Iconography of the Reredos
The twelve circles represent the twelve apostles.
Starting from the top they are as follows:
- St. James the Less; the club or fuller’s bat was the instrument of his martyrdom, while the palm branch is often used as a symbol of the martyr’s triumph over death.
- St. James the Major; represented here with a pilgrim’s staff and a scallop shell because of his pilgrimage to Spain to establish the Christian religion.
- St. Jude; symbolized by a fish and boathook because of his connection with the sea.
- St. Matthew; the bag of money symbolizes his early profession as a tax collector and the axe the instrument of his martyrdom.
- St. Matthias; chosen to replace Judas, his symbol is the lance by which he was martyred.
- St. Simon; he was martyred by a saw and the oar represents his connection with the sea.
- St. Andrew; represented by the X cross which is called St. Andrew’s cross because he was martyred on one of this shape.
- St. Peter; symbolized by the keys of heaven.
- St. Bartholomew; symbolized by the flaying knife, the instrument of his martyrdom.
- St. Thomas; because he was a builder, the carpenter’s rule or square is used to represent him.
- St. John; symbolized by a poisoned chalice because in an attempt on his life the poison left the cup in the form of a snake before he drank.
- St. Philip; usually he is represented bearing a cross and the Tau cross, as here, is substituted, for the Latin cross.
The small panels between the Apostles and at the bottom of the Reredos are stars. The star is a symbol of divine guidance or favor since it lights the darkness of the heavens at night.
The two large archways on either side of the Reredos represent St. Paul, who was not one of the original Apostles and is treated separately because this church takes his name. The two swords are the instrument of his martyrdom and also represent his crusading fervor as the greatest missionary of the Christian faith.
The flames behind the swords are also symbols of martyrdom and religious fervor.
The ivy which surrounds the fire is the symbol for death and immortality. Because it is forever green, it symbolizes fidelity and eternal life and, because it clings to its support, also suggests attachment and undying affection.
Among the ivy is a butterfly and a swallow. The butterfly represents the Resurrection of Christ because of its three stages of life; the caterpillar, the chrysalis, and the butterfly, suggesting life, death, and the Resurrection. The swallow also symbolizes the Resurrection because it was thought to hibernate in the mud during the winter and to be reborn in the spring.
The wooden cross in the center of the Reredos is the universal symbol of the Crucifixion of Christ, as is the crown of thorns around its center. The color red is used here as symbolic of blood and the emotions, and so both love and hate are represented.
The aureole or rays of light which emanate from behind the cross and also from the dove at the top of the Reredos is symbolic of divinity, therefore of supreme power. It is also used in conjunction with the trinity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, as represented here by the dove in a circle. The circle symbolizes eternity and never-ending existence.
The large wings between the cross and the Trinity are symbolic of divine mission and are associated with angels, archangels and the heavenly hosts.
The lilies across the top of the Reredos are traditional symbols of purity and are the flowers of the Virgin
H. Lee Hirsche – The Artist
H. Lee Hirsche (1927-1998) the designer of the Reredos, was Professor of Art at Williams College from 1956 to 1985. He trained at Yale University’s School of Design where he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. He taught at the University of Texas in the School of Architecture prior to joining the Williams College faculty. Mr. Hirsche was awarded a number of prizes for painting and sculpture. In 1978, he founded the Sculpture Foundations Studio in the Windsor Mill, North Adams, Massachusetts, where he designed, built, and installed “fluid sculptures.” Purple Pop, a retrospective exhibit of Hirsche’s paintings, was at the Williams College Museum of Art in 2002. His works stand in scores of public and private spaces throughout the country, including the Bernhard Music Center and the Thompson Memorial Chapel at Williams College.