8 Nov,2016 By Jagabond
I remember the first time I walked into the Cathedral of Learning, the towering symbol of the University of Pittsburgh. I was not well traveled at that point in life, and the previous schools I’d attended had nothing but two-story, mundane buildings. Imagine my shock entering this Gothic architectural dream, and also the second largest university building in the world…
That was a long time ago – over 20 years to be exact. I recall both marveling at the high ceilings and shaking at the thought of the long elevator rides. This was mostly a place for studying as it was quiet, much like the atmosphere of a church on Sunday morning before service. There were classes held here, though it was more known for the ‘nationality rooms’ which are special classrooms designed to reflect and highlight certain cultures that had an influence on Pittsburgh. I was lucky enough to revisit these rooms decades later. Since I was within one week of moving back overseas for another European tour, I focused specifically on that region and have listed some highlights below.
Lithuanian Room – This mural depicts two kings protecting Lithuania’s number one treasure – the village. The dark forest that surrounds them also contains stars in the sky that signify hope. Having visited the Hill of Crosses in Siauliai, I’m not surprised a Lithuanian painted such an emotional scene.
Yugoslav Room – This room was constructed prior to Yugoslavia’s breakup. Shown below is a double-headed eagle, hand-carved with pocket knives in Slovenian oak. The two heads represent Rome and Byzantine, the two empires that influenced Yugoslavia. Below this carving and not shown in the picture are the founding dates for the universities in Belgrade, Ljubljana and Zagreb.
Swedish Room – The muralist Ollie Nordmark was responsible for most of the beautiful painted ceiling and walls in this room, and he added a touch of humor. There were the wise men going in conflicting directions, the angel Gabriel with two left feet, and the picture shown below of ‘justice’ using her blindfold to hold up her scales.
Ukrainian Room – Representing the Baroque style with the trapezoidal entrance and the pretty tiled stove, the doorway inscription reads ‘when a guest enters the house, God enters the home.’ This was one of the nicest rooms I saw at the Cathedral, and made me again add Ukraine to my list of countries to visit…hopefully their current situation with Russia ends soon without further conflict.
Romanian Room – The mosaic on the back wall was stunning, and honored the famous Romanian martyr Constantin Brancoveanu. He was murdered along with his four sons after refusing to recant his Christian faith and convert to Islam. He is remembered by a statue in the capital, Bucharest, and a commemorative mural at a monastery in his hometown of Wallachia.
Austrian Room – The award for nicest chandeliers goes to this room, which resembled a banquet hall for royalty. The ceiling had a series of paintings based on the Greek poem ‘Metamorophoses’, which chronicled the creation and history of the world…a must see for Greek mythology fans.
Italian Room – The most interesting thing here was a tribute to Helena Piscopia, the first woman in the world to receive a PhD. She attended university in Padua, just outside Venice, and was an expert musician, philosopher and mathematician. She died before she turned 40 of tuberculosis, an unfortunate consequence of living in the pre-antibiotic era.
Polish Room – It’s hard to believe (or maybe not), but residents of Earth used to be so narcissistic they thought the sun and other planets revolved around them. Nicolaus Copernicus studied at the University of Krakow and later founded the heliocentric view of the universe. I love this painting of him, which captures his curiosity and ‘seeker’ mentality.
Swiss Room – Switzerland is often unfairly knocked for being either boring, overly expensive, or both. I think people believing this stay in the cities, whereas the nature is the real attraction. The Swiss have a close connection to the outdoors, dating back to pagan traditions, and this room’s ceiling was covered with wood carvings celebrating human interactions with nature.
German Room – I’ve always been a fan of stained glass, but have mostly seen it used for religious purposes. Here there was a giant wall of stained glass that was super unique, showing characters from the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales such as Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, and Cinderella.
French Room – Ever participate in a unicorn hunt? This ultra-cool tapestry shows a fantastical woodland of creatures, with the unicorn making an appearance in the lower left corner. According to legend the unicorn could only be captured after being subdued by a virgin, a loose reference to male suitors being tamed by their new brides.