Deo ac Veritati: Celebrating 200 Years of Colgate University

The Bicentennial of Colgate is almost upon us! The year 2019 will mark the 200th anniversary of our beautiful university on the hill. After months of preparation and hard work done by dozens of students and other individuals, an exhibition celebrating Colgate’s Bicentennial opened in early May 2017. The exhibition, named “Deo ac Veritati: Pursuing the Classics at Colgate,” focuses on the study of the Classics at Colgate over the course of its existence. It is located on the third floor of Colgate’s Case Library, where it is easily accessible to students, professors, and the public and is free of cost.

The exhibition includes several display cases which each depict a different period of Colgate’s history and its relationship to the Classics. Along with the exhibition, the editors provided a well-detailed Gallery Guide which summarizes the majority of the displays and gives visitors useful information about the exhibition even when they’re not physically at the exhibition. Additionally, there is a website that offers, in greater detail than the Gallery Guide, pictures and the textual information from each display. Some of my favorite exhibits include information about the university’s seal and its reflection in different architecture around campus, the competition of the ‘Scabby Back’ Mercury statue, and the school’s plaster casts that mysteriously disappeared. The “Deo ac Veritati” exhibition seems to be mainly targeted towards students and professors of Colgate University, as it focuses on the pride and history of the university. It examines different angles of the Classics’ influence on Colgate throughout its history, and — with the help of historical documents and artifacts — provides an intriguing and immersive glimpse into Colgate’s Classical past (and present).

Seal and Motto

Since 1846, Colgate’s seal has displayed two consistent elements — a torch and an unrolled scroll that reads the school’s Latin motto, ‘Deo ac Veritati,’ which is also the namesake of the exhibition itself. Greek mythology and Ancient Greek scholars saw fire (found in the seal’s torch) as a sacred element that Prometheus bestowed upon humans as a gift (Delaney et al. 2017). It also is commonly used to symbolize knowledge, which is why it is appropriately situated on Colgate’s seal. Over the years since 1846, the seal has varied little in its main components — the torch, scroll with the words ‘Deo ac Veritati’, name of the university, and the year of incorporation/foundation. The display in the exhibition gives five different examples of the seal over almost two hundred years.

It was interesting being able to compare, side by side, the designs of Colgate’s seal over such a long period. Each seal was similar to the rest, yet there were subtle modifications each time artists created a new one. A seal dating back to 1883 [not pictured to the left] reads the Latin words “UNIVERSITAS COLGATENSIS” which coincides with the Latin motto that the scroll on the interior of the seal reads. This stylistic choice, however, was short-lived and Colgate soon adopted the English words that are still on its seal today — “COLGATE UNIVERSITY.”

Different components of Colgate’s seal can be found around the campus, built directly into the architecture. Lawrence Hall’s main entrance, for example, boasts a display of four torches and Colgate’s motto over the doorway (Delaney et al. 2017). Lawrence has been the home for studies of the Classics for many years, so it is only appropriate that it would have the symbolic architecture regarding Ancient Greece (the torch) and our Latin motto.

Mercury

Another engaging portion of the exhibition was the information on the competition of the Mercury statue. As the majority of the exhibit was text, it was laid out very efficiently using a computer to include all relevant information.

Arthur Frothingham gave Colgate the statue of Mercury as a gift in 1879, and shortly after, the statue’s bronze coating started to peel, which gave rise to the statue’s nickname, “The God of the Scabby Back” (Delaney et al. 2017). In 1899, students developed a unique game surrounding this campus-famous statue. Each year, the freshman and sophomore year classes would attempt to steal the statue from each other and then hide it to keep it safe. The stakes were high as each class was fighting to assert their superiority over the other. Additionally, there was an ornate celebratory feast for the class who was in possession of Mercury at the end of the year.

