Last week I shared about the pulpit in St. Michael’s Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Today, I’d like to share the description of the chancel and nave in the church, and then let you see it through Emily’s eyes, as I wrote it in Emily’s Vow. Like I mentioned last time, George W. Williams wrote and published a bicentennial account of the history of the church, complete with descriptions and, even better, pictures. I’m going to refer to his pages again.
Each of us notices different aspects of the world around us. So I had to “become” Emily when I wrote her story, to show what she’d focus on in the church while listening to the dreaded loyalist rector’s sermon. All she really wanted was to leave the church, but her father would never allow such disrespect on the Sabbath. So she sits still, with an effort, and endures the lesson.
I’ll touch on the history of the interior of the church, for your information, and then I’ll share the description I used in the book, so you can see how I worked in the details from Emily’s perspective.
According to Mr. Williams, the chancel is “Architecturally as well as devotionally the focus of attention” in the church. Thus, the design and decoration of the space received the most attention. In 1772, Corinthian pilasters and a wrought iron rail were added to the area at the front of the church. The chancel is described in great detail in the pages of Mr. Williams’ book.
From St. Michael’s, Charleston, 1751-1951:
“The Chancel is handsome, and is ornamented in a neat and appropriate manner. It is a paneled wainscot, with four Corinthian Pilasters supporting the proper cornice. The usual Tables of the Decalogue, Lord’s Prayer, and Apostles’ Creed, are placed between them.”
“It seems that then or later the wainscot, the pilasters, and the entablature may have been painted a dark brown against a solid plaster wall, quite possibly blue. The tablets, two to each side in a unit, were in gilded frames with gilt lettering. Decorating the head of each frame was a golden cherub’s head and wings. The half-dome was a thing of simplicity and beauty. It was blue, representing the firmament, with clouds floating in it. At the peak was a ‘glory,’ a golden sun with golden beams radiating into the dome. The entire aspect must have been at once handsome and harmonious.”
The details of this description informed what Emily notices as she gazes about the church. But there are changes that have been made to the church in the years since my story took place, which Mr. Williams notes.
Again from Williams:
“A dwelling immediately to the east of the chancel offered the constant threat of fire to the church, and in 1788 the dignified Palladian window was ‘shut in with brick.’ The large blank area in the chancel thus produced was painted over a dark brown to resemble a curtain and draperies with gilt tassels and fringe.”
Over the years, other changes occurred, such as repainting and regilding, and repairs had to be made after the Civil War when “damage inflicted by Shells” had to be corrected, but the interior was restored “in keeping with the original design.” Then in 1866, the central window was reopened and “filled with colored glass of hexagonal panes with a curling ivy-leaf design.” Not to belabor my point, I’m sharing these details on the changes to show how having the historical description of what the chancel and nave looked like originally and in 1782-83, the years of my A More Perfect Union series, allowed me to accurately reflect on their appearance.
With that detailed description in mind, let’s look at how Emily viewed the chancel and nave in Emily’s Vow:
“She let her eyes stray to the white plaster ceiling with its intricately carved border known as the Wall of Troy, with its four double roses centered on each of four sides of the rectangle above her. She tried projecting the piety of the other women surrounding her though she only wanted to move, to be outside in the sunshine, to dissipate the energy agitating her. The nave felt cool in the dim light. The sun shone through the Palladian glass window at the rear of the chancel, situated some twenty feet behind the pulpit, and brightened the dark blue walls as well as the four brown Corinthian pilaster columns. The half dome above was blue to represent the firmament with white clouds floating on it and a “glory” at the peak, a golden sun with radiating beams spreading across the dome. Two tablets hung on either side of the window containing the words of the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles Creed in gilt lettering in gilded frames with a golden cherub’s head and wings at the top. She appreciated the simple elegance of the chancel, but today she had no patience. None.
Outside, the sun shone warmly on the churchyard with its tombstones covered by fallen leaves, and she imagined birds hopped among them searching for dinner. But she remained trapped inside yet again, albeit in a different place.”
Poor Emily! She wants to enjoy the service, but simply misses the familiar rector who fled when the British occupied the city. But don’t worry. She’ll once again go willingly to church, after the enemy departs America’s shores in December 1782.
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