by Claire Oxford and Frances Saux
In Peirce Dining Hall, adorning the walls high above the wooden tables in the Great Hall, rest pane upon pane of stained glass decorated with a who’s who of British and American classical literature. The windows were installed in 1929 with the completion of the building and are the work of Charles Connick, whom Thomas Stamp ’73, College historian and keeper of Kenyonia, called the foremost glass artist at that time. Hundreds of Connick’s stained-glass pieces exist in churches in all regions of the country, connecting Kenyon to the larger work of an important American craftsman. For many, however, the windows’ scenes have come to represent a distinct literary Kenyon culture. The windows in the Great Hall, known to students as “Old Side,” precede the College’s literary reputation, which, Stamp points out, originated in 1939 with the arrival of Kenyon Review founding editor John Crowe Ransom. Still, the windows have since become emblematic of Kenyon’s literary culture. “There have been people over the years who decide they’re going to read everything illustrated in the windows before they graduate,” Stamp said. Even Associate Professor of English Sarah Heidt, who graduated from Kenyon in 1997 and returned to teach in 2004, admits she has not yet read all of the books illustrated in glass. While it wasn’t a goal of hers as a student, when she returned for her fifth-year reunion she caught herself wondering how many works she had read since graduating. Heidt argues that the English department teaches a broader category of works than those immortalized in the glass. With the exception of the glass depicting George Eliot’s Silas Marner, the windows all feature works written by either British or American men. “That we have a physical manifestation of one part of the College’s intellectual foundation is really interesting,” Heidt said. However, she finds it most fascinating “to think about how we don’t make contact with it all the time, or how we make contact with maybe a couple of pieces of it, and exceed it in other ways.”
“Sir Galahad” by Alfred Tennyson tells the story of one of the knights of the Round Table, harkening back to an era of English literature that has been studied and romanticized for centuries. Peirce’s Great Hall, with its long wooden tables, stained glass and arching ceilings is a fitting scene for one of the most noble and virtuous knights of English literature to inhabit. Sir Galahad is not the only King Arthur narrative represented on Old Side. Arthur’s court also makes a literary appearance in the stained-glass panels for Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory and The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. Connick’s depiction of Sir Galahad is on horseback, with a sense of motion and heroism created by the swooshing icy blue lines that curve up and frame the knight on his steed.
Romeo and Juliet
Amid several stunning stained-glass pieces devoted to William Shakespeare — depicting scenes from The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet — Connick designed this panel to contrast the romantic joy of Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene with tragedy. According to the book Stained Glass of Peirce Hall — compiled by members of Kenyon’s Office of Communications, professors, the College historian and other Kenyon-affiliated individuals — this moment captured in the stained glass is meant to show the wrenching moment of Romeo finding his beloved Juliet seemingly dead at the conclusion of the play, provoking his own suicide. The magnitude of one of English literature’s most famous plays is showcased as the background to an average meal.
The Gettysburg Address
Abraham Lincoln delivers his famous 273-word speech, the Gettysburg Address, in the center of the Great Hall. The following words etched into the glass, “that we here highly resolve that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom.” Connick designed this piece with Lincoln as the center of a diverse crowd, representing the America’s entire population, rather than solely white men.Professor Emeritus of History William Scott noted that this piece, in the center of Old Side’s alcove, could be seen as portraying a political message about the College’s ideal values. In Stained Glass of Peirce Hall Scott wrote, “The College, too, would eventually undergo a new birth in the spirit of Lincoln’s democratic vision,” referencing Kenyon’s history of “great Civil-war era alumni,” in addition to the College becoming co-ed and attempting to increase diversity across the board.
“Tyger tyger burning bright, / In the forests of the night,” reads Romanticist William Blake’s poem “The Tyger.” The work captures a politically and religiously rebellious movement of the 1790s called millenarianism. Professor of English Jim Carson described the poem in Stained Glass of Peirce Hall, saying it depicts the tiger as both a revolutionary symbol against traditional autocratic monarchies, and as part of a dialogue between “Innocence and Experience” — the lamb and the tiger — that can eventually find some sort of harmony in Blake’s writing. Connick’s depiction of “The Tyger” is not predatory, but still vivid in its orange color and curved shape.