A Closer Look at the Stained Glass of Bapst Library

 by Ethan Starr


Guided tours across Boston College’s campus have several consistent destinations; Stokes, Gasson, and Fulton are all featured proudly as enduring symbols of the continual development of BC’s campus and the Collegiate Gothic style they claim to emulate. No buildings of overtly religious function are highlighted to prospective students, but one cannot help but be reminded of the school’s Catholic foundations when circling through Bapst Library.

Perhaps the campus’ most authentically Neo-Gothic structure, hewn out of the same Roxbury stone as Gasson and St. Mary’s, the multi-floored art library hosts an array of religious characteristics. Boston College’s cathedral of books was dedicated in 1928 after an often-stalled construction process finally allowed for the removal of the university’s many volumes from the upper floors of St. Mary’s Hall. Its main reading room, Gargan Hall, occupied the upper floor and resembles a religious space in its grand basilica-shaped room punctuated with bookshelves that partition study spaces in the areas that might otherwise be occupied by side chapels. Despite its contemporaneous construction with the Church of the Immaculate Conception within Boston proper, Bapst’s style stands in contrast to the dominant Catholic architectural manners of the day, especially when compared to the Renaissance Revival style usually favored by the Jesuit order. Collegiate Gothic construction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was largely a phenomenon of college campuses, and typically consisted of the quotation of the great European churches of the 12th-14th centuries for the inspiration of secular and academic spaces. As any entrant to the front door of Bapst library can visualize, however, with the Virgin Mary enthroned occupying the tympanum above them, Boston College defied this pattern of secularization in several ways.


The religiosity of Bapst’s interior is perhaps most tangible in its abundant collection of stained glass windows, designed by Earl Edward Sanborn, a glass artist and painter operating out of Boston who was inspired both by traditional Gothic renderings in glass and the contemporary Arts and Crafts Movement. While approximately half of the library’s windows depict secular, historic, or mythological subject matter, a careful examiner is not left in want of better depictions of biblical scenes saints, and Christ. Upon approaching Gargan Hall, entrants first encounter a series of windows recounting the history of the book and representations of the world’s great early written languages, while offices on the right are filled with the renderings of famous and influential Americans. Inside, Sanborn continued the historical narratives with scenes ranging from the founding of the nation to the Civil War Era.


As many of the Christian scenes of Gargan Hall are interspersed with the historical and mythological, a visitor must know what he or she is looking for to properly identify the many events and individuals depicted. Windows in the westward study alcoves illustrate themes of religion, oratory, poetry and drama, prose, modern language, fine arts, history, and education, while the eastern windows contain scenes of the “useful arts,” which include natural science, political science, philosophy, theology, law, and medicine. Most of the sections contain at least one Christian-oriented panel; for example, Sanborn’s last supper scene is categorized under fine arts, as it also pays homage to Michelangelo. Other sections of the library host additional Christian subject matter, including the several Celtic-influenced panels found in the Roche Room, or Irish Room, on the floor below. Designed by Richard King, these stylized depictions of monks and St. Patrick, among others, contrast with Sanborn’s windows as the work of an Irish artist interested in reproducing the styles of the illuminated manuscripts and Celtic aesthetic tradition of his homeland. Upon continuing into Burns library, one can also find scenes of Canadian Jesuits who were martyred during the time in which Sanborn was fashioning the windows, and other scenes of Jesuit missionaries can be found in locations outside of Gargan Hall. Although Bapst’s stained glass forms only a fraction of the windows that can be observed in several locations on campus, they remain some of the best examples of Christian subject matter continuously on display at Boston College.


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