Breaking Boundaries with Louise Nevelson
The re-emergence of artist-designed chapels began in post-war Europe with Henri Matisse's Chappelle du Rosaire de Vence, and continued with Le Corbusier's Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp. In the United States, Mark Rothko's chapel in Houston was founded, rescued and preserved by the de Menil family, enlightened and committed patrons of the arts.
Louise Nevelson was a close friend of Rothko and, like him, saw spirituality as central to creativity. For Saint Peter's, she created a unique sculptural environment of five large wall panels and three suspended columns of densely and intricately layered wood. The sculptural elements and surrounding walls are painted white. Gilding highlights the panels of the central cross.
Even after the mid-century resurgence of interest in the visual arts, the Chapel of the Good Shepherd remains one of a relative few religious sculptural commissions of the past several centuries. This rarity makes her work all the more important.
When Nevelson, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, was selected as the artist for the chapel, she was asked of any conflict with such specific Christian imagery. She said the project presented no problems for her because, as an artist, she transcended them. An October 22, 1976 New York Times article reports her delight that the cornerstone dedication was held at Central Synagogue one block north on Lexington Avenue: "If they're having their dedication in a synagogue, that's enough. We've broken barriers on both sides with this and we hope to break more."
At the chapel's dedication a year later in 1977, the late John Dillenberger, historian, theologian and Union Seminary Professor, wrote of her work:
Louise Nevelson has created many walls, and her sculptures grace many spaces. This meditation chapel, however, is the only work in which she has had the opportunity to form the total environmental ambience. One is surrounded by her arresting, symbolic creations, true to the inheritance of the theological tradition, but freed of the iconographic literalness. It was her genius to take the perceptions of her own spirit, nourished out of, but not identical with, her Jewish inheritance, and relate them sensitively to the symbolic import of the chapel which is essentially Christian.
From its dedication, the Chapel of the Good Shepherd has been heralded as a jewel in New York City. Rarely empty, it is visited by thousands of tourists every year and used daily by New Yorkers.