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.
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.