Unitarian in the Winter and Episcopalian in Summer

In Rose Standish Nichols’ parlor, a room that was home to much intellectual, political, and religious discourse, hangs a painting depicting Mary, Jesus and Saint John the Baptist. The oil painting is a nineteenth century interpretation of a common scene in religious art during the Renaissance, the rural landscape featuring the Holy Family in the foreground and a shepherd with his flock in the background. The work is unsigned and the artist is unknown, though the nineteenth century painter was likely studying similar scenes by Raphael, Leonardo, Giorgione and Titian in the sixteenth century. 

 

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Leonardo, The Virgin and Child with Saint Ann, c. 1503, The Louvre.

 

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Titian, Madonna and Child with Female Saint Ann and Saint John the Baptist, c. 1530s, Kimbell Art Museum.

Rose’s belief system has often been the subject of discussion, especially with such a religiously charged painting displayed in a very public room in her home. However, by all accounts Rose Standish Nichols was not a traditionally religious person. Her friend Southard Menzel wrote, in an article entitled Sketches of the Life and Character of Rose Standish Nichols, Artist, Collector, Social Reformer, Museum Founder, that Rose considered herself, “Unitarian in the winter and Episcopalian in summer” simply based on the fact that King’s Chapel, the family’s local Boston church, was Unitarian and the neighborhood congregation close to their summer home in New Hampshire was Episcopalian. [1] The Nichols family attended King’s Chapel when the girls were young and according to Margaret, the family had their own pew “in the front row of the balcony near the choir.” [2]

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Interior of King’s Chapel, Emmet Collection of Manuscrips Etc. Relating to American History, New York Public Library.

Later in her life, however, Rose became interested in the principles of the Bahai, a faith system that advocates for peace and unity, which resonated with Rose, a committed pacifist.

“To be a Bahá’í simply means to love all the world; to love humanity and try to serve it; to work for universal peace and universal brotherhood.” –Abdu’l-Bahá [3]

Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of the religion’s founder, was an acquaintance of Rose’s and according to Southard Menzel, he visited her home and was “given a platform at her house to introduce his doctrine (‘In that corner between the fireplace and the window’).” [4]

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Abdu’l-Bahá

Despite Rose’s personal belief system, she was still fascinated by the culture and iconography of the Catholic church. Her travel through Europe often included visits to churches and cathedrals where she was very taken with the traditions as well as the aesthetics.

“We have seen larger picture galleries, but no paintings as beautiful as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and those of Raphael, called his Stanze.  We took a last look at them today on our way to the Pope’s auto-chamber, where Margaret and I left a rosary for Bridget with the chamberlain to be blessed by the Pope.  We inquired our way of the Swiss guard, who seem to be everywhere in the Vatican, their orange and black costumes are striking if not picturesque.”

Rose writing to her father Arthur from Rome, November 18, 1891.

Rose also took a specific interest in Catholic monasteries while researching her book, Italian Pleasure Gardens. Her 1928 book includes an entire chapter on “The Cloister Garth”where she explores the horticulture and ornamentation of Italian monasteries.

“The outer walls of the cloister, back of the columns, were covered with paintings…Scenes suggested by descriptions in the Old and New Testaments, or episodes in the lives of saints were chosen as affording religious inspiration to the monks, who would have turned away their eyes in horror from the flippant representations that amused the pleasure-loving Pompeians.” [5]  

Several objects in her collection also suggest her fascination with religious objects including , books, postcards, tiles and even a bust believed to be a reliquary.

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Italian wooden bust, 18th century, possibly used as a reliquary.
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Dutch earthenware tile, 19th century, showing the story of Matthew 9, “Jesus Forgives and Heals a Paralyzed Man.”

She collected dozens of postcards with Catholic iconography, including twenty-five that depict the Holy Family.

Over thirty titles in her library reflect her curiosity in the church, including books of poetry, theology, stories of the saints and the Bible given to her by her father with both their names inscribed in their own handwriting:

“Arthur H. Nichols Boston Jan. 1, 1852 A present from his Mother

Rose S. Nichols from her Father Arthur H. Nichols”

 

Rose Standish Nichols may not have been a conventionally religious person but she was thoughtful about religion both in aesthetics and in theology. Her collecting practices and her proud display of religious art show her affinity for Christian iconography, but it was in her discussions with people she met throughout her life where her fascination with faith becomes clear. Southard Menzel told a story of Rose’s experience encountering a Cardinal on a steamer ship on his way to Rome:

“After much talk and no conviction, Rose had said to him: ‘I suppose you think I am going to Hell.’

‘Not necessarily so Miss Nichols,’ said O’Connell.

‘How can that be?’ asked Rose.

‘Well God may possibly pardon you on the basis of “invincible ignorance,”’ was his reply. 

Rose was charmed with this decisions, and apparently thought the term was invented for her. She loved to think that some day, because of, or in spite of, her ‘invincible ignorance,’ she might continue the pleasant discussion with his Eminence in Heaven.” [6]

 

[1] Menzel, Southard. Sketches of the Life and Character of Rose Standish Nichols, Artist, Collector, Social Reformer, Museum Founder, 1975. Unpublished work.

[2] Shurcliff, Margaret Homer Nichols. Lively Days: Some Memoirs of Margaret Homer Shurcliff. Taipei: Literature House, 1965. 25.

[3] Esslemont, J. E. Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era; an Introduction to the Bahá’í Faith. Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Pub. Trust, 1970.

[4] Menzel, Southard. Sketches of the Life and Character of Rose Standish Nichols, Artist, Collector, Social Reformer, Museum Founder, 1975. Unpublished work.

[5] Nichols, Rose Standish. “The Cloister Garth.” Italian Pleasure Gardens. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1928. 25.

[6] Menzel, Southard. Sketches of the Life and Character of Rose Standish Nichols, Artist, Collector, Social Reformer, Museum Founder, 1975. Unpublished work.

By Emma Welty, Head of Collections and Administration.

 

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Author: Nichols House Museum

The Nichols House Museum's mission is: To preserve and interpret the 1804 townhouse that was from 1885 until 1960 the home of Rose Standish Nichols, landscape gardener, suffragist and pacifist. The house was built by Jonathan Mason and is attributed to Charles Bulfinch. The museum educates visitors by providing a unique glimpse into the domestic life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries on Boston's historic Beacon Hill.