With the feeling of being immersed into Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in Manhattan is nothing short of majestic. Confronted by a beautiful nave and a vaulted ceiling that soars 124 feet above you, the height of a 12-storey building, this historic cathedral is the fourth largest Christian church in the world.
Nicknamed St. John the unfinished, the Cathedral, designed in 1888 and begun in 1892, had undergone radical stylistic changes and the interruption of two World Wars. Originally designed in a Byzantine-Romanesque style, its plans were changed after 1909 into a more Gothic design.
After surviving a fire and repair, it remains unfinished with construction and restoration continuously on-going. Though incomplete, it is pretty hard for anyone to view this colossal structure as unfinished for its magnificent interiors and its ethereal expression of the Divine spirit is incredibly overpowering.
The Cathedral remains imperfect as it does not have a completed transept among other components. With that being said, the cathedral’s architecture is impressive and with masonry supporting masonry, there are no hidden steel supports other than those in the roof. The current interior structure covers 121,000 sq ft, spanning a length of 601 ft and a height of 232 ft. The inside height and length of the nave can hardly fail to impress anyone who enter its holy grounds.
St. John the Divine is the mother church of the Episcopal Diocese of New York and is known for its strong interfaith tradition. Welcoming diverse races, cultures and traditions from St. Francis Day Blessing of the Animals, Christmas, and Easter celebrations, to the World AIDS Day services and Choral Evensong by Candlelight, worship at the Cathedral explores the wonder and mystery of existence in whic( all things and all beings are seen to be connected.
The Episcopal Church is a mainline Anglican Christian church with a baptised membership of over 2 million both inside and outside the United States. In the U.S. it has said to have a baptised membership of over 1.9 million, making it the nation’s 14th largest denomination.
What to Look Out For
There is just so much to look at when you visit Saint John’s. Visitors begin their pilgrimage in front of the mighty façade looming over Amsterdam Avenue. What is obvious is the French influence on the Cathedral’s architecture. Here are a few to start you off.
As you first approach the Cathedral from the Amsterdam Avenue side, you will notice wide steps leading up to five portals arching over the entrance doors. The central “Portal of Paradise” depicts St. John witnessing the Transfiguration of Jesus, and 32 biblical characters, all intricately carved in stone.
The 3-ton bronze doors below the portal are decorated with 60 relief castings of scenes from the Old Testament on the left and the New Testament on the right. The doors are opened only twice a year – on Easter and for the Feast of St. Francis.
The stone carvings, on the northern most portal of the front depict martyrs, each 8 feet high and weigh approximately 3.5 tons. These are the work of John Angel of Boston. These initial carvings only alert visitors to the wealth of carvings to be found throughout the Cathedral.
Though the outer part of the church reflect French medieval practice, the insides of the building revolves around a new world of Gothic revival architecture.
High above the doors, the Great Rose Window, made from more than 10,000 pieces of coloured glass, is the largest stained-glass window in the United States. The piers of the nave rise 100 feet to the springing of the vaulted ceiling.
The altar area includes menorahs, Shinto vases, and, in the Chapels of the Seven Tongues behind the altar, dedications to various ethnic groups. Seventeenth-century Barberini tapestries hang throughout the cathedral.
The Episcopalian cathedral embraces a strong interfaith and inter-cultural perspective, which can be seen throughout the cathedral’s interior. Seven chapels radiate from the ambulatory behind the choir: Ansgar, Boniface, Columba, Saviour, Martin, Ambrose and James. Known as the “Chapels of the Tongues,” each is dedicated to one of the New York nationalities or ethnic groups who worked on the cathedral. All seven chapels have organs of their own and can accommodate as many as 150 people for divine service.
The Peace Fountain
Constructed by Greg Wyatt, the Peace Fountain depicts the struggle of good and evil. The forces of good, embodied in the figure of the archangel Michael, triumph by decapitating Satan, whose head hangs from one side. The fountain is encircled by small, whimsical animal figures cast in bronze from pieces sculpted by children. A plaque at the base contains the following inscription:
Peace Fountain celebrates the triumph of Good over Evil, and sets before us the world’s opposing forces—violence and harmony, light and darkness, life and death—which God reconciles in his peace.
When the fountain operates, four courses of water cascade down the freedom pedestal into a maelstrom evoking the primordial chaos of Earth. Foursquare around the base, flames of freedom rise in witness to the future. Ascending from the pool, the freedom pedestal is shaped like the double helix of DNA, the key molecule of life. Atop the pedestal a giant crab reminds us of life’s origins in sea and struggle. Facing West, a somnolent Moon reflects tranquillity from a joyous Sun smiling to the East. The swirls encircling the heavenly bodies bespeak the larger movements of the cosmos with which earthly life is continuous.
Nine giraffes—among the most peaceable of animals—nestle and prance about the center. One rests its head on the bosom of the winged Archangel Michael, described in the bible as the leader of the heavenly host against the forces of Evil. St. Michael’s sword is vanquishing his chief opponent, Satan, whose decapitated figure plunges into the depths, his head dangling beneath the crab’s claw. Tucked away next to the Sun, a lion and lamb relax together in the peace of God’s kingdom, as foretold by the prophet Isaiah.
What is truly intriguing is if you look closely enough, you will find that the face of Archangel Michael and Satan look identical. Is there a deeper meaning?
Located at 1047 Amsterdam Avenue New York, NY 10025, United States, The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine is open Monday to Saturday from 7 am – 6 pm and on Sunday from 7 am – 7 pm. For details on guided tours, click HERE
Text and Photography by Rosemarie John – All Rights Reserved