“The purpose of this book is to give the visitor as complete a description of the chapel as possible so that, provided he has the patience to follow the symbolism of the carving and the stained-glass windows, (they) will come to realize that the decoration of the building contains the essence of the Old and the New Testaments, both of which appear on the seal of Princeton University,” wrote Richard Stillwell in the preface of “The Chapel of Princeton University,” first released in 1971.
While the Chapel and the community are still separated from one another during a second spring because of COVID-19, the recent re-release of Stillwell’s book provides an opportunity to prepare to revisit the building by becoming more aware of those symbols and designs that make the building a work of art in its own right.
Likewise, the following remarks from the republication’s new foreword by the Alison L. Boden, dean of religious life and of the Chapel, is one way to recall the original spirit of the book:
On the 50th anniversary of the publication of “The Chapel of Princeton University” it is a privilege and great joy to reissue the book, which remains the authoritative resource on the fabric of this magnificent edifice.
Professor Richard Stillwell’s meticulously researched and comprehensive descriptions of each area of the Chapel, the stonework, stained glass, woodwork, and overall design continue to support the work of scholars of architecture, literature, history, and other disciplines, at Princeton and around the world.
Simultaneously, the book edifies the accidental and curious tourists as well as the spiritual seekers who wonder what inspiration the Chapel’s builders wanted them to find in even the tiniest details of its composition. A building as architecturally significant and spiritually meaningful as this one deserves a companion text that will do justice to the intentionality and integrity of its design, the profundity of its symbolism, and the timelessness of the vision of its builders.
Richard Stillwell’s book continues to do all of this and more.
This edition contains Stillwell’s original text without revisions. This is possible because the Chapel remains unchanged, not only since this book’s first publication in 1971 but also since the Chapel’s completion in 1928.
Indeed, there is much about the Princeton University Chapel that is changeless, from the architecture and material embellishments to the deeply human reasons that so many people make their way into this sacred space. The Chapel remains the ceremonial center of the University, the home of such defining annual gathering as Opening Exercises, the Service of Remembrance, and Baccalaureate. The vaulted arches of the great nave continue to receive the ascending prayers of those in crisis and those rejoicing, the perplexed, the lost, the hopeful, the faithful. Public worship brings together town and gown, the country and the world, to pray together and to be commissioned for service to humanity. Glorious music continues to draw us to the Chapel for concerts by the wonderful Princeton University Chapel Choir and on the magnificent 8,000-pipe Mander-Skinner organ. The most momentous issues in our common life literally summon us to the building in order that we may simply be together — upon the beginning or ending of war, the assassination of President Kennedy, in the hours after the 9/11 attacks or massive earthquakes. At Princeton our Chapel remains vital to us simply because we need it.
And, yet, there is so much at the Chapel and the University that is constantly changing. This includes the composition of the campus community, and the expansion and diversification of our student body has necessarily expanded the daily use of the University Chapel.
I intentionally have left in this publication a plate from the first edition which Professor Stillwell intended to profile “the Apse.” The photo does indeed show the apse but from a great distance, one that reveals the Chapel pews to be packed with young, white, male students in suit jackets, perhaps attending a mandatory academic convocation.
Today’s Princeton student population is mixed in age, particularly thanks to our transfer and veterans’ programs, and to the Graduate School. It encompasses every racial and ethnic identity, every nationality, every gender expression, every imaginable idea of appropriately neat clothing, and every religion, the formal practice of which is no longer compulsory.
This edition of Professor Stillwell’s book provides images of newer religious communities as they practice their faith, and yet this volume (dedicated as it is to the fabric of the building) cannot be comprehensive in capturing the great diversity of religious life within the Chapel’s walls. Regular Hindu workshop is held in the chancel. Our strong and growing Muslim community makes the Chapel its location for concerts, lectures, and religious services. His Holiness the Karmapa, among other global leaders in the Buddhist community, has provided the teachings in the space. The nave’s great vaults have resonated with the chanted scriptures and prayers of Bah’ai, Sikh, Jewish, and Jain students, with secular humanist readings, and with Native American smudge ceremonies.
The religious communities at Princeton are now many, but the spiritual yearnings that bring each of us into the Chapel are the same.
One of the most poignant features to me about the space is the two stained-glass windows depicting scenes from the Book of Job. In the north stairwell to the balcony Job is depicted in his many moments of agony and loss. In the south stairwell Job is portrayed, in a series of images, as moving from his very worst moment, sitting upon a dung heap and scraping his boils with a potsherd, on to his restoration — healed in body and spirit and returned to a life filled with every manner of blessing. The Chapel was built in the years just following World War I as a monument to the glory of God, but gratitude and praise were not the mood of many Princeton students and alumni who had lost brothers, sons, and friends in the Great War. Their grief and disillusionment prompted in some of them a considerable crisis of faith. The Job windows were intended by the builders to tell them, and to tell all of us in every age, that if great losses have pierced us and we feel the depths of Job’s agony, the promise of faith is one of restoration, of redemption. Our suffering is not final and is no match for the power and love of the Divine.
When this book is reissued again some decades from now, what images will our successors need to add? Who else — whom we now don’t even have the imagination to anticipate — will be at Princeton?
I dare to predict that the Chapel will be as vital to our descendants as it is to us today because they, like us, will simply need it.
The Chapel of Princeton University by Richard Stillwell, with foreword by Alison L. Boden, 160 pages, $35, Princeton University Press.