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The Golden Ceiling | by kern.justin
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The Golden Ceiling

The full tour.

Today's is the final post focusing on my recent trek through the great golden spaces and dark corners of the grandest building within the city gray. Here then are the links to each of the three pieces:

Part I, The bells of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon.Part II, Dark corners of a gray cityPart III, The Golden Ceiling, and a few choice details of the Chapel

An 800-ton ceiling

It was no wonder that my gracious host at the Rockefeller Chapel was eager for me to document the vaulted ceiling - it is grand and huge and beautiful and unique. It is, according to the Rockefeller Chapel's website, the only example of a Gothic vaulted ceiling tiled with colored glass. It was designed by Hildreth Meiere, a prominent art deco muralist to whom we owe thanks for infusing so much warmth and spirit to these enormous waves of limestone. Much light passes through the great stained glass windows, strikes the work of Meiere and is filtered from white to rich gold on its way to we who wander along the green-stoned and mirror-polished floor. Rich orange and amber rays turn limestone to hues of sandstone and tint a visitor's experience with the same. My memories of many academic convocations are, accordingly, on a backdrop of golden gray. Though the world has no shortage of photographs of the most recognizable spaces of Rockfeller Chapel, I couldn't help but focus a bit on the ceiling and recapture some of these classic views. Here is the view north, from the very first row of pews, looking upward to capture the reredos and fiery rose window:


A quick turn around and here is the view south. You can see clearly how the ceiling, throughout the length of the Chapel, throws off warm light and the great ribs draw your eye straight to the large, circular keystones.


I don't shy from the distortion inherent to photographic media and small-format, wide-angle lenses. Some find images made with these tools an offense to traditionalist photographic sensibilities. Traditionalism has its time and its place, but angle and shape and distortion are a matter of perspective (pun intended) and mine is simple: we are trapped forever by the optical properties of our eyes into one viewpoint, and this viewpoint is no more directly connected to reality than are the shapes paraded back and forth by the standard-bearers of the Platonic cave. Our own eyes generate distortion, create convergence, and force perspective. Camerasight, however, can be manipulated and images created that reveal things difficult to visualize in eyesight. For example, the east and west transects of the Rockefeller Chapel, like those of many Gothic and Neo-Gothic cathedrals, form the shape of a cross; easy to imagine, but hard to visualize with eyesight - this cross is manifest in an image that distorts lines so as to fit a 180-degree view into the space of a sensor.


The King's court.

While making these images of the ceiling, I also made a few photographs of my favorite architectural details. The Chapel is now home to many divergent rituals and traditions, religious, academic and otherwise. A lack of overt symbolism within the masonry of the reredos is therefore a benefit and renders it a favorite to one who feels a removal of gothic styles from conventional religious iconography a goodness. A number of ornate, red leather-clad chairs sit at the base of the reredos - the central one looking for all the world like a throne and the front of the chapel like some Shakespearian court, with the ghost of a wronged monarch pacing behind the red velvet. In a way, the analogy holds water - the tombs of a number of former university presidents lie just beyond.


Dumbledore's podium.

One of the strengths of the Potter books is their shared rhythm. The plot follows a cadence, which serves great effect when it is broken in the final installment. One of the most effective notes to this theme is the address Dumbledore gives to the students upon the start of the school year, standing at the head of a Gothic hall at a podium ornamented with great birds. It has always conjured for me memories of the Aims of Education address, given each year in robes by the President to new students here in Rockefeller Chapel. It so happens that the wizard's podium stands at the front of the Chapel in stone:



When I began at the University, a musicologist was President, and one of the boons he brought to his neighbor (the President's house being just a stone's throw from the oaken doors of Rockefeller Chapel) was a refurbishment of the most magnificent pipe organ I've ever seen in person. Here it is straight on from the passage between the reredos and the second floor gallery.


Before leaving, I snapped off one or two more images to remember the exit as it was when we bundled back up in in thick wool coats and year-past, Christmas-gifted scarves to dive through large doors and splash into biting winds and the onset of twilight somewhere beyond the pillow-white sky we traded for the golden vault.

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Taken on November 26, 2010