Getting a closer look at convocation’s mace

Each year at convocation, the York University beadle bears a heavy weight on his or her shoulders – a 28-pound brass mace, which helps to forge a distinguished trail to the stage for York’s chancellor and other university officials. Beautifully ornate and deeply symbolic of the Canadian landscape and population, York University’s mace represents many things – a link to the past and a link between York and the City of Toronto.

Commissioned by the city’s leaders in 1962 as a gift to the newly independent University, the mace was meant to symbolize the city’s interest in and contribution to York. The metre-long object was designed and fabricated by noted Canadian artist Gerald Trottier, who passed away in July, 2004. Recently, Trottier’s wife Irma and daughter Denise presented five preliminary sketches of the mace to York’s Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections. The gift from the Trottier family is a means of creating a historical record of this significant ceremonial object, which has become an integral part of York’s convocation ceremonies for over 40 years.

“Every university puts considerable stock in its ceremonial objects such as maces,” said Michael Moir, York’s University archivist and head of Archives and Special Collections. “As York approaches its 50th anniversary, having additional documentation of the origins of such symbols is quite important.”

In ancient times, the mace was used to ward off physical attacks during city and town processions. By the 16th century its use had evolved into a ceremonial role and maces were decorated with jewels and precious metals. Maces are frequently used in academic and ecclesiastical processions, as well as in legislative settings at the federal and provincial level.

Right: From left, Suzanne Dubeau, assistant head, Archives & Special Collections; Irma Trottier; Denise Trottier; Cynthia Archer, University librarian; and Michael Moir, University archivist & head, Archives & Special Collections

“York’s beadle [carrying the mace into convocation] is similar to the Sergeant at Arms entering the House of Commons,” says Moir. “It imposes a symbol of order and discipline that some would say lies at the heart of a civilized society.”

Each part of York’s mace offers symbolic significance for the University. The end section is set in stones of cullet, bloodstone, agate and amazonite, which represent the diverse ethnic sources of Canada. The shoulder has 10 projections representing Canada’s provinces. The four arms at the head of the mace represent the paths that lead to the ideals that humans strive to achieve. The arms support an orb whose shape reflects the universe and its truths. The orb is executed in the colours of earth – brown, ochre, blue and green.

In his correspondences with two faculty members at the University of Toronto, Gerald Trottier wrote of wanting to design a “kingly war mace” for York, rather than a civic, trophy-like mace. The former offered greater permanency, he wrote.

Left: A kingly war mace for York

Of the five sketches Trottier originally submitted to York in 1963, one was chosen. York’s librarian at the time, Douglas G. Lockhead, wrote to Trottier: “I will be interested to see our new mace – it will be handsome and right – I know.”

The York mace was delivered in time for York’s spring convocation in 1964.

In a letter of thanks to Toronto Mayor Philip Givens, York President Murray Ross wrote, “You may be interested to know that immediately after its arrival, the mace was used at York’s convocation for graduating students, and, I am delighted to say, it lent great dignity to this centuries old ceremony and elicited many favourable comments.”

“This donation of sketches is especially significant. It serves to document the beginnings of York University’s history,” said Cynthia Archer, University librarian. “Equally important, it provides insight into one of Canada’s prominent artists, Trottier. An important role of libraries is to collect materials, including personal papers that document our country’s cultural heritage. We are very grateful that the Trottier family has chosen to have these precious sketches archived here at York.”

Right: A detailed close-up of the York mace

Trottier, who lived in Ottawa, has been described as one of the nation’s important artists. A longtime director of design for the CBC, Trottier utilized many mediums in his passionate quest for knowledge and life’s meaning, such as drawing, watercolour and oil painting, printmaking and sculpting. Included in Trottier’s vast body of work, spanning the early 1940s to 2002 is a great tessura mural in Carleton University’s Tory building. Trottier’s son, Marc, and daughter-in-law, Wendy Vance, recently restored the mural.

All of Trottier’s work, including his liturgical works, powerful self portraits and figure studies, were imbued with the deep passion of his religious beliefs. For example, the relief work of the York mace shaft is rife with images of upturned arms and arrows pointing skyward.

“My father was a very spiritual person,” said Denise Trottier, “He used to ask, ‘when a hockey player scores a goal, why do they lift their hands up? They are all reaching for something. They are searching for knowledge,’ he would say.”

This article was submitted to YFile by Carrie Brodi, communications officer, York University Foundation.