Holy Spirit Chapel

Here the central theme is Regeneration. The baptismal font, altar and altar rail were designed by Lucian Dent and made in Italy. The mosaics--also designed by him--were executed by Thorne and Dorine Edwards, who lived in Memphis at the time but later moved to Seattle, Washington. The needlepoint kneelers, repeating the design of the frontal, mean “The Holy Spirit, acting through Christ, leads to Eternal Life.” They were worked by Mrs. Leonard Vaiden (Katherine), a parishioner. We are made children of God by baptism. In the Chapel of the Holy Spirit, are depicted three different customs of baptism:

  • Baptizing with the water from the river
  • Baptizing with water from a fountain
  • Presenting a bowl of milk and honey immediately after the baptismal ceremony

All murals in the Holy Spirit Chapel were the gifts of  Mr. and Mrs. James Herbert Humphreys, Sr. These murals measure 15 feet by 10 feet. The marble baptismal font was given by Mr. and Mrs. James A. Taylor and Mr. and Mrs. Albert Wolff in memory of Mrs. Antoine Karlhaus Steuwer, aunt of Mrs. Taylor and Mrs. Wolf.

The Baptism of God's Son, Jesus Christ

Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee to the Jordan River to be baptized by John who called men to baptism with water thereby symbolizing recognition and confession of sin together with acceptance of God’s judgment and forgiveness. John resisted baptizing Jesus and said, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. (The baptism of Jesus is recorded in the Gospels: St. Matthew 3:13-17; St. Mark 1:9-11; St. Luke 3:21-22; St. John 1:29-34.)

In the mural, John the Baptist is wearing his camel’s hair shirt, symbolizing his humility. The landscape is purely conventional, as are the waters of the Jordan River. The two figures in the foreground are unnamed witnesses. In the very early images of the baptism of our Lord, these two figures are seen either standing or kneeling, but they are probably of no significance. These figures demonstrate the artist’s ability at picturing anatomy. His figures are extremely muscular, almost equaling those of Michelangelo. The faces of Christ and John are turned toward the cross and by the river of silver which flows vertically out of the mural to the altar below. 

On the ceiling above can be seen the dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit, as if descending from Heaven, as it appeared during the baptism of Jesus. On the altar frontal (hanging), the motif is drawn from the first two Greek letters of the name Christ, Chi Rho. The phoenix represents life everlasting, the regeneration of the soul through Holy Baptism. Here, the dove represents God’s peace. Reading on the frontal from left to right: the Holy Spirit (the dove), acting through Christ (Chi Rho), leads to eternal life (the phoenix). The kneeler repeats the design on the frontal.

The Baptism of Priscilla, the Martyr

Priscilla and her husband Aquila were tentmakers in Rome in the reign of Claudius. When with all the other Jews they were banished by Claudius, they went to Corinth in Greece, a chief city of extensive trade.  (Acts 18:2-4) Soon they became acquainted with St. Paul who came from Athens, and he lodged with them for 18 months. It must have been during this time that St. Paul baptized Priscilla using the waters of the fountain. This is called “aspersion.” 

Priscilla’s white garment symbolized purity; the red around the neck foretelling martyrdom. Her hands are clasped in prayer. Priscilla’s husband Aquila is shown seated on the steps. The mysterious, unnamed figure at the right foreground is completely covered with a heavy black robe bordered with red, representing the bloodshed and death of martyrdom. In the background is the Gulf of Corinth, the ruins of a Greek temple, and a Corinthian column. The ruins signify dying pagan antiquity. The large plant growing out of the ruins symbolized new life coming from old. The water from the Greek column creates a link between two worlds, the world of classical antiquity and the world of Christianity. The threatening sky is a symbol of the tragedy of the approaching martyrdom of Priscilla and also notes again the original source of water for baptism. 

When St. Paul left Corinth to return to Jerusalem, he took Aquila and Priscilla with him as far as Ephesus and left them to work in the early church there. Three years later, St. Paul returned to Ephesus and probably was their guest again. They helped him in his efforts to extend and instruct the infant Church. In his letters, he bears witness that they risked their lives for him. They were assisted in their kindness, charity, and hospitality by their servants who were all Christians. They left Ephesus about the same time as St. Paul and returned to Rome in the fourth year of Nero’s reign, where they were martyred. (Acts 18, II Timothy 4:19 and I Corinthians 16:19)

The Baptism of Saint Augustine of Hippo

This mural shows the Bishop of Milan, St. Ambrose, offering the kneeling young Aurelius Augustine a silver bowl with milk and honey following his baptism on Easter Eve, 387,  in Milan, Italy.

Aurelius Augustinus, the son of Patricius and Monica, was born in November 354 in Tagaste, near what is today Constantine, Algeria. In his autobiography, he describes his early life as a time when he pursued worldly success and was attracted to several non-Christian movements. His mother, who had always prayed for him, now did so more intensely.   

Augustine had an excellent education and taught in Tagaste, Carthage, Rome and Milan. His friends in Milan encouraged him to read the Greek philosophers. After a long spiritual struggle, he experienced a religious conversion in his garden. He picked up a copy of Paul’s Epistles. The book fell open to Romans 13 and he read, “Let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (verses 13, 14) This experience, along with the influence from the sermons of his teacher, Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, led Augustine to accept Christianity. 

In the mural, Augustine's mother, St. Monica, looks on while Ambrose offers Augustine a mixture of milk and honey. Originally the milk and honey were a symbol of the Israelites’ deliverance from exile, which was adopted by the early Christian Church as a symbol of baptism and consumed after the administration of the sacrament. This custom disappeared after the fifth century. The Roman lamp burning at the side of St. Ambrose is a symbol of learning and philosophy, which were essential pieces of St. Augustine's life and work. 

The transition from antiquity to the beginning of the Christian era is represented again in this mural. St. Ambrose is a man of antiquity while St. Augustine, clad in a Roman patrician dalmatic, represents Christian civilization. The background is the reproduction of a painting, probably of the sixteenth century, depicting the ordination to the priesthood of St. Augustine by  St. Ambrose surrounded by presbyters. The custom of presbyters laying their hands on the ordained is still practiced today. The figure of an archangel above is also a reproduction of a painting from the same period. The varied elements of this mural each show a strong Byzantine influence.

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Saint John’s Episcopal Church
3245 Central Avenue | Memphis, Tennessee 38111
Phone (901) 323-8597 | Fax (901) 327-9032