The Great Wonder: Violet Oakley and the Gothic Revival at Vassar

Violet Oakley (1874–1861) was an accomplished figure within the American mural movement in the early twentieth century. She initially trained as an illustrator in Philadelphia and New York, and became the first woman in the United States to create high-profile murals for government buildings. The large-scale triptych The Great Wonder: A Vision of the Apocalypse, among Oakley’s most mystical and inventive compositions, was created at the height of her creative powers. Its format echoes Italo-Byzantine altarpieces, with a central devotional image flanked by smaller related narrative scenes, while its subject is drawn from St. John’s Book of Revelation. 

A monumental semi-clothed woman at center is set against a star-filled sky, described in Revelation 12:1 as “a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon at her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars.” She raises above her the man-child she has birthed, “who was to rule all nations,” saving him from the red dragon below who threatens to devour him, lifting him up “unto God and his throne.” The flanking panels depict other scenes from Revelation: at left, The Seven Golden Candlesticks, The Book Sealed with Seven Seals, The Seven Angels; and at right, The Angel with the Little Book, The Rider upon the White Horse, and The Serpent Cast Out. Oakley’s dramatic focus on the female figure emphasizes redemption rather than Revelation’s apocalyptic destruction, and suggests a spiritual allegory of divine feminine power.  

The triptych serves as a memorial to Oakley’s sister, Hester Caldwell Oakley Ward (1871–1905), who was a member of Vassar’s class of 1891. Hester’s roommate Louise Lawrence Meigs commissioned the work, which she subsequently offered as a gift from the class of 1891. The subject was chosen from some of Oakley’s earlier sketches from 1916. 

In a manuscript created to accompany the triptych, Oakley expressed her lofty sentiments about the impact the work might have on the Vassar audience: “The Great Wonder. . . unveils the high idea of Woman and the offspring of her own labours…May it serve to lift up Every-Woman who contemplates it…nerving her to bring to light—without fear—the child of her innermost yearning.”While the plan was initially to create a mural, Oakley shifted to the more unusual altarpiece format.

She further extended her work to encompass the entire room where it was to be situated, convincing the architects and donors of Alumnae House to allow her to furnish the space. Taking inspiration from her visits to Palazzo Davanzati in Florence, an early Renaissance palace that was restored and opened as a museum in 1911, Oakley designed patterned beams and shutters (painted by her former students Edith Emerson and Carolyn Haywood), and purchased antique furnishings in Europe, including an Italian refectory table, Savonarola chairs, English choir stalls, candelabras, and other antiques. She also created a decorative screen with music motifs, a modified version of which can be seen above the fireplace in the dining room.

Her design for the room reflected the Italian trecento (fourteenth-century) style of the altarpiece, a period that was distinct from the Tudor style of the architecture but which had special significance for Oakley. Her own living and working spaces emulated the idea of artistic unity of this era, seen by some as a period when Christian spirituality and art were especially intertwined.

Oakley also conceived an elaborate pageant for the dedication: Torchbearers wearing specially designed costumes led a procession with a Shakespearean blessing sung before the ceremonial opening of the triptych, creating an immersive experience through her art.   

Only some of the original furnishings now remain, as the layout of the room was adapted over the years.

 

Select sources:
Sally Mills, Violet Oakley: The Decoration of the Alumnae House Living Room (1984)

Sally Mills, “What the Triptych Means: The Vassar Art of Violet Oakley,” Vassar Quarterly (Spring 1984)

Patricia Likos Ricci, A Grand Vision: Violet Oakley and the American Renaissance (2018)

Bailey Van Hook, Violet Oakley: An Artist’s Life (2016)