historical data collected from brochures, onsite inscriptions, Wikipedia, and Google Maps.
The Muses of Inspiration hail the Spirit, the Messenger of Light
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