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Cathedral Church of St John the Divine, NYC


Where Gumbo Was #311

When I was a child, living on New York's Upper West Side, the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine was a neighborhood sight, impressive, but to my childish eyes just a big church that we all called Saint John the Unfinished.


I didn't realize then what a beauty it is, much less that it is one of the world's half-dozen largest cathedrals, or that it's perfectly normal for cathedrals to take centuries if ever to be finished.


Years later, when I returned to go to college nearby, it was still unfinished, and I began to visit it from time to time, but that was over fifty years ago, and I hadn't really taken a good look in many years until a short while ago when I spent a morning there renewing my acquaintance, and learning more about it.

Feast-of-St-Francis-St-John-DivineIt's a busy place, with many events, both religious and artistic going on. It hosts concerts and community meetings, regular services and even special events such as the annual Blessing of the Animals on the Feast of St Francis of Assisi.


The artwork on its walls and galleries could qualify it as a significant art museum, and that doesn't even count its religious sculptures, paintings and stained glass. St John's doesn't see the non-religious art as a separate issue; all of it relates to its activism around immigration, racism and other issues.

The images of an activist church helped identify it for George G, this week's first winner. PortMoresby also got it.Gothic


Like most cathedrals that have taken forever to build, the design has changed along the way. When the Episcopal Bishop of New York decided in 1888 that the city's Anglican Protestants needed to one-up the Catholic Saint Patrick's, Romanesque exteriors and Byzantine interiors were in style, and the job went to architects who worked in that style, Henis and LaFarge. It was meant to look like this...

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The hillside land for the church meant that to make the floor level, a huge foundation and crypt going down the hill were needed; and they were the first parts built. And they were expensive, because bedrock was 72 feet below the surface. By 1899, it was possible to hold services in the crypt while the choir and crossing and the apse were built above.

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But in 1907, Heins died, and the contract with him because by that time fashions had changed, and Gothic revivals were in style. The church's trustees hired Ralph Adams Cram, a leading Gothicist, to take over and modify the building, with features of French Gothic and English Gothic, like this...


Of course, if you have a look at the building as it is now, you'll notice there's no tower over the crossing, just a dome with an arch where the south transept is meant to be. We're really talking unfinished here. As the picture at the top shows, the front towers are also (so far) unbuilt. The dome, by the way, although always meant to be temporary, is made of Guastavini tile.


Once the above-ground parts of the west end—crossing, choir and apse—were finished shortly before World War I, excavations and then construction started for the nave, the great long hall of the church. St Johns specializes in big numbers, by the way; the nave is 124 feet high, the whole church is 600 feet long and 232 feet wide.


During all this time, construction occasionally stopped and started for financial reasons, but ironically, it was able to continue through the Depression because of a big fundraising campaign in the mid 1920s, led by Franklin D. Roosevelt, then not yet Governor or President.


A set of doors, now called the Great West Doors, was cast for the west end of the nave, the main entrance. They were designed by Henry Wilson, whose other door sets went to two English churches and the Salada Tea Company in Massachusetts. Although they're cast in bronze, they were originally referred to as the Golden Doors. They were cast by the same French foundry that cast the panels for the Stature of Liberty.

At the west entrance, two rose windows above the doors. The larger contains 10,000 pieces of glass.

The Cathedral was first opened end-to-end one week before Pearl Harbor. Construction stopped then, because the Bishop felt the available funds should go to charities during the war. No more significant construction happened again until the 1970s.

Fundraising is never far away when you visit a church, but I hadn't see an electronic card-reader collection box before. 

In the 1970s, the Dean of the Cathedral and the Bishop of New York decided to revive construction work, in part, they said, to preserve the crafts of stonemasonry by training neighborhood youths as cutters and sculptors, and part of the Cathedral's grounds became both a stoneyard and a school for apprentices.


Speaking of stonework, this is like the ancient cathedrals in more than a slow building schedule. Unlike many recent large churches, it has no steel frame, no modern materials. It's built the old way, stone on stone, with massively thick walls. In the picture below, you can see the boundary between finished facing stone and the rough-cut raw stone not yet covered after all these years.


Although construction stopped again in 1992, the spurt of building did train numbers of stoneworkers who found work on other projects, and the south tower gained 55 feet in height—and spent several more years wrapped in scaffolding as thought work might restart any minute. And perhaps some day it may, maybe even sometime this century. Or the one after.

In the meantime, here are some more images of the church and its surroundings.

P1130381P1130387"Safety Blanket," below, hangs near the rear of the nave. It's by Eva Petric and is made of found bits of lace and crochet pieces. It's meant to remind of the innocence of childhood. Another fabric piece hangs near the altar and creates spectacular interactions with light.


The eight 50-foot granite columns that surround the altar were each quarried as a single piece in Vinalhaven, Maine, and towed to New York on a special barge. Because of their size, they were installed before the walls were built around them.


A recent addition to the artwork is the 'zipper arch' at the crossing. It's called Life and Death, and consists of dozens of ceramic sculptures representing various aspects of modern life and conflict. The artist is Tom Otterness.


The altar decorations include two of these Japanese cloisonne vases, given to the Cathedral in 1926 by the Japanese Ambassador to the U.S. Below, the Gothic choir stalls are from a 15th-century German church, and are on apparently-permanent loan from the Metropolitan Museum


Behind the high altar are a series of small chapels, dedicated to each of the countries most represented in New York's Anglican population at the time. In Saint Columba, dedicated to immigrants from Great Britain, there's an unusual altarpiece; it's the last artwork of Keith Haring, completed just before his death.


Just outside St Columba, the arch is adorned with a series of portrait sculptures of English theologians, done by Gutzon Borglum, who would later carve four U.S. Presidents into Mount Rushmore. He also did an arch of angels for the St Ambrose Chapel, but had to redo them when church officials complained they looked too feminine.


A richly-carved pulpit, some of the treasures from the Cathedral's vault and some of its wonderful floor tiles.


The baptistry, just off the main floor, and a vigilant guard, though against what I can't say! And yet another reminder of St John's commitment to activism.


But there's a moment for humor, too: Near the giant Peace Statue in the Cathedral's gardens, these signs campaign for proper behavior in the sacred precincts.



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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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"Proper behavior" may be an over-rated virtue anyway; my wife often wears a tee-shirt that proclaims that "well-behaved women seldom make history." Thanks for the compliment, though!

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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