The poetry of Seattle U's Chapel of St. Ignatius

Maybe it's the difference between the sacred and profane.

Or Mozart and a train wreck.

The Chapel of St. Ignatius on the Seattle University campus, one of the two more adventurous architectural additions to this city in the past decade, has worn a lot better than Paul Allen's Experience Music Project.

An intimate space of 6,100 square feet, St. Ignatius is considered one of this city's architectural gems. To the Roman Catholic faithful it is also a sacred space of planes and curves where, to borrow from T.S. Eliot, prayer has been valid.

The chapel, designed by Steven Holl, was dedicated April 7, 1997.

Seattle University has observed the chapel's 10-year anniversary with a number of events and is hoping to host Holl for a talk this autumn.

Holl has described his design as "seven bottles of light in a stone box," referring to the natural and colored light playing over the white, textured walls. In the past decade all kinds of architectural commendations have poured in. The San Francisco Chronicle, in a recent article, gushed: "As an artist designed place of worship, it ranks in significance with the Matisse Chapel in the South of France and the Rothko Chapel in Houston."

That's a fast, heady track.

Some professional plaudits have contained qualifications. One critic has written of the chapel's "poetic grace with occasional awkwardness. As a totality, however, the chapel transcends its shortcomings."

In fact, the main doors afford a straight shot into the little side chapel, a space, one would have thought, affording a modicum of privacy. Otherwise, the Blessed Sacrament Chapel was a brave move. The madrona tree there, like the tree in "Waiting for Godot," stands out in stark relief. It's meant to symbolize the struggle of life.

The beeswax-coated walls are embossed with three prayers, including a Celtic one commonly attributed to St. Patrick: "God in my speaking, God in my thinking," etc.

Because St. Ignatius is a chapel, it's more of a fishbowl than a cavernous, cathedral hideaway. While a few daytime undergrads, islands of inwardness, kneel in prayer, architectural appreciators are prone and circulate with cameras clicking. And the beautiful wooden doors, hand-carved Alaskan yellow cedar, kaboom like not-too-distant artillery unless closed with care.

But the chapel remains a kind of worthy poem, a metaphor of light embedded with Catholic symbology. The crucifix on the wall to the left of the altar originated in the Austrian Alps. It doesn't shy away in its depiction of the crucifixion as some churches are wont to do. The eight-foot tall sculpture near the altar, symbolizing the grace of Mary, is carved from Carrera marble.

A combination of natural sunlight and light filtered through colored lenses acts out a quiet drama upon the walls. Symbols and meanings change with the stations of the sun.

James Joyce didn't come by his deeply embedded denotations accidentally. The Jesuits, founded by the chapel's namesake, St. Ignatius o fLoyola, taught him.

The Chapel of St. Ignatius, like Jesuit thought itself, is more cerebral than sensuous. Its narrative is about the play of shadow and light, which St. Ignatius called consolations and desolations.

At night, though, the interior lights create an unambiguous beacon that radiates outward toward the campus and the city.

Mike Dillon is the publisher of the Capitol Hill Times. He can be reached at

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