Saturday, April 14, 2012

Visiting St. John the Divine With A Camera

Illness cheated me out of a trip to San Francisco this past week. So I had to spend my Spring break in bed here in New York. New York is certainly not a beautiful city like San Francisco (Everything comes together perfectly in San Fran like no other city in the USA, architecture, natural setting, climate, everything). What New York does have is magnificent architectural spectacles, and among the most prodigious and spectacular is St. John the Divine, the Episcopal Cathedral of New York.

I've always loved this big lummox of a cathedral on top of the hill in Morningside Heights. Of course, part of the reason why it's so lummocky is because it remains unfinished after being under construction since 1892. So many local Episcopalians visit here, and some go here regularly (a contingent from my parish goes to Evensong here every Sunday). And yet, how many of us take the trouble to look around the place? St. John's, together with the Anglican Cathedral of Liverpool, is the 4th largest church in the world, even in its unfinished state, and is one of the most magnificent churches in the USA.

So, feeling the need to get out of the house, I went to look around the cathedral and I took my little digital camera. All of these are my pictures.

The Cathedral from the corner of Amsterdam Ave. and 110th street

The south side of the Cathedral; you can see clearly where 2 sharply different designs for this building meet; to the right in the back is one of the giant arches left over from the original Romanesque revival design by Heins and LaFarge. To the left is the bulk of the nave designed by Ralph Adams Cram for his vision of the Cathedral.

The massive almost flying buttresses on the nave exterior

The east end of the Cathedral; the bulk of this is from the original Heins and Lafarge design, though Cram modified it extensively to fit with his design for the nave.

The angel Gabriel blowing the Last Trumpet tops out the east end of the Cathedral.

The west front of the Cathedral facing Amsterdam Avenue

Some of the oldest sculpture on the west front is on the Portal of St. Peter. I have no idea who the sculptor or sculptors are.

Jamb statues from the Portal of St. Peter on the west front

One of Ralph Adams Cram's best insights into Gothic architecture was his realization that there is no such thing as a "typical" Gothic cathedral, that they are each unique. Instead of the usual carved tympanum, he designed for an open-work sculpture in front of a small rose window over the entrance. Here is John the Divine's vision of Christ of the Second Coming described in the opening passages of the Book of Revelations.

Carved on the trumeau of the main entrance just below the Apocalyptic Christ is the man of honor, the mysterious author of the Book of Revelations, John the Divine, whoever he was. The whole Cathedral in its design and imagery is centered on this last and most controversial of all books admitted into the New Testament canon.

The jamb statues on the main portal are all recent, from the 1970s and 80s. I have mixed feelings about them. They are very self-consciously medieval, and yet very modern, and even expressionistic at the same time.

Some of the recent painted sculpture above the jamb statues on the main portal; most medieval sculpture was indeed painted.

The smaller sculptural details from the main portal are delightful, like this reference to the Kabbala.

Here is downtown New York, complete with the old Twin Towers on a sculptural detail completed sometime in the early 1980s.

This is one of a pair of magnificent bronze doors designed by Henry Wilson and cast by the same Paris company that put together the Statue of Liberty. These doors are all scenes from Genesis.

Scenes from the Creation from the Genesis doors

Adam and Eve name the animals from the Genesis doors

The Gospel doors designed by Henry Wilson

The Crucifixion and Resurrection from the Gospel doors; these doors look very early 20th century to me, despite all the Gothic detailing. I've never paid much attention to them before, and I'd never heard of Henry Wilson before. I looked him up after this trip. I think these doors are really splendid. Supposedly, they are Wilson's last and greatest work.

The Baptism of Christ from the Gospel Doors

The enormous nave looking east from just inside the main entrance

The icon at the entrance to the nave

Votive candles in the nave

St. John the Divine is definitely not "textbook" Gothic architecture. Ralph Adams Cram's design for the nave is brilliantly original. He combined memories of German hall churches with the Cathedral of Bourges to create a double-aisled nave wall that is like nothing else. I'm not sure how the earlier pioneers of the Gothic revival from the 19th century like Augustus Pugin and Richard Upjohn would feel about this kind of inventiveness.

