Rockefeller Memorial Chapel

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Architecture: Exterior


Rockefeller Chapel is 265 feet long and 102 feet wide at its widest point. The tower, towards the northeast corner, is 207 feet high and can be ascended via a spiral stone staircase of 271 steps (visitors are invited to ascend the tower at the times of scheduled carillon recitals, meeting the carillonneur at the north-east door to the Chapel half an hour before the recital time).

The Chapel weighs 32,000 tons, and 56 concrete piers carry the foundations down to bedrock 80 feet below the floor.


More than one hundred stone sculptures decorate the outside of the Chapel, representing philosophy and the humanities, religion and University life. The sculptures were designed by Lee Lawrie (1877-1963) and Ulric Ellerhausen (1879-1957). Lawrie executed the sculptures up to the 30 foot level, and Ellerhausen above that, in consultation with Lawrie. Although the sculpture is archaic in style, the subjects chosen are drawn from twentieth century life as much as from ancient religious allusion, making for an unusual mixture of themes. For example, over the west nave entrance (where students enter for their orientation), are images of two past University of Chicago students watching over their successors. Laurens Shull, who carries the arms of the United States on his uniformed shoulder and was killed during World War I, stands on one side, and Margaret Green, who died of pneumonia during her senior year at the College and holds the troth of truth flanked by the University arms, on the other. Both were leading personalities of the student body of their day, fully identified with the intellectual, social, athletic, and religious life of the University. Theologian and long-time faculty member Edgar Goodspeed noted at the time: “The sculptured figures that adorn Rheims and Milan were many of them portraits of men and women living when those churches were being built, and the presence of these student figures of today, side by side with ancient and medieval saints and martyrs, is no impertinence but declares the continuity of modern religious life with that of the past and reminds the observer of the unity of religion, the communion of the saints.” A late 20th century example of the use of living faces is to be found in the striking tapestries on the nave walls of the new Catholic Cathedral in Los Angeles.

The East Side and Tower

The Porte Cochere (the covered doorway at the circular driveway) is guarded by figures representing day and night.

The east aisle entrance is flanked by figures of Dante and Milton, with the lily of Florence beside Dante and the arms of England beside Milton. In the springs of the arch above this door at the coats of arms of the universities of Salamanca (left) and Padua (right).

The east tower entrance bears images associated with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century of the Christian era. Beside the door are images of Presidents Wilson and Roosevelt, two presidents who carried the spirit of their education into public life. Behind each man is the coat of arms of his university (Princeton for Wilson, and Harvard for Roosevelt). Below the schools’ arms are those of the United States and of the University of Chicago. In the spandrels of the arch are, to the left, Athens (ancient city of learning) and to the right, Chicago (contemporary city of learning). The coats of arms in the window above are those of the universities of Tokyo and Berlin.

Canopied niches on the southeast and northwest corners at the 66 foot level are supposed to contain free-standing figures representing youth and freedom.

At the 142 foot level, the gables of the tower buttresses are flanked with figures of poet, thinker, merchant, craftsman, builder, and teacher. Each carries some emblem of his or her work: the merchant, stuff and bales; the poet, pen and scroll; the craftsman, an ornament; the builder, a model of the Chapel; the teacher, the torch of truth; and the thinker, the wise owl.

At the 162 foot level are sixteen shields containing emblems of the life and death of Christ: on the east, the cross and peacock (symbolizing resurrection), lily (annunciation) and star (nativity); on the north, a dove with an olive branch (epiphany), two doves in a basket (presentation), pyramid and Sphinx (the flight into Egypt), and dove (baptism); on the west, Moses and Elijah (figures of the law, meeting with Christ at the transfiguration), the cup (of the Last Supper and of Gethsemane), and the sword and stave (the wounding of Malthus); and on the south, a purse with gold (betrayal), a cock (Peter’s denial), a crown of thorns (for the mocking of Christ), and a handkerchief (for the bearing of the cross).

At the 172 foot level, crowning the small buttresses that flank the windows, are the owl (bird of wisdom) and eagle (bird of inspiration).

At the 188 foot level, in the center of the parapets, are two great intellectuals and two great mystics looking down from the summit: Thomas Aquinas on the east, John Bunyan on the south, Thomas a Kempis on the west, and Erasmus on the north. At the topmost angle of the stonework on either side of the four parapet figures are coats of arms of other universities: to the south, Vanderbilt and Tulane, to the west, Colorado and Kansas, to the north, McGill and Toronto, and to the east, Maine and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

The South Side

Ceiling of Rockefeller Chapel

Major French cathedrals have rows of sculptured kings. At Notre Dame de Paris, they stand above the main doors, at Amiens at the halfway point, and at Rheims at the top. At Rockefeller, their equivalents are at the top, but instead of standing in a horizontal line, they follow the line of the gable, integrated into the the structure of the building. Intended to represent a parade of religious figures across time and place, they range historically from Abraham to the time of the Reformation, with Plato and Zoroaster representing traditions outside of the Jewish and Christian traditions which dominate the choice of figures.

