Portrait of Peter Gomes Hung in Faculty Room

Harvard installs a portrait of the late Reverend Peter J. Gomes.

Peter J. Gomes, portrait by Yuqi Wang
Harvard Art Museums, © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

The portraits hung on the walls of the Faculty Room in University Hall—where the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) conducts its business meetings—have for some time been lightly coeducational. Historian Helen Maud Cam, installed as a professor in 1948, ending FAS’s all-male history (though still barred from the Faculty Club’s front door, and from Lamont Library), was recognized in permanent form when her likeness was installed on the walls in February 1995.

Her solitude was broken in February 2002, when she was joined by Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Ph.D. ’25—Phillips astronomer in the Harvard College Observatory without limit of time and lecturer on astronomy, and later professor of astronomy and department chair—a pioneering observer of stars, who published important papers and books on their chemical composition. (Updated April 1, 8:45 a.m.: A likeness of Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, first president of Radcliffe College, now hangs in the room as well.) The Payne-Gaposchkin portrait was commissioned by Nobel laureate Dudley Herschbach, then Baird professor of science, and his wife, Georgene Herschbach, then associate dean of the College; as a longtime advocate for more women faculty members, he had, as he put it, agitated for “affirmative action for portraits.”

Now affirmative action for FAS portraits has taken a further step, with the recognition of another faculty member who communed with the heavens—albeit in a very different way. On the beautiful spring afternoon of March 31, a likeness of the late Reverend Peter J. Gomes, Plummer professor of Christian morals and Pusey minister in the Memorial Church from 1974 to 2011, was unveiled in the Faculty Room, integrating the images on display. The painting is by portraitist Yuqi Wang, who is based in New York.

A backbencher during faculty meetings, Gomes enjoyed speaking on those occasions and rose often to do so (and colleagues evidently enjoyed his full voice and High English form of address, as relief from the official proceedings). So he would have taken particular pleasure in the venue and this occasion. A champion of ritual and tradition, he would have approved his rendering in academic and religious regalia, Bible in hand, with the baton he used to steer his flock of College graduates-to-be as they filed out from the senior chapel service and into Harvard Yard to queue for their graduation Morning Exercises: the high point of Gomes’s presence before the community each year. His Memorial Church congregation, Harvard-history seminar students, and Commencement listeners would instantly recognize that confident, and amused, visage.

Suitably, the portraits in the room were rearranged so that Gomes could hang high on the southwest wall, directly over the bench where he habitually sat for faculty meetings. (His immediate companions include presidents Neil L. Rudenstine and James Bryant Conant.) As one wag put it, the Gomes in oil is placed in his familiar spot, “where he can look down on the faculty,” much as he stood above his congregation. 

The Ceremony

Among those who spoke at the memorial service for Gomes on April 6, 2011, were President Drew Faust; then-Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick ’78, J.D. ’82; and the Reverend Wendel “Tad” Meyer, then-acting Pusey minister. (Gomes was also remembered in an FAS Memorial Minute, read before the faculty in 2014.) They spoke again at the portrait ceremony—Patrick now equipped with his LL.D. conferred last May, and Meyer now as a senior associate of Memorial Church.

The proceedings were introduced by FAS dean Michael D. Smith, who noted that the Faculty Room has for more than two centuries been “the symbolic and literal heart” of his faculty—a storied history to which Gomes would now be added in permanent fashion. Smith noted that during faculty meetings, when he sits at a round table in front of the east wall, his angle of vision is directly toward Gomes’s habitual seat—a vantage point that enabled the dean to “read his face” as business was transacted. With the portrait hung, Smith continued, he will “expect to see Peter there, sitting in judgment.” He was “delighted and proud,” the dean said, “to have him join the rest of the incredible people in this room.”

President Faust noted that installing a portrait in the Faculty Room “doesn’t just happen,” a perhaps bemused comment on Harvard’s workings in general. She thanked the faculty committee responsible for managing this matter: Burden professor of photography Robin Kelsey (recently named FAS’s dean of arts and humanities, effective this summer); Phillips professor of Early American history Joyce Chaplin; and Dumbarton Oaks professor of the history of Pre-Columbian and Colonial art Thomas Cummins. She also saluted the artist (present with his wife and daughter), and noted that his works hang in the national portrait galleries of both Britain and the United States.

