Knowles Memorial Chapel, a Neo-Renaissance structure designed by renowned architect Ralph Adams Cram and dedicated in 1932, is justly recognized as one of the nation’s most beautiful college chapels.
Whether you are a member of Rollins community or a visitor to the campus, the Chapel is well worth a few minutes of exploration. I have a suggestion. When you enter Knowles Memorial Chapel continue through the vestibule and walk twenty paces into the nave, turn and look high up beyond the balcony. Your eyes fall immediately upon a central feature of the chapel: the stained-glass circular window. If it is a sunny day and if you are at all artistically sensitive, you will be astonished, perhaps even reverentially moved, by the light pouring through the multicolored stained glass. Look closer. Unlike traditional geometrically designed circular windows, you will notice the Knowles window is filled with human figures, with lettering and with unusual ornamentation. If you are an inquisitive soul you may be led to wonder: Why did the artist design this style of window for a college chapel and, beyond its decorative qualities, what do all those figures represent? Be patient. That is the subject of this essay.
Circular stained-glass windows (often referred to generically as “rose windows” because many were adorned with rose-like pedals) originated with Medieval Gothic Cathedrals where they symbolized, through geometric patterns and through brilliant colored light, the spiritual beauty and power of the heavenly vision. As one scholar described them: “[Traditional] rose windows are made of geometric shapes [and] they have a specific number of radiating forms, subdivisions of smaller forms, and sometimes more division in the number of arches and other forms. Every element has a degree of meaning. Whatever the style of window, all of the elements come together in a single cohesive design, the real and symbolic.” The rose window was intended to provide symbolic substance to such ideas.1
Knowles Chapel’s rose window contains all the symbolic qualities of traditional rose windows: seven Liberal Arts, seven doves and seven pillars, and the window divided into twelve sections. Its content, however, made substantive deviations from conventional practice. The window was intended to serve an instructive function for the college community, that is, it provided a permanent visual tutorial on the origins of the liberal arts and symbolically informed the college of the moral and sacred mission of a liberal education.
The finished product was the result of collaboration between Cram and William Herbert Burnham, one of the nation’s most renowned stained-glass artists.2
According to Burnham, Cram conceived the subject matter of the Knowles rose window, provided the “general plan and design,” and Burnham then created its final form. Cram chose the Renaissance version of the Seven Liberal Arts as the subject matter of the rose window, in part no doubt because it was compatible with the chapel’s Renaissance architectural style.
For the window’s theme Cram selected “Wisdom,” believing it to be the paramount purpose and aspirational outcome of a liberal arts education. Burnham depicted Wisdom as a female figure and placed her at the very center of the window. He described his depiction of her as a regal, “heroic figure holding the lamp of knowledge and with the owl at her left hand.3
She is crowned with a golden wreath of laurel and is clothed in silvery white robe enriched with gold and blue.4
Her over-mantle is in soft, delicate greens and the figure is silhouetted against a rich ruby curtain which hangs gracefully in folds from three of the pillars.” The Seven Liberal Arts, also represented by female figures, were arranged about Wisdom, “each holding her particular attributes.” The following is Burnham’s explanation of the Trivium figures:
“GRAMMAR is depicted holding an ivory ruby case containing a bottle of ink, a pen, a scroll, and a file in sections, symbolizing the parts of speech.
DIALECTICS holds a serpent symbolizing the wiles of sophistry.
RHETORIC is typified as a beautiful armed maiden holding sword and shield, symbols of the power of persuasion “
And then the Quadrivium:
“GEOMETRY is holding the globe and compasses.
MUSIC is symbolized by a seated figure playing a lyre.
ARITHMETIC is holding an abacus and her agile fingers show the rapidity of her calculations.
ASTRONOMY is holding the astrolabe and is looking up at the stars.”5
The “general character” of the symbolic figures, Burnham explained, was “designed to conform to the architecture of the Chapel.” The design and figures were “strictly Renaissance, with the use of considerable quantity of white and gold interspersed with rich colors. The conventionalized acanthus leaf is used as a motif for the rich border of rubies and golds. 6
In addition to these symbolic representations, the designers wove overtly religious components within the rose window. Hovering above the Liberal Arts are seven doves and behind Wisdom are seven pillars, both representing the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. These “Gifts” were an early Christian set of beliefs taken from the Book of Isaiah 11:1-2 and later adopted by the early Christian Church. The gifts included wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. On the lintel above Wisdom appears the text: “Wisdom is better than strength” from Ecclesiastes 9:16 and at her feet is the text: “Wisdom hath build her house she hath hewn out her seven pillars.” Proverbs 9:1
These Biblical texts and the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit suspended above Wisdom was the way of emphasizing Cram’s belief in the two main components of a liberal education: the liberal arts within the context of Christianity. Both were essential for attaining the full meaning of Wisdom. A college education, he once declared, “should develop all the intellectual and spiritual qualities of young people” and the most effective way to achieve the latter, he argued, was emersion in religion. It was a “damnable opinion,” he contended, “that education [and the inculcation of ethics] may be divorced from religion. We have pretty much learned by this time (1914) that there is no effective education that is not interpenetrated by religion at every point.”7 In Burnham’s words, the Seven Gifts, symbolized by doves and pillars, “signified the sanctification of the Liberal Arts by spiritual force.”
Thus, for Cram and Burnham, the rose window played an essential role in the larger meaning of Knowles Memorial Chapel. The Chapel was mainly intended as a venue for religious services, but, just as importantly, in an age of growing secularism, it served also to emphasize the centrality of Christianity at Rollins College. The rose window was intended to stand as a constant visual reminder of the liberal arts-cum-Christian roots of the college’s traditional liberal education mission.
At the dedication of the window, President Hamilton Holt, captured the beauty of the rose window and revealed its meaning to the chapel and the college community: “The rose window, gathering the rays of the Southern sun, is like a luminous jewel upon the breasts of this beautiful body of the Chapel. It is appropriate in a college that the dominant, central theme of Wisdom be identified with both education and religion.”
For decades the Knowles Chapel Rose Window has served a didactic function for the Rollins community. It could also be an instructive source for those seeking a more substantive role for Christianity in the academic life of colleges and universities.
- See Charles J. Connick, “The Great West Window of the Cathedral of St John the Divine.” . Perhaps the most elaborate depiction of the Seven Liberal Arts is found on the tympanum of the west door of the Chartres Cathedral. See Burckhardt, “The Seven Liberal Arts and the West Door of Chartres Cathedral. Studies in Comparative Religion 3 (1969).
- I could find very little written material on Burnham’s life and career, but I did discover this summary of a 1935 article he wrote for the Stained Glass Quarterly. at Some of the studio’s most notable commissions included seventeen windows for the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D. C., all the windows and murals for Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Peoria, Illinois, ten windows for the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City, and five for the Riverside Church, also in New York City.”
- The lamp of wisdom fits nicely with Rollins’s motto: FIAT LUX. Traditionally the owl has been a symbol of knowledge, wisdom and erudition.
- According to Greek mythology the laurel wreath symbolized triumph. White is often associated with purity and goodness.
- The astrolabe was an early instrument used by astronomers and navigators to determine latitude on land and calm seas.
- In Mediterranean countries, the acanthus leaf represents immortality.
- Ralph Adams Cram,The Ministry of Art (1914), 170.