The Biblical Scenes in Andover's Basement

They've been carefully painted around and deliberately smeared, they've faded with time and been sporadically (and amateurishly) touched up. They've lost bits as plaster has dried and cracked and fallen away, and they've been partially covered up by building improvements, or overwhelmed by bulky blue recycling bins and spare pews. Since 1956-57, though, when they first appeared, the biblical scenes painted on the walls of Andover basement continue to peer mildly at us, like some charming imitation of a Bayeux tapestry or a slightly crazed deck of early Norman playing cards, as we rush past (as I tend to do), en route from point A to point B, blind to their minimalist detail.

Stop, one day, if you haven't already, and take a moment to consider the wry, knowing smiles of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego as they sit calmly in the flames of the fiery furnace, or the dismay on Absalom's face after "his head caught hold of the oak, and he was taken up between the heaven and the earth; and the mule that was under him went away." See how Haman slinks before Esther's upright figure and accusatory finger. Catch Sarah trying to hide her laughter at the idea of becoming a mother in her old age, then think of the characters missing from the disappearing drawing of the judgment of Solomon—the two mothers. 

Laurence H. Scott, "a graduate student in art who was living in Andover Hall," painted these smaller panels and the large mural of Noah and his rather non-biblical-looking animals in 1956-57. On some of the "miniatures"—"Melkizedek," for example—you can see, written in tiny characters, the date 26.V.57. And, down low, to the left of the fading ark, the artist signed and dated his work. (Information on Scott is hard to find. Harvard's Houghton Library, however, has in its collections signed, limited broadside editions of Marianne Moore's poem "W. S. Landor" and James Ingram Merrill's "1939: An American Woman Explores the Estate of Friends Who Have Fled France," printed, with engravings by Laurence Scott, "on a hand-press in Harvard yard" by the Lowell-Adams House Printers in 1965; and limited edition pamphlets of W. H. Auden's Marginalia and Seven Lyrics, a collection of some of Hart Crane's earliest verse, both printed with Scott's engravings at Ibex Press in Cambridge in 1966.)

Not everyone was pleased with "the modish murals," notes the May 1971 issue of Harvard Divinity Bulletin. They "offended at least one divinity student who doused the ark picture with a bucket of water." The Bulletin described "the rather impious depictions" of Noah's ark as "resembling an illustration from a Dr. Seuss book" (it is unclear whether the impiety or the Seuss imitation caused the offense). Others felt the murals had merit and should be preserved. The same issue reports that then Dean Douglas Horton was seen "perched on a step ladder with paint brush in hand, trying to cover the smears." Marjorie Dunham, who became the HDS registrar the same year Mr. Scott drew the murals, worried for their safety during renovations in Andover Hall (the newer paneled ceiling in the basement corridor cuts off the top of the head of the angel watching over the ark, and one very long-necked animal disappears completely from view).

Over the years, other attempts besides Dean Horton's have been made to preserve the drawings. An "anonymous restorer" gave new life to Ruth and Naomi in April 1971, and Noah and his crew and cargo, the dove, and the mountains of Ararat emerging from the floodwaters also appear to have been brightened, though the ark itself is faint. The Andover Hall murals may have value other than the simply nostalgic. Ari Goldman, author of The Search for God at Harvard and a student at HDS in 1985-86, writes of a friend's decision to come to HDS: "I saw that mural of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego smiling in the furnace. And the other one of Sarah laughing outside her tent. They were childlike drawings and really inspiring in their simplicity. It was that day that I decided to apply to the Divinity School."

Sources: 2 Samuel 18:9 (KJV); "Watching over Biblical Murals," Harvard Divinity Bulletin, May 1971, vol. 1, no. 1, p. 2; Ari L. Goldman, The Search for God at Harvard (New York: Times Books/Random House, 1991), p. 175. Thanks to Susan Worst for the Ari Goldman reference and the correct moment in the Absalom story in 2 Samuel.