“Peter was never to be forgotten or ignored,” Faust said. “I am afraid once we hang this portrait, it will begin to speak,” perhaps about “some dangerous intrusion of the present upon the past.” She recalled him as “out of the box and out of the closet,” a self-described “Afro Saxon.” Summoning an anecdote she told in 2011, about the time when Gomes visited her at Radcliffe upon learning about her appointment as president and pronounced, “Madam, I come to pledge my fealty,” she said the unveiling was a time to say, “Today, we pledge you ours.”

Reverend Meyer, up from retirement in Florida, said that he had heard people saying there was already a portrait of Gomes in Memorial Church, and a likeness at Bates College, his alma mater. Weren’t there enough images already? He then said that in preparation for Easter, he had led an Episcopal study group of 20 men in reading the final chapters of the four canonical gospels, and that some of them were surprised and even unsettled that the accounts differed in chronology, characters, and even in the depictions of Jesus himself. He replied, “Wasn’t it wonderful, I suggested, that we had four different portraits of this enigmatic character?” He then said, “Like his Lord and Savior, Peter Gomes was a delightful enigma.” Having many ways of remembering him seemed fitting: “Like the Gospels, portraits…are invitations to engage the mystery of another human being,” Meyer said, and not a snapshot in time.

“The Peter Gomes I knew and loved would never think there could be too many attempts” to capture his complexity and mystery, he continued, to laughter. He was, for the assembled, “our preacher, our pastor, our colleague, and our friend,” and Meyer was delighted that the portrait would hang in the Faculty Room for people of every race, creed, sexual orientation, political belief, and religion.

Faust introduced Governor Patrick as “a graduate of the College, the Law School, and the School of Peter Gomes.” Patrick said that when he was asked to talk, he wanted it known that he was out of the speech-making business. Given the oratory that preceded him, the only thing he could think of to say was, “Now it’s time to pass the plate.”

He had a vision of Gomes seated in the Faculty Room, near a door, “where you could imagine him stirring up trouble” and then making an exit, with mischief in his eyes. Gomes, he continued, had “a classic way of reminding us, in these very rare environments, neither to forget our blessings nor to take them for granted.”

Wherever he encountered Gomes, the governor continued, he was making “sweeping” entrances and exits. “What I got from Peter…on Sunday mornings, at dinner tables,” and in many other places, was a reminder always to “try a new perspective, to think in fresh ways about the things we take for granted,” and to reach for new ways of seeing “each other and ourselves.” The portrait itself, he concluded, with its “loving, whimsical, witty, wise expression,” would be an inspiration to all to try new perspectives.

The Faculty Room, Integrated

With the installation of the Gomes painting, the coeducational Faculty Room portrait gallery has been integrated, too. The unveiling is, by coincidence, one in a series of events this semester that bring issues of race in America, and at Harvard, to the forefront of campus conversations: the change in Harvard Law School’s shield (associated with a slave-owning family); the change in undergraduate House leaders’ title from “master” to “faculty dean”; and the placement of a plaque on Wadsworth House, scheduled for April 6, memorializing the four slaves who lived and worked there for eighteenth-century Harvard presidents Benjamin Wadsworth and Edward Holyoke.


Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg

You might also like

Harvard Overhauls Disciplinary Procedures

To cope with violations of University statement on rights and responsibilities

Harvard’s Development Chief Departs

Brian Lee to step down at end of 2024

Immigrant Workers— America’s Engine?

Harvard economist Jason Furman on immigration and the U.S. economy.

Most popular

Mechanical Intelligence and Counterfeit Humanity

Reflections on six decades of relations with computers

The Power of Patience

Teaching students the value of deceleration and immersive attention

Who Built the Pyramids?

Not slaves. Archaeologist Mark Lehner, digging deeper, discovers a city of privileged workers.

More to explore

Relabeling Medical Definitions for Obesity in the United States

For obesity patients, improved treatments and a nuanced understanding of the disease may lead to better health.

How Was Brooklyn Bridge Park Planned?

Michael Van Valkenburgh and the making of Brooklyn Bridge Park

The Mystery Behind an Incan Tunic

Unraveling an Inca masterpiece’s secrets