When the “new” St. James Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge was completed in 1895, the chancel was surrounded by Gothic revival lancet panels. In the year 1900, the Rev. Joseph L. Tucker was called to be rector of St. James. Unfortunately, he became ill during his first year at St. James, and was unable to visit with his congregation outside of the church.
Being an excellent artist, the Rev. Tucker decided to make carvings to accentuate the lancet panels surrounding the altar. Between the time of his call to St. James and his death in 1906, he filled 33 of the 36 panels with his carvings. A careful study of the original carvings show that the Rev. Tucker started with a religious art nouveau theme, but as his health declined, he used less detailed designs. His son, the Rev. Louis Tucker, a priest in St. Francisville, Louisiana, was called to be the next rector of St. James. The Rev. Louis Tucker did not have the artistic ability of his father, but decided the three remaining panels could be carved by the youth group he had formed on his arrival. The youth did, in fact, complete and install the final panels in the altar area.
In 2007, the Very Rev. J. Mark Holland, XXIII Rector of St. James, proposed that the remaining lancets — eight panels each on the north and south walls of the chancel outside the altar area — be filled with new carvings which would compliment those of the Rev. Tucker.
New designs were rendered using religious themes that blend with the original carvings, and once the vestry approved these, a committee was formed of volunteers to complete the final sixteen carvings. The members of the carving committee were John Pine, Mike Moyer, Bill Brockway, Warren Green, Chuck Oliver, Chris Williams, Gerry Sulzer, Hank Harper, Fred Kroenke, Dan West, and Michael Ferachi.
The details of each of the carvings follow, numbered and placed for reference on the chancel map. The new carvings are L1-2, P1-2, CN1-6 and CS1-6. Much of the information on the original carvings (N1-18 and S1-18) is speculative, but is included for their design and historical significance.
L1 & L2 As you climb the chancel steps toward the altar, on the lectern side (your left) are two newly-carved panels utilizing Celtic knots as a carving base, each centered with a cross containing a Christian symbol. L1 features three intertwined circles symbolizing the Trinity; L2 features the Chi Rho, one of the earliest forms of christogram, formed by superimposing the first two letters in the Greek spelling of the word Christ, “Χριστός,” in such a way to produce the monogram.
CN1-CN6 The new carvings on the north wall behind the choir stalls depict church worship and events of the Christian year. The CN1 tracery (a term of Gothic architecture referring to the ornamental work of bracing lines and changes found in windows, panels, screens, needlework, etc.) introduces us to God’s place at the altar.
CN2 depicts oak leaves and branches, known symbolically as strength, durability, faith and endurance, indicating that as we approach the altar we gain these attributes.
CN3 is one of three on this wall presenting seasons of the Christian year. This one depicts Easter, represented by the pomegranate symbolizing the power of Christ and his resurrection because of the many seeds that comes forth from the fruit. The seeds may represent the many believers who follow Christ and the fertility of the word.
CN4 depicts Lent with its whip and thorny vines reminding us of Jesus’ scourging at the hands of the Roman soldiers. They are also symbols of the Exodus.
CN5 displays the Mystic Flower (Christmas Rose) which is the symbol for the Virgin Mary and the Lord — the Christmas season.
CN6 combines the old and new by presenting the symbols contained on the two major stained glass windows in the church nave (the Nativity and the Entrance into Jerusalem) along with some of the carving configurations from the original panels surrounding the altar.
N1 ---> N18
The carvings behind the altar rail are those dating back to 1900 and the Rev. Joseph Tucker. You will notice that the complexity of the designs vary widely, leading one to surmise that the most intricate were completed early in his tenure before his health had significantly worsened. The more detailed units are on the north wall. Artistic symmetry would have been important, however, and three or four panels on the south wall indicate earlier work there, as well. Panels on either side of the altar are also symmetrical. Compare N18, above right, and S18, below left.
N1 (nearest the altar rail) is a very simple design of integrated circles. Similar patterns are found on S1 and S3 by which we surmise that the southern panels were those completed by the youth group under the Rev. Louis Tucker.
N2 is a very intricate pattern of integrated circles indicating it was completed under the Rev. Joseph Tucker’s tenure. N3 depicts an Easter lily, believed to be completed mid-term. N4 is a more detailed design of grape vines with fruit and leaves indicating an earlier work, along with N5 of crosses and circles, though N6’s less complex grid of large and small circles is simpler than others along this wall.
The next panel, N7, is an interlacing of diamonds and squares, probably worked about 1904. N8 is a delicate combination of shamrocks and six-pointed stars. It was almost certainly an early work, and carried a religious theme. N9 is also a difficult carving with a complex grid of diamonds, bold knobs and interlaced grids.
S18 <--- S1