Part of the reason why it's taking so long to build St. John's is because all of the parts are made by hand in the old original way of cathedral building. These are the stone ceiling vaults 124 feet above the floor.

A carved altarpiece from one of the side chapels in the nave: there are a lot of old pieces like this that are real triumphs of carving and cabinetry, and I know nothing about any of them.

The National AIDS Memorial in a side chapel dedicated to St. Mark

The book listing the names of all of the AIDS dead begun in the 1980s, and sadly still being written.

The Firefighters' Memorial with a sculpture commemorating FDNY dead from a 1967 fire

The so-called "Pearl Harbor Arch"; construction on the Cathedral stopped abruptly on December 7th 1941 leaving this arch unfinished. Construction since then has been in fits and starts. Today there is no active construction on the Cathedral, only restoration and maintenance.

The "Pearl Harbor Arch" with the nave looking west; I love it when they keep the electric lighting in this place to a minimum (I'd prefer none at all). The natural sunlight coming though the windows in the nave creates the very bluish twilit hue that you see here. It contrasts so dramatically with the immense darkness of the crossing. All of this disappears when they turn up the lights for services.

The rose window in the west end of the Cathedral; the Cathedral has magnificent windows, and I haven't been able to find anything about who made them, not online anyway.

The smaller rose window over the main entrance; this is the window behind the open-work sculpture of the Apocalyptic Christ.

The Cathedral apse or choir seen from the crossing; this is all part of the original Romanesque design by Heins and Lafarge that was abandoned when Ralph Adams Cram took over the design. The huge crossing was originally to be topped by a dome concealed in a spired crossing tower. Today, an immense "temporary" dome covers a space large enough to accommodate the Statue of Liberty if she should ever want to come down off of her base and attend Eucharist or Evensong here. Cram modified the choir to make it fit more with his nave. He rebuilt the choir vaults raising them an extra story, and replaced the Romanesque barrel vaults with Gothic ribbed vaults.

The choir with the Romanesque arches from the Heins and Lafarge design with the extra story and ribbed vaults added by Cram

The high altar

One of a pair of menorahs donated by Adolph Ochs, the owner of the New York Times

The 55 foot high pillars around the altar each made from a single piece of stone quarried in Maine

The Cathedral apse with the 7 hanging lamps, the 7 lights of God described in so much Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature; the windows just behind the pillars are a series of magnificent windows showing visionary subject matter from Revelations. My photo does not do them justice here. Once again, I have no idea who designed them.

Christ of the Second Coming, the center window in the apse

The Woman Clothed in the Sun from the apse windows

Apocalyptic Angels in the apse

Carvings from the choir showing from right to left, Shakespeare, Washington, Lincoln, and Gandhi with Martin Luther King Jr.

Detail of the above with Martin Luther King and Gandhi with 2 other figures I can't recognize

The St. Savior Chapel, easternmost part of the Cathedral; center of seven chapels originally dedicated to various nationalities who settled New York City. Today, the St. Savior Chapel is dedicated to the city's African and Asian descended people. Originally, it was intended to be a tribute to the Eastern Church from which so much of the liturgy and theology of the Episcopal Church comes (by way of the Episcopal Church of Scotland at the end of the 18th century).

The Transfiguration from the center of the window in the St. Savior Chapel; this is one of the older windows in the Cathedral so I will guess that it's from Tiffany and Company, though I have no idea who the artist would be. A magnificent window.

A small side window in the St. Savior Chapel filled with seraphim

The St. Columba Chapel, originally dedicated to the city's Irish descendents

The magnificent grisailles windows in the St. Columba Chapel

The Keith Haring triptych in the St. Columba Chapel; this is one of the very few works of modern art made with the Cathedral in mind. Other modern works look out of place and overwhelmed by their surroundings in the Cathedral. I must admit that I usually like Keith Haring better than his work, though I've always been very fond of this piece, one of 9 editions. It was one of his last works. It's made of cast bronze plated in gold, in this edition, white gold. The subject appears to me to be a very personal interpretation of something like the Christian Apocalypse with Love triumphing over all in the end.
Haring's funeral was held in St. John the Divine.