Over the years, the competition became increasingly intense and dangerous. Tensions between classes and the Hamilton community rose, and the game started to do more harm than good. Students spent upwards of $10,000 on stealing and hiding the statue over the course of the tradition’s twenty-year existence. After an incident in 1917 when a student lost his life as a result of the competition, Colgate abolished the tradition in 1919. Over the next few decades, the statue disappeared and reappeared periodically, but it never gained the momentum it once had. All that remains of the Mercury statue today is his head and one of his knees, and he rests in Colgate’s archives safe from thieves (as far as we know).

Plaster Casts

In the early 1900’s, the James B. Colgate Library (whose building is no longer a library) was home to sixteen plaster casts flanked by the library’s tables and chairs. The “Deo ac Veritati” exhibition displays busts of Homer, Virgil, Reverend Walter R. Brooks. While Brooks’ statue is made of marble, the other two were created using molds and plaster casts — a very inexpensive way of recreating marble busts (Delaney et al. 2017). In the exhibition, behind the portrait busts is a photograph of the original library, blown up to the size of the wall. I imagine the staff of the exhibition did this as a tactic to contextualize the busts and show what they might have looked like when they were in their original location over a hundred years ago — it really worked!

The plaster casts of Homer and Virgil that are on display in the exhibit, however, are the only remaining statues from the originals from the early 20th century. Interestingly, the university decided that the casts were taking up too much room in the library that they could potentially use for storing books. Instead of placing them elsewhere, it is rumored that Colgate had the statues removed entirely from the university at some point between 1943 (the date they were last photographed) and 1956, never to be found again. The exhibit has the last photograph (pictured below) that the statues were in, which depicts them being stored together in a room where the university taught Naval Flight classes in 1943.

The case of the missing plaster casts is a fascinating story for many reasons, but it also somewhat contradicts what other parts of the exhibition are promoting. The exhibition focuses on the importance of the Classics at Colgate, but somewhere between 1943 and 1956, the university departed from that mindset. Rather than having them put in the archive or even sent to another location, the casts completely disappeared. At that moment in time, Colgate demonstrated that this part of history and culture at the school were not significant enough to deal with transparently, thus leaving a mystery behind.

Reflections

The “Deo Ac Veritati” exhibition takes a unique approach to examining the history of Colgate University. While personally I might have enjoyed learning more of its history through a broader lens, I think the choice to focus on the Classics was a wise decision which allowed the creators of the exhibition to streamline information. Colgate is a very old university with a lot of history (200 years’ worth!), so choosing one area of inquiry was a good strategy with regards to organizing a massive amount of available information. The Classics also tend to get overlooked nowadays, so this exhibition was a great way to advertise the work Colgate has done over the years to broaden students’ horizons and teach them some of the most significant and ground-breaking work done by scholars in human history.

After viewing the exhibition, it seems as though many aspects of Classics’ studies at Colgate have remained constant over its 200-year existence. Documents like the famous texts written by ancient scholars have been part of the curriculum since Colgate began as the Hamilton Literary and Theological Institution in 1819. However, many students today choose to engage in a more integrative educational experience over their four years by pursuing other areas of study such as the sciences. The ‘Core’ requirements ensure that every student at Colgate takes, at some point in their first or second year, a course called “Legacies of the Ancient World.” The class curriculum consists of a selection of texts from Ancient Greece and Rome, religious documents like the Bible or the Quran, and any other literature that the professors believe will enrich students’ understanding and knowledge of the Classics. In a way, this course keeps the Classics alive at Colgate because it seems as though as each generation passes, less and less young people are studying the ancient world as their primary area of focus.

Overall, I would recommend this exhibit to others — in fact, I already have! As a part of a student body that has a lot of pride in their school, learning more about Colgate’s history and traditions has been incredibly thought-provoking and has increased my appreciation of our great university. The exhibition was not only intriguing but extremely informative of a topic about which I knew very little. For me, it reinforced the reason why we are required to take a class on the Classics; the ancient world was integral in shaping modern thought and expression, and keeping that history alive allows us to understand how and why civilizations around the world developed the way they did.

Works Cited

Delaney, Megan, Erica Hiddink, and Michael B. Holobosky, eds. Deo Ac Veritati: Pursuing the Classics at Colgate. Hamilton, NY: Colgate University Printing, 2017.

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