Sunday, April 19, 2009

The National Cathedral

The National Cathedral in Washington, DC, is the sixth largest cathedral in the world and one of the most famous. The land of Mt. St. Alban was purchased by the first Bishop of Washington Henry Yates Satterlee. The construction started on September 29, 1907, when the cornerstone was laid using the same shovel George Washington used when laying the cornerstone of the Capitol. President Theodore Roosevelt was in attendance. The Cathedral was completed 83 years later on September 29, 1990, with President George H.W. Bush in attendance.

In Pierre Charles L'Enfant's original plan for the city, he had indicated there should be a house of prayer. The National Cathedral has become that - a house of prayer for all people of faith and no faith. The actual name of the church is the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. It is an Episcopal church and follows the Anglican liturgy during its services. However, many important national events have taken place in this building. Ministers from other religions have preached from its pulpit, funeral services for US Presidents have been held here, and Inaugural Prayer Services are held here every four years.

The Cathedral is a beautiful piece of 14th century Gothic architecture. The masonry is stone upon stone with no steel reinforcements. The Cathedral is not a replica of any other church or cathedral. The iconography inside and outside the building follows the story of creation (west front) to Christ's second coming at the High Altar in the east end of the building. You can see from these pictures the sculpture of man being formed, the creation over the middle doors, and the sculpture of St. Peter, the fisherman, at the left door of the west front.

As you approach the Cathedral, you see many of the characteristics of Gothic architecture - the flying buttresses and the great height of the bell tower. As you enter the Cathedral, you can see other characteristics - pointed arches, ribbed vaulting, and stained glass windows. In front of you is the High Altar at the far east end. Turning around you can see the beautiful west rose window made of thousands of pieces of glass - some prisms - that reflect light because in the beginning God said, "Let there be light!"

The interior of the Cathedral not only has artwork reflecting stories from the Bible; but there are statues, stained glass, and other artwork reflecting the history of the United States. There are statues of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and others.

As all Gothic cathedrals, this one is built in the shape of a cross - cruciform. On a sunny day such as the one when I went to the Cathedral, the morning sun radiates through the windows on the south side of the nave, and you can see the beautiful reflection of the colors from the stained glass windows on the Indiana limestone on the north side - just under the other set of beautiful stained glass windows on the north side of the nave. One of the stained glass windows on your level as you're walking is called the "Space Window." A piece of moon rock is embedded in the window and the artwork reflects space.

On the right side just past the space window is the tomb of President Woodrow Wilson, the only US president buried in Washington, DC. The picture I took again shows the light shining through the stained glass and reflecting on the tomb and the floor.

As you continue walking forward into the church, you reach the crossing transept which is where the transept (short arm of the cross) and nave (long arm of the cross) meet. To the right is the Canterbury Pulpit which was carved from stone from the bell tower of the Canterbury Cathedral. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his last public sermon from this pulpit the Sunday before he was assasinated.

In many cathedrals on either side of the High Altar are chapels - to the right for St. John and to the left for St. Mary. In both these chapels in National Cathedral are reredos of Christ on the cross with Mary and John the Beloved below. I have included pictures of the altars in these two chapels. St. John's Chapel has handmade needlepoint kneeling cushions depicting famous people in US history. The color in St. Mary's Chapel is blue because that is the color associated with the mother of Christ. The chapel was constructed using donations from Larz Anderson III whose house on Massachussets Avenue is now home to the Society of the Cincinnati. The walls are covered with tapestries from his estate which he purchased during his world travels as an ambassador. He and his wife are buried in this chapel.


At the High Altar, you can see the beautiful reredos of "Christ in Majesty" surrounded by sculptures of people of faith who lived during the past 20 centuries. Also to the left of the High Altar is the cathedra or bishop's chair. A church must have a bishop and a cathedra to be a cathedral. By the way, the cross on the altar is 6 feet tall. Turning around from the altar, you can see where the choir sits on either side of the aisle. Above that are the 10,650 pipes for the magnificent organ. It is one of the largest organs in the world, but it isn't bigger than the pipe organ in the Mormon Tabernacle which has 11,000! Again you can see the colors reflected on the pipes as the morning sun shines through stained glass windows.


The National Cathedral has so much to see and the regular 30-minute tour only covers the main level of the church. Visitors can go to the crypt level and see the Bethlehem Chapel - theme is the birth of Christ shown on the reredos over the altar - at the east end. The Bethlehem Chapel was the first part of the Cathedral that was completed and is used for services and weddings. It is also the burial place of Bishop Satterlee - behind the altar and directly above the foundation stone laid in 1907.

At the west end of the crypt is the St. Joseph Chapel - theme is the burial of Jesus in the tomb provided by Joseph of Arimathea. The architecture of the chapel is more Romanesque - the precursor architecture to Gothic - with its curved features and lack of light. The ashes of Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan are buried in this chapel, and there is a plaque in Braille indicating that. The reredos shows Christ being taken to the tomb and is painted with gold.

Most of these pictures were taken in February 2009 when I went to the Cathedral to take the test to become a certified guide there. I passed!! The first picture was taken last summer - duh! from the green leaves on the trees. The last two pictures were taken in January when I went to the Guild class to learn about becoming a certified guide. The hall is on the seventh floor of the Cathedral where you can see the whole city by walking around the various outside hallways. The other picture is a closeup of the bell tower which is supported by four pillars set deep into the ground.

Although my Christian religious beliefs are not exactly what is taught at this cathedral, it is definitely an important site to see in Washington, DC. People of all faiths are welcome, and people of all faiths should take a tour!!

2 comments:

Tiffany said...

That is so interesting! I wish we had taken Ben's brother and his wife to see the National Cathedral. The picture of the organ pipes is so whimsical. I especially like the statue of the creation of man. So many interesting little tid bits that I never would've known.

Catherine said...

These are beautiful Claudia!