The Chapel of St. Ambrose originally dedicated to the city's Italian descendents

The Baptismal font in the Baptistery, one of the most beautiful parts of the Cathedral

The beautiful rib vaulted ceiling and lantern of the Baptistery

The columbarium attached to the Baptistery, one of 2 in the Cathedral; cremation has made possible the return of the ancient custom of burials in church.

St. John the Unfinished

The base of the unbuilt north transept; in the background, the stump of the unbuilt north tower

The unfinished south tower on the west front

A pile of stone in the now vacant stoneyard; these stones have probably sat in this pile since the 1980s. They were probably destined for the unfinished south tower.

Will St. John's ever be finished? I have no idea. Right now, the prospects for finishing it are not good. The cathedral has just been extensively cleaned and restored in the wake of a fire in 2001 that destroyed the gift shop once housed in the base of the unbuilt north transept. No further construction is planned that I'm aware of. The scaffolding came down from the south tower years ago. The work sheds and all the heavy lifting equipment are all still there in the old stoneyard, but they are growing rusty with idleness. Construction began on the Cathedral in 1892 fifteen years before construction began on the now completed National Cathedral in Washington DC. St. John the Divine is nowhere near completion. Only one of the towers planned for St. John the Divine is even begun. It's that lack of major vertical elements that gives the Cathedral its large clumsy quality on the exterior. The prospects for ever completing it are not good.

When it comes to major cathedrals, I would be reluctant to say "never." Florence's cathedral began in 1296 and was not fully complete in its present form until the completion of the facade in 1887. The Cathedral of Cologne in Germany was begun in 1248 and not completed until 1880. As cathedrals under construction go, St. John the Divine is still very young, and so much is already finished, though its construction departs in important ways from the traditional east to west construction (the nave finished before the crossing is very unusual). There are many reasons why it takes so long to build a cathedral. St. John's is being built the old fashioned way out of stone shaped by hand. The masons today, unlike then, use power tools, but the requirements of skill of hand remain the same. Each piece is unique, a sculpture in and of itself. That kind of skilled hand labor is slow and expensive; and always was. St. John's is slow for the same reason cathedrals have always been slow to build. Money runs out and history happens.
What finally drove the completion of the Cathedrals of Florence and Cologne was not religion, but nationalism. The Italian Risorgimento and the German nationalist revival of the 19th century drove the completion of both cathedrals. There's no reason to assume that something like that either out of religious revival or civic pride or both will not come along in the future to finish St. John's. One thing I am sure of and that is that no one alive now will be around to see the Cathedral finished, if it is finished.

St. John the Divine is a relic of a former incarnation of the Episcopal Church. When construction began on it, the most powerful man in the United States, and one of the most powerful in the world, was an Episcopalian born and bred. Banker and businessman JP Morgan was a regular at Grace Church on Broadway and 10th street in Manhattan. The great antagonist of the business elite in the White House in the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt, was also an Episcopalian born and bred. The great New Deal mayor of New York City, Fiorello LaGuardia, was Episcopalian born and bred (his parents were converts). The Cathedral of St. John the Divine was conceived when the Episcopal Church, together with the Presbyterian and Congregational churches (and to a lesser extent the Methodist and Lutheran churches) formed the de facto national church of the United States. The Episcopal Church was the church of the WASP Establishment and of the ruling Plutocracy. The Establishment and the Plutocracy abandoned the Episcopal Church over 50 years ago when Episcopal clergy began actively supporting the Civil Rights Movement and opposing the Vietnam War (the earliest opposition to the war came from religious groups). The Establishment and the Plutocrats have now all gone over to the Evangelicals and to a lesser extent, the Romans (Wall Street remains as secular as it always was). The Roman hierarchy and the Southern Baptist Convention now compete for that status of de facto state church.

