PROVIDENCE — Providence College’s Ruane Center for the Humanities, opened in the fall of 2013, was built to inspire lofty thoughts. With its Gothic-influenced façade and high-ceilinged Great Room, the building is a physical representation of the Development of Western Civilization program it houses, an appropriate study space for students deciphering the messages of antiquity’s great books.
This year, students returning for the fall semester are finding even more inspiration to turn their thoughts to the great minds of Western civilization in the form of 24 stained glass windows installed in the Great Room this past June. Towering over the room’s two stories, the blue and yellow-tinted windows feature 18 significant figures of Western history along with the names of subjects in the humanities and sciences.
The figures, selected for their contributions to the arts, philosophy, theology, sciences and human rights, were recommended by a faculty committee and selected by President Father Brian J. Shanley, who told Rhode Island Catholic during a phone interview that it was impossible to decide between the most notable individuals of the Western tradition.
“You can never say that we got it all right and these were exactly the right people, but the whole idea was to represent different disciplines, different time periods,” he said. “In the end it just looked like it was a good set of figures in my mind.”
The depictions range from the eighth century B.C. through the contemporary period, beginning with Classical Greek thinkers like Plato and Aristotle and continuing up through medieval theologians, Renaissance painters and Enlightenment-era scientists. Some of those depicted, such as Catherine of Siena and Augustine, were central to the development of the faith and are revered as saints; others, like Charles Darwin and Galileo, had a more rocky history with the Catholic Church. According to Father Shanley, the windows take into account both the importance of individuals from a Catholic perspective and their contributions to Western society as a whole.
“It was trying to be Catholic and ecumenical, if you will, in the sense of recognizing and even the decision to put people in the windows like Galileo,” he said. “Galileo and the Church had some interesting things going back and forth, but, in hindsight, it’s hard to underestimate Galileo in the history of the cosmos.”
Other individuals were considered but not selected because they were already represented elsewhere on campus. Thomas Aquinas, the Dominican theologian and one of the most important Doctors of the Church, is absent from the windows but depicted just outside in a bronze statue installed in 2013 and created by Sylvia Nicolas, the same artist who made the stained glass windows.
“We have Thomas Aquinas outside. He’s a Dominican, but as Dominicans, we follow the rule of St. Augustine,” said Father Kevin Robb, Associate Vice President for Mission and Ministry, who oversaw the windows’ installation. “He was a major force in the first half of the fifth century in terms of the thinking of the Church.”
For Nicolas, who also created the stained glass windows in St. Dominic Chapel, the artwork is about more than simply decorating the space. As part of her process, Nicolas read extensively about each of the individuals she was depicting so as to tell their stories more accurately through symbols and details.
“I spent a lot of time lying on the couch reading books about these great minds. It was really fascinating,” she said. “I never went to college, so it was fascinating, I was like a butterfly going around from one flower to another.”
Nicolas painted each figure along with objects or backgrounds to represent their contributions in their respective fields, with some of these symbols more obvious than others. Most viewers could recognize Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre or the apple that supposedly fell on Newton’s head, but many may not have realized the importance of the spinning wheel to Gandhi’s Indian independence movement or Aristotle’s admiration for the cuttlefish, one of the creatures he studied that swims below him in the glass pane. Nicolas has a deep interest in the iconography of stained glass windows in churches and considers this project a way of teaching others the history of the individuals, including both religious and secular, depicted therein.
“I started out in Holland being taught by the nuns a long time ago, but I’ve always loved the stories,” she explained. “I think the story is one of the most fantastic ways of teaching things because it makes things alive.”
Nicolas, a fourth-generation stained glass artist, used a method developed by her father to paint the glass, which was then installed by the Wilmark Studios of Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts. The project was made possible by Mr. and Mrs. Michael Joyce of Hingham, Massachusetts, who sponsored the windows in honor of their daughter, Caroline. Caroline’s initials appear in the bottom row of panels, inscribed on a curtain that hangs above Jane Austen, who sits writing her famous “Pride and Prejudice.” The Jane Austen panel is a favorite of Father Shanley’s, who particularly likes her novel “Emma.”
“Sentimentally, I think Jane Austen because of the generosity of the family and the initials of the donor’s daughter being in the pane. And I’m a big Jane Austen fan,” he added.
Ultimately, the 24 windows offer a glimpse into a tradition that stretches back over several millennia and could never be fully condensed into one room. The individuals and periods they represent are a visual aid to a campus community that continues to build upon the Western tradition in its academic and spiritual pursuits.
“The Development of Western Civilization program is the very core of our curriculum,” said Father Robb. “It’s the study of the development of Western Civilization pretty much going back to the ancient Greeks and coming forward into the present time.”
The windows will be formally dedicated in this fall.