Sonte and Glass: The Meaning of the Cathedral of Saint Paul

Stone and Glass: The Meaning of the Cathedral of Saint Paul

by Dia Boyle
2008 The Cathedral of Saint Paul, 196 pages

Excepting scholarly articles and occasional references in monographic studies of Cass Gilbert, texts addressing the architecture of Minnesota classicist Emmanuel Masqueray are typically hard to come by.  Educated at Paris’s École des Beaux-Arts and groomed in the office of New York’s Carrère and Hastings, Masqueray served as architect of the St. Louis and Louisiana Purchase Exhibitions before establishing a private practice in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  As a private practitioner, Masqueray is noteworthy for having produced three cathedrals, Minneapolis’s Basilica of Saint Mary, and numerous other projects, mostly for the Archdiocese of Minneapolis-Saint Paul.

In 1990 an historian without a formal education in architecture, Eric C. Hansen, wrote The Cathedral of St. Paul: An Architectural Biography.  This book has long been the sole readily available reference on Masqueray and his architecture.  Hansen cast an academic gaze on the primary source documents of the cathedral archives, focusing considerable attention on the materials and manufacturers that gave form to the edifice.  In his appendices Hansen references the “inexplicable” loss of Masqueray’s personal papers, and it is conceivable further scholarly works of this nature are now impossible for that reason.  Unless these materials have been returned, future works on Masqueray seem bound to consider matters divorced from most—if not all—the primary source documentation.

Dia Boyle, a freelance writer and parishioner in the Twin Cities area, consciously conceived of her book in light of Hansen’s earlier work.  Released in commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of the laying of the cathedral’s cornerstone, Boyle intends for her book to complement Hansen’s earlier work, focusing on the iconographic and symbolic significance of the cathedral rather than its technical construction.  In the words of the cathedral’s rector, Reverend Joseph R. Johnson, “The story of the building of the cathedral—when, where, and how—has already been told.  It is the ‘why’ that now concerns us.” 

The two projects are thus different in scope:  Hansen’s text is heavily researched with a true academic bent; conversely, Boyle’s text is more interpretive and follows what might be called a formalist inquiry.  This should not be understood as a criticism, nor should it imply Boyle’s commentary is subjective.  The cathedral possesses a clear meaning.  And the authors of these artworks intended for that meaning to be readily comprehensible.  In Boyle’s own words, it is clear that “Archbishop John Ireland and architect Emmanuel Masqueray, and all the many others responsible for the construction and decoration of this edifice, planned and executed their designs in an effort to communicate a message.”  As such, this book effectively addresses the matter in question.

It is important to bear in mind that the readership intended for this book is a popular one.  In keeping with the intended audience, Boyle’s progress though the cathedral is experiential and somewhat storylike, often breaking into rhetorical questions or first-person exercises, as when a hypothetical “one” enters the cathedral and is subsequently “asked” to look around.

Photo:  www.flickr.com “alexquick”

The path along which Boyle takes the reader is logical:  The meaning of the cathedral is first considered in light of its historic and urban placement before entering into an analysis of the main façade as primary approach.  The plan is then briefly considered before reviewing the narthex, baptistery, and center aisle.  Boyle next moves through the various side chapels dedicated to Mary, Joseph, Peter, and Jesus’ Sacred Heart.  Then Boyle reviews the dome, baldachin, and altar before engaging in a rather in-depth consideration of the windows and bronze cycles in the Shrine of the Nations, the name applied to the six radiating chapels of the apse ambulatory.  This area receives the most consideration, and nearly a third of the book is devoted to the statuary and windows comprising the Shrine of the Nations.  Boyle concludes by commenting on the nave, transepts, and dome, and their mosaics, windows, and statuary. 

As the subject is generally ornamental, the quality and abundance of images do not disappoint.  Boyle’s writing style is clear and engaging, and devoid of any hackneyed art criticisms.  The result is a sincere and engaging text that will be cherished by both Minnesota’s Catholics and Masqueray’s admirers.

 

A Minnesota native, Thomas M. Dietz received his education in the history, theory, and criticism of architecture and art at MIT.  He is currently an architect in Chicago.