Colorful, unique, undeniably beautiful; the skylight of the Linderman rotunda is one of Lehigh’s most treasured works of art, and my favorite feature of the entire university. It is so well-known and admired among the Lehigh community, but approximately 100 years after its creation, we still do not know to whom we should accredit this masterpiece.
The ArtsLehigh newsletter informed me of a lecture by art and architectural historian, Lance Kasparian on the history of Lehigh stained-glass assets. I attended the discussion with hopes of learning how and why the Linderman rotunda and the Packer Chapel came to be blessed with their stained glass monuments, and who is the artist responsible for the works. After an hour and a half of listening to Kasparian’s expert opinion, my primary question remained unanswered. Yet, walking out of the meeting, I felt that I had learned more than I hoped or intended to; I acquired a new appreciation and outlook that is far more valuable than any historical fact.
W.J. McPherson is the credited creator of the stained glass monuments in the Packer chapel, and while it is accepted by many that he too was the artist behind the rotunda’s skylight, this claim remains unverified. The lecture provided a great deal of insight into McPherson’s life and legacy, but the fact that was missing is the one that captivated my attention. Kasparian’s career has been dedicated to 19th century American art, and intensely focused on McPherson, but just like the rest of us, he still wonders about the mystery of the skylight.
This got me thinking about the nature of art itself. We often allocate much of our focus to the people behind our coveted works. Whether it be a novel, painting or sculpture, the creator is praised, and rightfully so, for the gift that he or she has bestowed upon us. We honor these creators for the work that they have done, but the works of anonymous artists are sometimes just as profound and important. In these cases, to whom do we owe our gratitude?
When the creator of a significant work is unknown, whether by his or her own choice, or simply by the lacks in our history, the piece itself takes on an essence of mystery. I can’t help but feel that this makes these illusive creations captivating beyond their aesthetic excellence. It inspires us to wonder about who could have created this work; what were they driven by, and why were they lackadaisical about earning credit for their achievement?
One could spend hours or years, (in Kasparian’s case) trying to determine the answers to these unsolvable riddles, but I am more interested in the effect of the anonymity itself. Without a name behind the art, time transforms the piece into an elusive gift from the past… for anyone and everyone.
My love for the rotunda skylight could not be altered by facts or a lack there of. Sometimes, when it comes to art, a deficiency of knowledge is not an issue. You don’t have to be an expert, a professional, or even an enthusiast to appreciate art because it isn’t a topic like geometry or biology; art is an aspect of humanity, and we all share the ability to connect to it. At the heart of the value of art is the reality that there are no boundaries; graffiti, opera, photography, and Pollack-style paintings all live under a united umbrella because of their abilities to move people.
The artist’s name wouldn’t have altered my love of the piece…there isn’t any fact that could. That’s not to say that knowledge is expendable, because it does serve as a doorway to deep appreciation and understanding. But all that truly matters is that we take a moment every now and then, to look around and find something that inspires us. Perhaps it will be the doodle your lab partner made during chemistry class, or the logo on the back of a commercial truck, but if it means something to you, if it touches you, inspires you, and raises any questions in your mind, it is art.
So, with the maker of the rotunda skylight still a mystery, I have found the answer I was looking for. Names and dates educate us, but they have no control over the power of an artistic expression. Each day I will continue to go there as I have for the past three years and stare up with awe, wonder, and adoration.