Gibson Chapel at BRS: Intro to Iconography

The Gibson Memorial Chapel at Blue Ridge School is one of the many extant structures built in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Students and families did much of the construction work. The Chapel contains numerous beautiful stained glass windows.

Sitting in various pews during the course of myriad chapel services, I have come to understand the meaning of the symbols and images depicted in colored glass.

Above the altar there is a large round window depicting Mary holding her baby, Jesus. It is always easy to find Mary in religious works of art as she is almost always depicted wearing a light blue robe or cloak. Also, the iconic Madonna is almost always shown holding Jesus on her left or the viewer’s right. The right side and right-handedness are considered good and positive. Conversely, the Latin word for left or left-handed is sinister with its connotation of evil.

Four of the windows along the right wall of the Chapel each focus on one specific icon. These are the traditional representations of the four New Testament Gospel authors. Matthew is signified by a human face and head: the first Gospel begins with a recitation of the genealogy of Jesus’ family and the head reminds us of that. Sometimes, this human form in this icon has wings to remind us of Christ’s angelic aspects.   Mark is depicted as a lion. The second book of the New Testament begins with St. John the Baptist, the voice crying in the wilderness, thus the lion with all its kingly associations.  An ox is used as the symbol of St. Luke. His Gospel concerns redemption through sacrifice: an ox was considered an exceptionally fine sacrificial animal. The Gospel of John is very different from the three synoptic gospels. It begins almost poetically with an allegory on the Word. John’s icon is an eagle to symbolize the heavenly spirit of Jesus.

There are many smaller glass images in the Chapel windows that are just as interesting. A ship’s anchor with a rope tangled around it is fairly common. This fouled anchor is the symbol for Britain’s Royal Navy. The fouled anchor is a very ancient symbol but in this case its meaning comes from the book of Hebrews which states Jesus/redemption/hope is the anchor for our souls. We can see oak leaves in the Chapel’s small glass panes as well as worked into larger images. Oaks were revered in pagan times and the leaves have come to symbolize Christ and endurance.

An image that puzzled me for a long time is that of a bird with its neck bent around to its chest. Drops of liquid are shown near the beak. I assumed the picture was that of an eagle, with the connections to royalty, Rome, etc. It was not until my sister, a Doctor of Divinity and New Testament expert, visited that my mystery was solved. She instantly recognized the bird as a pelican. During the Middle Ages, science and zoology were rudimentary at best: it was thought that pelicans would tear open their own breasts and feed their young with their own blood when no other food was available. The linkages to Christ and the themes of suffering, redemption and self-sacrifice are very strong. My sister was impressed that the stained glass artist depicted the pelican in true medieval style, i.e., not anatomically correct. This is still my favorite of the window icons.

In medieval times, stained glass in churches allowed illiterate worshipers to see and understand many stories from the bible and lives of the saints. That tradition was clearly drawn on and continued, quite successfully, by the skilled artisans who made the Gibson Chapel windows. The original soldered joints connecting the myriad panes of colored glass were conserved and strengthened in the late 1980’s. They will serve to instruct and entertain for many years to come.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *