Illuminating Duke Chapel

Behind the scenes in a place of spirituality and solace: scaffold-scaling, turret-climbing, elevator-braving, woodwork-dusting, and mouse-hunting.

Duke Chapel is a work of art. But it is no museum. There are no curator’s notes posted beneath the stained-glass windows to reveal their history, no commentaries beside the stone carvings to explain their symbolism. In some ways this is good: The Chapel is so rich in treasures that any attempt to annotate them on-site would end up wallpapering the nave with explanatory plaques. Unfortunately, it also means that the thousands of people who come to the Chapel each year miss much of what it has to offer.

About a year ago, university administrators decided it was time to remedy the situation. Since the Chapel is such an icon, they determined that a new book on the subject—a tribute in words and pictures—would be valued by many people who remember it fondly from their student days, attend services or performances there now, or have simply heard of its beauty and made the trip to see it for themselves.

Over the ensuing months, the four of us who were charged with bringing the book to life—Chris Hildreth and Les Todd of University Photography, Lacey Chylack and I of Duke’s Office of Creative Services—found ourselves doing many unanticipated things in its service: scaffold-scaling, turret-climbing, elevator-braving, woodwork-dusting, and mouse-hunting, to name a few.

Call it divine inspiration. The more we learned about the Chapel, the more we realized the wonderful opportunity the book presented: to give others the thrill of discovering anew a familiar treasure. This should not be just a pretty coffee-table book, we decided. It begged to be a course in Duke Chapel Appreciation.

The artists and craftsmen who built Duke Chapel lavished their talents on it, and there are interesting and delightful details crammed into every corner. Yet many lovely works of art are so high up you can hardly see them; others hide in areas inaccessible to the general public; and even the ones in plain sight—like the blue devil, artists’ signatures, and amusing scenes in the stained-glass windows—are so profuse they’re nearly impossible to take in during a single visit (or even a dozen).

Gothic heights: photographer Chris Hildreth, atop one of the four 50-foot scaffolds used to capture clerestory windows.

Determined to capture these elusive gems, the photographers received special permission to move chandeliers and pews in order to bring in four fifty-foot-tall scaffolds. For a fortnight they worked from these perches, Michelangelo-like, often coming in at 5:30 a.m. to catch the best light. Mollie Keel, the Chapel hostess, lent us keys to the turrets so we could get at the stunning warrior windows that climb the staircases inside. Sam Hammond ’68, M.T.S. ’96, the university carillonneur, took us up in the creaky old elevator—currently closed to visitors—to see the now-defunct museum in the tower.

It was a privilege to be given the time and access to explore the Chapel in full, and one we did not take lightly. Because we thought it would be a shame to keep any of these beautiful objects out of sight any longer, we kept documenting them—ultimately portraying every stained-glass window and nearly every charming wooden figure in the place.

Finding the Chapel’s treasures is one thing. Understanding their significance is quite another. You can admire the twenty-two statuettes lining the chancel, but it’s much more interesting to know that a particular one is Doubting Thomas, and the thing in his hand that looks like a wilted stick is actually the Virgin’s Girdle (or belt), which Mary supposedly let down from heaven to prove to him her ascension. When you’re staring at a small forest of intricate carving, to know that somewhere in there (legendarily, anyway) is a churchmouse crafted by a witty woodworker. When you’re looking at the statues gracing the front entrance, to know that one of them mistakenly portrays Sir Edward Coke instead of Thomas Coke. (In an ecclesiastical context, this is an error as egregious as hanging a picture of Trajan the Roman emperor instead of Trajan Langdon in a gallery of Duke basketball greats.)

The history that illuminates the Chapel’s treasures, that transforms symbols into stories, was derived from a variety of sources across Duke and beyond. Information came from those who know the Chapel best—University Archivist William E. King ’61, A.M. ’63, Ph.D. ’70, Hammond, Dean of the Chapel Will Willimon, and others; some from subject experts and reference materials; and a great deal from boxes in University Archives, where you can find such things as the signatures of the Chapel’s first wedding party and letters explaining why the stained-glass designer was fired.
  As we all grew more intimately acquainted with Duke Chapel through research and observation, we began to see it as much more than a beautiful building. It is a world within walls—a capsule of university history, a teacher of church history, a celebration of centuries of art and architecture, a vibrant center of university and community life.

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