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The Virgin and the Dynamo: A Rematch

  • Charlene Spretnak

Abstract

In 1898 Henry Adams, a professor of history at Harvard University, as well as the grandson and great-grandson of two American presidents, encountered the Virgin Mary in Chartres Cathedral. As a boy he had attended the Unitarian Church in Boston twice every Sunday and had reached adulthood, as he put it, “without knowing religion, and with the certainty that dogma, metaphysics, and abstract philosophy were not worth knowing.”1 Nonetheless, when he experienced, at age sixty, the shocking grace and majesty of Chartres, “the Palace of the Queen of Heaven,” Adams threw himself into a study of the florescence of religious art and architecture in twelfth- and thirteenth-century France. The result was a passionate engagement with two medieval masterpieces: Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1904). He then wrote an autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams (1906), which complements the earlier book and has long been regarded as one of the most compelling works of American literature. In the autobiography’s most famous chapter — or, at least, most famous chapter title — “The Dynamo and the Virgin,” Adams weighed what he had grasped of Mary at Chartres with what he had seen of the new, industrialized twentieth century at the Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris.

Keywords

Modern Thought Vatican Council Hide Hand Doctrinal Statement Devotional Practice 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    Henry Adams, cited in the introduction by Asa Briggs to Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (New York: Gallery Books / W. H. Smith Publishers, 1980), p. 8.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Henry Adams, “The Dynamo and the Virgin,” in The Education of Henry Adams, Oxford World’s Classics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 324.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, Oxford’s World’s Classics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 325.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Henry Adams, The Letters of Henry Adams, edited by J. C. Levenson, Ernest Samuels, Charles Vandersee, and Viola Hopkins Winner (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982–1988), 5: 169; cited in The Education of Henry Adams, p. 474.Google Scholar
  5. 8.
    Henry Adams, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (New York: Gallery Books / W. H. Smith Publishers, 1980), p. 117.Google Scholar
  6. 12.
    This political cartoon is reprinted in Philippe Thiebaut, Gaudi: Visionary Architect (New York: Abrams, 2001), p. 74.Google Scholar
  7. 20.
    Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), in The Documents of Vatican II, ed. by Walter M. Abbot, S.J. (New York: Guild Press, 1966), p. 84.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Charlene Spretnak 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • Charlene Spretnak

There are no affiliations available

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