This “March of Religion” comprises, from west to east, Abraham, Moses, Elijah (founder of the prophetic order), Isaiah (greatest of the literary prophets), Zoroaster, Plato, John the Baptist, Christ, Peter, Paul, Athanasius, Augustine, Francis, Martin Luther, and John Calvin.

Flanking the summits of the side buttresses nearest the south face are idealized figures representing statesman and scientist, artist and philosopher. Flanking the summits of the two buttresses that enclose the window are figures of the New Testament evangelists, each with his emblem: Matthew with an angel, Mark with a lion, Luke with an ox, and John with an eagle. These symbols go back to the four living creatures mentioned in the book of Ezekiel, and were applied to the evangelist by Irenaeus in the second century after Christ.

At the spring of the south window arch are female figures symbolizing music and devotion. Cecilia, patron saint of music, holds a musical instrument. Monica, known best as the mother of Augustine who has much to say about her in his Confessions, here represents devotion.

The three pairs of figures below Monica and Cecilia are (at the bottom) the apostles James and John; the prophets Amos and Hosea; and the martyrs John Huss and William Tyndale.

Continuing downward, across the parapet above the front doors, eight kneeling angels bear the arms of nine privately founded American universities (from left to right): Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Chicago, Johns Hopkins, Stanford, Northwestern, and Cornell, with winged dragons to the left and right.

Winged figures at the spring of the doorway arch represent the angels Gabriel and Raphael, with the archangel Michael at the center.

The West Side

On the northwest corner of the Chapel is an outdoor pulpit, intended to be used for open air services. It was designed as part of a large cloistered area intended to be built to the west (but never erected). The cloister can be seen in the model of the Chapel which is to be found in the narthex. The coats of arms above the pulpit are those of Michigan (left) and Indiana (right).

At the west transept are to be found images of the scholar, with a pen; the administrator, with a diploma; and the scientist, with a vial. At the base of the window are images of mercy (left) and truth (right), and above these, righteousness and peace.

In the window springs are the arms of ten state universities (right to left): Minnesota, Ohio, California, Iowa, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Virginia, Indiana, Michigan, and the coats of arms of ten world universities (from left to right): Oxford, Cambridge, Paris, Geneva, Salamanca, Padua,Tokyo, Berlin, Bologna, and Calcutta.

By the west narthex entrance are figures representing learning (left) and service (right), two aspects of student life which are greatly emphasized at the University.

The North Side

The great north chancel window measures 25 feet, 2 inches by 46 feet, 3 inches, and is one of the largest tracery windows in the United States, surpassing even the great chancel window at Princeton.

The Carillon

Donated by John D. Rockefeller Jr. as a memorial to his mother, Laura Spelman Rockefeller, the carillon was cast by Gillett & Johnston Ltd., of Croydon, England. Built at a cost of $220,000, it was dedicated on Thanksgiving Day, November 30, 1932. The 72-bell carillon is one of the finest in the world, and is the second heaviest musical instrument in the world, surpassed only by its sister Laura Spelman Rockefeller carillon in Riverside Church, New York. The bells range in weight from 10.5 pounds to the 36,926 pound Grand Bourdon, the total weight of the bells being 100 tons. The bells are connected to a central keyboard, which is operated by pressing pegs and foot pedals. The instrument is completely mechanical; a simple tracker system provides the maximum possible control of rhythmic nuance and dynamic graduation through the most direct possible connection with the carillonneur’s hand. Five of the larger bells may be pealed through a set of electric motors controlled from the base of the tower. The hour and quarter hours can be chimed by means of a computer system that can sound up to nine bells.


There are inscriptions carved in the stone, or in iron bands, at various places, as follows. These inscriptions are drawn from Biblical tradition.

On the south side:

  • Iron bands across the left door: “Thy dominion endureth through all generations”
  • Iron bands across the right door: “Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God and His Righteousness”
  • Over the door: “Thy Kingdom is an Everlasting Kingdom”
  • At the spring to the left of the Te Deum window: “Alleluia, for the Lord omnipotent reigneth”
  • At the spring to the right of the window: “On earth, peace and goodwill toward men”
  • Buttress balcony parapet (left): “Thy Righteousness is like the great mountains”
  • Buttress balcony parapet (right): “I will lift mine eyes unto the hills”

On the west side:

  • Iron bands on the narthex door: “I will have mercy and not sacrifice” (top) and “To obey is better than sacrifice” (bottom)
  • Aisle door, above: “Ye are the sons of the living God”
  • Iron bands on the transept door: “Strength and beauty are in his sanctuary”

On the east side:

  • Above the transept entrance: “Holy, Holy, Holy” and a cross over the motto, “In Hoc Signo Vinces”
  • On the iron hinges of the transept door, above: “They shall bring the glory and honour of the nations into it”
  • Above the aisle door: “Blessed are the pure in heart”
  • At the narthex door: “Day unto day uttereth speech: night unto night sheweth knowledge”