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Stanford Memorial Church offers a sensory delight

travel Updated: Oct 09, 2012 13:56 IST
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Peter walked out of his bedroom in the skimpiest of shorts and asked me plaintively, “Are you in the mood?”

I eyed him suspiciously. “We will do MemChu,” he winked and dived into the backyard pool for his midnight swim. I pretended sleepiness and scurried off to my room before he could get from one end of the pool to the other.

Seven ’ O clock sharp he pounded my door. “Hey bro, get up! Time for MemChu!” I rustled up with some trepidation and stomped crossly across the hall. “Let’s go for some real sensory delight this morning, bro. The Memchu experience! Jaldi karo!” he laughed over his Hindi and flung a formal shirt over his bare torso.

We drove in silence for over fifteen minutes. I couldn’t let a crazy Californian professor of physics take me to some weird MemChu experience. “Where are we going?” I asked anxiously. He smiled affectionately, the mischief gone. “I am taking you to Stanford University to show you our Taj Mahal – the Stanford Memorial Church. MemChu is its short name. It’s beautiful. You will like it.”

The sun was bright and warm and the Californian sky was an inviting shade of light blue. We entered the university area and the main vista began to unfold itself over a mile-long axis of the majestic seat of learning. Peter put the car into a low gear and we slowly gilded through the luxurious Palm Drive into the Oval. The beautifully manicured lawn opened into the Main Quad, which is the centre of the university, and thence to the Memorial Court. At a short distance, MemChu stood beckoning. It shimmered in the morning heat, like a chimera.

The Stanford University is a labour of love of Leland Stanford (1824-93) and his wife Jane and the church was commissioned by her as a memorial to her husband. She wanted the church to become "the centerpiece of the university complex.” In fact, the founders were deeply religious and travelled to Europe several times to conceptualize the design of the building which was to become the “the university’s architectural crown.” The church was started in 1898 and dedicated in 1903. It is essentially Romanesque in form and Byzantine in detail; its real inspiration perhaps drawn from churches in the Venice region.

I stood before the building wide-eyed. Peter broke my trance. “You know what Jane Stanford once said?” I shook my head in a definite no. “While my whole heart is in the university, my soul is in that church". I nodded in agreement. I could feel it.

Jane died in 1905, and so did not live to see the near-total damage caused by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Her funeral took place in the church, referred to as one of her most important accomplishments and "the truest reflection of her visionary leadership." As if demonstrating her belief in ecumenicism, clergy from several religious traditions, including a Rabbi, a Presbyterian minister, a Methodist minister, an Episcopal bishop, and a Baptist minister, officiated at the service.

Jane Stanford's taste and knowledge of both contemporary and classical art is evident in several aspects of the plan, appearance, and architecture of the church, which "dazzle the eye yet also produce an atmosphere of quiet contemplation".

The "glorious colour” of the European cathedrals, especially those in Italy, surround the building. Although the iconography in the church is Christian, Jane chose the art less for its religious themes and more for its "humanitarian ethics." She requested that the designs include women, "to show the uplifting influence of religion for women."

The church is mainly constructed in buff sandstone and is roofed with terracotta tiles in Italian form and style. The richly decorated interior of the Church with its vibrant stained glass windows and walls adorned with mosaics in the Byzantine style leaves me spell bound.

Peter quotes from his guidebook, “Jane had a ‘Victorian aversion to blank spaces’ and so created a church which is a dimly lit cavern of glowing mosaic surfaces ... and vibrant, stained-glass windows". I shook my head in agreement and in wonder.

Jane’s soul is truly in the church in all its colourful splendor.

Ashwini is a Lucknow-based media professional who culls out travel experiences while on mundane assignments