Conference (P)review #1: Rideau Street Convent Chapel
08 April 2013 – Jill Dolan
Editor’s note: In preparation for the upcoming NCPH conference in Ottawa, The Public Historian has commissioned a series of Ottawa site reviews, as it does annually for sites in our conference city. These “(p)reviews,” as we’re dubbing them, will inaugurate what we hope will be a growing partnership between The Public Historian and the Public History Commons. Further online post-conference reviews will follow later this spring; we invite readers to comment on these posts as they appear.
Rideau Street Convent Chapel, National Gallery of Canada, Sussex Drive, Ottawa. MARC MAYER, Director.
Passing from the busy exhibition galleries, through the arcaded courtyard with its planted beds, visitors approach the neo-Gothic interior of the Rideau Street Convent Chapel predisposed to enjoy a space of tranquility and spirituality. The chapel, or more precisely, the interior of the chapel, is an immensely popular installation in the National Gallery of Canada. It is also one of Ottawa’s great heritage success stories. The Chapel of the Convent of the Sacred Heart was rescued from demolition in the early 1970s when the Roman Catholic Grey Nuns of the Cross or Sisters of Charity, a teaching order whose premises had been on Rideau Street since the mid-nineteenth century, sold their property to a developer. Designed by the renowned – although untrained – Canadian architect-priest Georges Bouillon, the neo-Gothic chapel was unique not only in Ottawa but in Canada. It was consecrated in 1888.
Very nearly destroyed along with the rest of the nunnery’s buildings, the chapel was saved by a remarkable coalition of heritage organizations, local heritage groups and federal agencies including the National Capital Commission and the National Gallery of Canada where it would find its final home.
The National Gallery had the chapel deconsecrated before undertaking the substantial task of dismantling it and took great pains to decide what would be restored, and how. Should the interior be restored to its original state, or to a specific time period in its long history? Should the wooden interior retain its blue and gold colors (ca. 1944) or be restored to the original green and cream? Should its key elements simply be removed and put on display as with other artworks in the Gallery? As Emily Soldera notes in her account of the chapel’s dismantling and installation, the consultants hired by the gallery were especially interested in the issue of how a sacred space, even one that was deconsecrated, might be represented effectively in a functioning gallery. The result is a compromise. The chapel’s interior was simply transferred as it stood at the time of the convent’s demolition, and installed in such a way that visitors encounter it as a deceptively empty space, with bare floors and only ghostly reminders of exterior walls (which do incorporate the simple colored glass windows from the 1920s).
There is one pew that somehow conveys the religiosity of the original space, but this is placed marginally along one wall. Instead, at the centre of the floor stand the ubiquitous comfy leather backless seats offered in galleries throughout the world. Still, this doesn’t seem to matter because the glories of the interior are what draw the visitors’ eyes. On entering our gaze is drawn upwards from the slender cast iron columns to appreciate the wooden neo-Gothic fan vaulting, one of the most important and unique architectural features of the chapel, and to the intricate tracery of the choir screen. It is most definitely a spiritual experience. That this was a religious space also is conveyed by the presence of five full-size statues of angels and saints. Two, an “angel holding a legend” and an “angel holding a book” are made of polychromed pine; one features gold leaf highlights. The work of Henri Avers, and made sometime between 1907 and 1909, they face, across the empty wooden floor, three statues carved in white pine depicting St. Paul, Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Peter, all the work of noted Canadian sculptor Louis Jobin ca.1884. None seem to have featured in the chapel when it was a consecrated space, so their inclusion is presumably intended both to evoke the sort of religious iconography that visitors expect from Roman Catholic churches and as an opportunity to display some outstanding figurative sculpture of nineteenth and early twentieth-century French Canada.
Even more curious is the placement and display of silverware in three cases to the right of the entrance, tucked under the chapel gallery. Few visitors go directly to view these on entering the gallery, and from the perspective of most, standing in the middle of the gallery looking up at the intricate neo-Gothic interior or moving closer to the altarpiece or to the religious sculptures, they seem to have been placed almost as an afterthought, to be glanced at before one departs. Viewed from a distance, visitors would be forgiven for thinking the three cases hold chalices or other types of religious silverware for which French Canada was famous in the nineteenth century. Indeed, those who decide to rest on those leather seats are offered catalogues (in both languages) of the Gallery’s remarkable collection of religious silverware featured in two galleries (A101, A102) that the visitor may have passed en route to the chapel.
How odd then, that on closer inspection, the three cases hold silverware of an entirely different sort. The British-made silver and gold Capital Lacrosse Club of Canada Cup and the Hunt Cup of the Montreal Fox Hounds flank a recent acquisition, The Walker Cup of the Ontario Jockey Club. These nineteenth-century Canadian sporting trophies are most certainly as magnificent as any precious religious silverware. The Canada Cup features pennants and garlands of maple leaves, the Fox Hounds cup an exquisitely engraved scene of a jumping horse. The Walker Cup is considered to be one of the Gallery’s treasures. Commissioned by Hiram Walker & Sons, with the engraved promise “To become the absolute property of any owner winning two years in succession,” it is surmounted by a lion, its handle a beautiful rendition of Winged Victory, its spout a lion’s head and its body featuring a lifelike engraving in part relief of three jockeys riding their horses in front of the crowded stands. The period might be right, and the achievements of their makers not in doubt, but the presence of sporting trophies reminds the visitor, perhaps unfortunately, that they are not after all in the sacred space of a chapel but in the very secular world of a modern art gallery. It is a shame, too, that the remarkable history of the chapel, its original buildings and the story of its saving are not told in the gallery itself, although there is a somewhat imposing stone tablet listing those responsible as the visitor approaches the chapel. It is a shame, because in this, one of the city’s most tranquil spaces, the visitor might well like to learn more about this remarkable heritage success story without having to interrupt the moment by logging into the admirably detailed and sophisticated account offered on the Gallery’s website.
~David Dean, Carleton University
 Emily Soldera, “‘In Limbo’: Sacred Spaces and Secular Environments. An Examination of the Representation of the Rideau Chapel in the National Gallery of Canada and the Basilique-cathedrale Notre Dame d’Ottawa,” unpublished MA in Public History Major Research Essay (Carleton University, 2006), 25-8.
 This is on occasion enhanced by the presence of Janet Cardiff’s “Forty-Part Motet”, the Millennium Prize winner featuring forty separately recorded voices working on a choral work of the Elizabethan composer Thomas Tallis played back through forty mounted speakers positioned around the gallery. Vernissage. The Magazine of the National Gallery of Canada Vol. 3, No. 2 (Spring 2001), 10-11.