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On August 19, 2017, President Vincent Price reported that he had authorized the removal of the Robert E. Lee figure from the Chapel portal.

Read his email to the Duke community for additional information.

Who is depicted in the portal to the Chapel?

The following is drawn from The Architecture of Duke University by William Blackburn (link to catalog record; link to digitized copy of 1939 edition).

     Above the portal (left to right):

  • Thomas Coke (1747-1814): Superintendent of the Methodist Mission in the United States (1784) and Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church
  • Francis Asbury (1745-1816): Pioneer Methodist preacher and Bishop. General Superintendent of Methodism in the American Colonies (1772) and organizer of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States (1784)
  • George Whitefield (1714- 1770): English Methodist evangelist and missionary

     Left side of portal (left to right):

  • Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498): Preacher of the Bible 
  • Martin Luther (1483-1546): Religious Reformer 
  • John Wycliffe (1324?-1384): Translator of the Bible

Anti-War Demonstration, May 6, 1970
Anti-War Demonstration, May 6, 1970
     Above door (in tympanum):

  • John Wesley (1703-1791): Founder of Methodism

     Right side of portal (left to right):

  • Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826): Statesman of the South
  • Robert Edward Lee (1807-1870): Soldier of the South
  • Sidney Lanier (1842-1881): Poet of the South


When were the figures installed?

In 1932, toward the end of the construction of the Chapel.

Who chose the figures?

The evidence is somewhat unclear. Many European gothic cathedrals were Catholic, and depicted saints. The sculptors who did the stonecarving at Duke, John Donnelly and Sons of New York, were uncertain of whom to depict in the Chapel on the Duke campus, which had Methodist affiliations. A professor from Vanderbilt was apparently contacted to offer his advice, and he suggested the figures now present in the portal to the Chapel. (View relevant pages from John Donnelly, Jr.'s memoirs.)

Why does Robert E. Lee’s belt buckle say “US” on it?

Again, the evidence is not entirely clear. It appears that the stonecarvers put “US” on his belt, either unaware of Lee’s Confederate affiliation or perhaps as a small joke. Attempts were apparently made to scratch out the “US” but it is still visible. 

What did Duke administrators think of the statues?

President Few and W. R. Perkins, trustee of Duke University and of the Duke Endowment, exchanged letters in which they expressed disappointment in the figure of Lee. It is unclear, however, whether the disappointment was due to the belt buckle, the likeness of the sculpture to Lee himself, or something else. Minutes from a meeting of the Building Committee of the Duke Endowment on April 26, 1932, contain the following passage:

The question of the architecture of the six statuary figures at the Chapel entrance was brought up and Messrs. Allen and Perkins stated that when inspecting these statues they were informed that the statue of a soldier was intended to represent a wellknown Southern general but that there was no likeness in the statue to the popular conception of this person. Mr. Sands read a letter addressed to Mr. Horace Trumbauer by John Donnelly, Inc. in which this firm stated that their interpretation of these statues was entirely symbolical. After discussion, on motion duly made and seconded, it was decided that these statues should be decorative symbolical figures, and not as representing or to be known as representing any specified person.

Indeed, the dedication program for the Chapel does not identify the six figures on either side of the portal, though it does identify the four above the portal.

Have the figures ever been changed?

Other than the apparent attempt to scratch out the “US” on the belt buckle, the figures have remained the same since 1932. It was discovered in the 1980s that the image of Thomas Coke was apparently based on a drawing of Edward Coke, an Elizabethan-era jurist, which explained the confusing 16th century costume on the 18th century figure. No attempt has been made to alter it, however.