The Episcopal Church is a very different institution from the one JP Morgan knew or FDR knew. It is much smaller (from 3 million, never large, to around 2 million today). It is more catholic in every sense of that word. It is much more middle class. The Episcopal demographic is mostly white, college-educated, middle class, professional, and not in a position to finance the completion of a major cathedral. The majority of Episcopalians now are converts, including me and all of the clergy at my parish, and the Presiding Bishop. Born and bred Episcopalians are comparatively scarce. The Episcopal Church is not quite as American as it used to be with dioceses in Haiti, Honduras, Colombia, Ecuador, Taiwan, and Europe. The Episcopal Church in Europe was once entirely for American ex-pats. Now, the Episcopal churches in Rome and Florence have services in Italian as well as English. There is talk of creating an Italian language Episcopal seminary in Rome, and a Polish language Episcopal seminary in Cracow.

St. John the Divine, like all other cathedrals, was built by and for the local rulers, in this case of New York City and the United States. Every cathedral reflects the power and glory of the ruling prince or oligarchy as well as the pride of the city as much if not more than the glory of God. St. John the Divine is an architectural anomaly, a very modern variation on a historic style built in a technological age with skilled hand labor. It engages our emotions and imaginations in a way that no glass and steel box ever could, no matter how gratifying its proportions. The architects, artists, and master craftsmen of St. John the Divine, as in all cathedrals, give the building its glory and create that sense of God's presence throughout the building.

Cathedrals are vain things. And yet, we should be so much poorer without them.

From 2nd Chronicles 6 (NIV):
18 “But will God really dwell on earth with humans? The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! 19 Yet, LORD my God, give attention to your servant’s prayer and his plea for mercy. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence. 20 May your eyes be open toward this temple day and night, this place of which you said you would put your Name there. May you hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place. 21 Hear the supplications of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place. Hear from heaven, your dwelling place; and when you hear, forgive.


Unknown said...

Thank you forthe tour and pictures. I love the sculptures.

Paul said...

A stunning and thoughtful post. Thanks for taking the time to photograph, ponder, and share. A real treat for those of us who have never been there. (Minor cavil: the title of the last book of the NT is the Revelation - singular - of Jesus Christ to John.)

Again, thanks for a great post and loving tour.

Paul (A.) said...

But we kept looking for the mouse.

JCF said...

Miss you, Doug, out here in the West . . . but "Sodom By the Sea" will still be waiting! ;-)

Wow, you really went nuts (w/ the camera) at Big John's (forever known to me, as "the place where my doctorate was awarded"). Look forward to going over your pics, at length! :-)

MarkBrunson said...

I loved the carving of the Sefirot - I have a special place in my heart for Kabbalistic thought.

Counterlight said...


I miss "Baghdad by the Bay." I hope to get out there soon.

That's the thing about digital cameras, it's so easy to go nuts with them, and all that technology makes it possible for a rank amateur like me to take a lot of decent pictures that come out well.

June Butler said...

Thanks for a splendid tour and history of St John the Divine, Counterlight. I visited the cathedral over 50 years ago, but I know I got more out of your post than I did out of my real live visit. Your pictures are terrific.

JCF said...

I'm back, finally. So many thoughts.

* Picture 3: that Romanesque transept is unfinished, right? I always thought so.

* Kinda eerie, that the Twin Towers in the sculpture are shown being knocked down? "Dust to Dust"

* Yes, I must face the facts---as w/ so many other things now---I won't live to see JtD finished. Just live in the moment and enjoy it now (even afar).

* I think some of those "jamb statues" were completed even when I lived there: early 90s. I like them.

* I'm afraid the bronze doors just don't do it for me.

* I remember that FDNY Memorial wel. Very moving---and how much more so, since of course the losses of 1967 were dwarfed by those of 9-11.

* EVERY church should have an apse! Love 'em.

* "Born and bred Episcopalians are comparatively scarce." I feel So Exotic. ;-)

Thanks again, Doug!