January 23, 2016

Photo Essay: Climbing to the Top of The Cathedral of St. John the Divine

Even when I think I've been somewhere in New York City, sometimes it turns out I actually haven't.

Such was the case with the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

I recall trying to go one year on Halloween night for their annual screening of Nosferatu, but foolishly not having bought an advance ticket and facing a line around the block when I just showed up.

Of course, I should have found some other time to visit this church on Manhattan's Upper West Side, near Cathedral Parkway...

...not only because it's the largest cathedral in the world...

...but also because it's super weird, named after John the Apostle of the Book of Revelation, the St. John that spoke of the coming apocalypse.

So, in my attempts to make up for lost time and cross some places off my bucket list every time I return to New York, I arranged to take a "vertical tour" of the Cathedral with a group during my most recent visit.

That way, I wouldn't just see the public areas that everybody else gets to see, like the cruciform sanctuary...

...and the seven chapels that are arranged in a semi-circle behind the altar and choir areas—each with their own theme, as expressed in unique stained glass—

...but also some other areas, way up high, that you can't just wander into.

And it was the perfect time of year to do it, with the angle of the sun shooting reflections of colored light all over the vaulted arches of the nave.

Because the Cathedral is so big, it's actually hard to see a lot of the stained glass from the ground level—a somewhat intentional layout, forcing you to crane your neck and send your eyes gazing heavenward.

But when you climb up to the triforium (so called because it was the third level built in the Gothic structure), you can get a little closer to them, and see that they address various sacred and secular topics, including the great healers of our time (the greatest, of course, being Jesus Christ himself).

Up on the triforium—also known as "The Bishops' Walk," where all kinds of conspiracies would be hatched, if you believe those theories—you can find one of the great "Easter eggs" hidden in the architecture of the Cathedral: a carved stone bud that's a face instead of a flower.

And as close to the flying buttresses as you get at the triforium level, that's not even as high as you can go.

After all, it's a 12-story climb to the top.

The colors keep getting more and more vibrant, the higher you go.

And you can see that the architecture contains elements of Byzantine, Romanesque, and Moorish—in addition to Neo-Gothic / Gothic Revival, which was very popular at the time of the Cathedral's construction.

The stained glass is interesting not only because of its depictions of non-religious, historical figures...

...but also stylistically—hearkening back to a Medieval style, but often incorporating other design influences, like art deco.

And they weren't all designed and/or fabricated by the same studios...

...nor were they installed all at the same time.

Although many of the art glass windows date back to the 1920s...

...and the Rose Window was installed in 1932...

...some of the stained glass is as recent as from the 1950s.

It really isn't until you get to the roof of the Cathedral...

...that you realize what a skyscraper it is (despite being reportedly incomplete)...

...although 20th century development has certainly given it a run for its money.

But it's historically significant as well as architecturally—as the site of a Martin Luther King, Jr. sermon, a Desmond Tutu speech, Duke Ellington's funeral and Jim Henson's memorial service, and a high-wire act by its Artist-In-Residence Philippe Petit (see also the documentary film Man on Wire).

Adding to the oddities of the Cathedral is its 1985 "Peace Fountain," which depicts the triumph of Good over Evil, and the peacocks that frequent it (including a white one, which unfortunately hid from me the day of my visit).

In addition to occasional horror movie screenings, St. John the Divine also hosts rotating art exhibitions and the annual Feast of St. Francis and the Blessing of the Animals, where the Bronx Zoo brings one exotic animal every year (like a giraffe or a baby elephant).

Which is just another reason to go back.

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