Origin of the Murals
From the earliest centuries of Christianity, church art has had a double function, namely, to serve as an icon of God’s self-revelation in Jesus the Christ, and to serve a didactic purpose in imparting theological teaching. What began in places of worship like the Greek Chapel in the Catacombs of Priscilla, and carried on through the grandiose churches of Ravenna and Rome, has born a tradition of church art even into our own era. Adorning St. Mary’s Chapel in the St. Paul Seminary is a program of murals designed to send a clear message to the future leaders of the Catholic Church in the Midwest. What is the significance of this masterpiece which is the creative synthesis of over a thousand years of artistic tradition?
This painting, which has been the visual inspiration for generations of future Catholic priests in the upper Midwest, developed out of the friendship of two young boys growing up in Newport, Rhode Island, during the second half of the nineteenth century: Bancel La Farge, son of the famous American artist and pioneer of opalescent stained glass, John La Farge; Austin Dowling, the son of the butler in a mansion next door. When Dowling, the butler’s now grown son, was chosen to be the second Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul in Minnesota in 1919,1 he called upon his boyhood friend, himself now a man of sixty years and an accomplished artist, to execute the stained glass windows in the ambulatory of the newly erected Cathedral of St. Paul. As Bancel La Farge was putting the [End Page 87] final touches on his work at the Cathedral, he was commissioned by Dowling, almost as an afterthought, to design and execute what can easily be considered his most profound work of church art: the murals in the sanctuary of St. Mary’s Chapel. La Farge’s work on the program of interior decoration in the chapel, culminating in the apse mural, is an artistic masterpiece of aesthetic and theological synthesis. La Farge poured himself into this work, which was to adorn the High Altar of no mere parish church, but that of the St. Paul Seminary. As such, it would stand as the visual focal point for the prayers of generations of future Catholic priests and bishops. Doubtless, La Farge knew the impact that such a work could have on the piety and religious aesthetics of the church in America – a subject about which he was very passionate. Were it not for what some consider the workings of Providence, it is otherwise unlikely that a great artist from the East Coast like Bancel would come to decorate a small seminary chapel in the still developing city of St. Paul, Minnesota.
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Bancel La Farge grew up as a young man of means in a family of artists: his father was the famed American artist and pioneer of opalescent stained glass; his brother C. Grant was an accomplished church architect; his brother Oliver was a painter and author; and his brother John became a Jesuit priest and was a major figure in the civil rights movement of the early twentieth century. Despite his father’s [End Page 88] financial recklessness and difficult temperament, Bancel was able to make his own way well enough in the world as an artist and gentleman.2 After working some years in his father’s studio, Bancel married a lovely young woman named Mabel Hooper, and set out to break free of troubles with his father, and to develop his own identity as an artist.3 Raised a Roman Catholic by his parents, he inherited his mother’s piety and his father’s artistic genius.4 In Bancel, these two particular virtues combined into a synthesis which gives his own art a different character and feel from that of his father. Despite any formal training in art, he developed and perfected his skills in painting...