Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Why Ox-Skulls on an 18th c Doorway?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012
Isabella/Susan* reporting:

When I see an 18th c doorway in Massachusetts, I expect to see a simple pediment or porch. What I don't expect are the skulls of oxen. Bovine skulls are found in paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe, and that old educational video game, Oregon Trail. They do not belong on colonial buildings.

But that's exactly what I discovered over the doors of Holden Chapel, a small brick building at Harvard University in Cambridge. Called bucrania (the Latin word for skulls of oxen), they're apparently common in the carved decoration in Greek and Roman architecture. The skulls, draped with garlands, refer to ancient oxen who were ornamented with flowers before they were sacrificed – though by the time the design appeared on Holden Chapel, the pagan symbolism of bucrania had faded, and it's more likely the motif was simply borrowed from a book of architectural drawings to represent stylish London classicism. (I know we have some serious architectural historians among our readers, and I welcome - please! - your input on this.)

But the architect of the chapel is now long forgotten, and he left no notes as to his design decisions. Considering the history of the chapel, the sacrificial ox-skulls do seem like a bit of an odd choice for a school founded to educate the most somber of Congregationalist and Unitarian ministers. The initial money for building the chapel came in 1740 as a gift of 400 pounds sterling from Mrs. Samuel Holden, the widow of a former Governor of the Bank of England known for his industry and piety. As is often the case with universities, the gift wasn't quite enough to finish the project, and construction proceeded in fits and starts. Holden Chapel finally opened in March 1745, and was used for the College's devotions for the next twenty years, until it was replaced by a larger chapel in another building.

Holden was then in turn used as a courthouse, a carpenter's workshop, and barracks for Washington's army during the Revolution. In 1783, it became the home of the new Harvard Medical School, and for the next half-century the Chapel was used as an amphitheater for anatomy classes, with the basement below housing laboratories. The old building then suffered the indignity of a Victorian "restoration" in 1850 and other various uses and abuses, including a fire. Even so, in 1934 Holden was chosen by the Historical American Buildings Commission as one of the finest examples of early Colonial architecture in Massachusetts. A more recent, and respectful, refurbishing made the most of the building's acoustics, and transformed it into a rehearsal space for the university's choral groups.

In the course of that renovation, however, workman discovered mutilated human remains in the basement walls, along with traces of arsenic. The student newspaper wrote breathlessly of hauntings and murder, but it was finally determined the bones and arsenic were only leftovers from the Chapel's days as a medical school. Perhaps; but there's still the question of those sacrificial ox-skulls over the door...

Photographs of Holden Chapel, Harvard University, by Susan Holloway Scott.

*Why the twin-name? Here's the reason.


Chris Woodyard said...

My first thought, as the building was a chapel, was Romans 12:1: I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. Of course, this would not apply to the many other secular Georgian buildings where this motif is found.

My second thought was of ox bones used since ancient times to strengthen foundations.

My third (jocular) thought was for students dreading early morning chapel after a long night of study (or fun): "Abandon hope, all ye who who enter here."

scrapiana said...

For what it's worth, a bovine skull motif features in the (original, I presume) hallway plasterwork at Claverton Manor, the Georgian building housing the American Museum in Britain. Worth enquiring there?

Anonymous said...

There are also plasterwork bucrania in the front staircase hall at The Vyne in Hampshire. However I believe the Vyne's examples are much later in the century than your example, so unlikely they were an influence.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Bucrania appear in illustrations of the Doric order in some of the textbooks and pattern books used by builders and architects in the 18th century and earlier. Sebastiano Serlio shows them, for example, in his 16th-century treatise, which was widely translated and very influential. In the 18th century Sir William Chambers also included them in one of his books. So there were plenty of sources, and some architects clearly thought of bucrania as a key part of one version of the Doric order, where they appear, as in your example, in the frieze.

Lenora Jane said...

I'm pretty sure one of the pamplets I'm dealing with at my archive right now is a sermon or lecture given in Holden. Cool.

Thalia said...

The dining room at Monticello has molded plaster bull's heads. The docent who led our tour said they were Masonic symbolism.

OpheliaCat said...

Bucrania go with the Doric order; in neoclassical architecture, Doric order stands for incorruptibility.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Many thanks to all for your comments & information - I feel much more enlightened now. Fascinating to hear how many other bucrania there are scattered about England, though I'm still wondering if the Holden Chapel ones are unique in 18th c America (not counting the Monticello bulls.)

No wonder Loretta and I love our readers - you guys are the best! :)

QNPoohBear said...

Fascinating! I haven't noticed any on my wanderings through Brown and neighborhood but I'll pay better attention next time I'm out.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

QNPoohBear - Please let me know if you do spot any at Brown! I'd be very interested to hear about them...thank you. :)

Ranail OSpelain said...

These OX skulls are found throughout the (old) British Empire, and there does appear to be a Freemason link. Dublin is full of them.

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