New York

Rediscovering New York: Exploring The Heights of The Cathedral Of St. John The Divine

You might think you're in England from the look of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine... but no, you're just in Morningside Heights in Manhattan

You might think you’re in England from the look of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine… but no, you’re just in Morningside Heights in Manhattan

At over 120 years old and the largest Cathedral church in the world, St. John the Divine has been on my “explore” to-do list for some time.

Over the years it’s hosted dignitaries such as Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. Sting gave a concert there for the launch of his album “If on a Winter’s Night”, and in 1935 Duke Ellington‘s funeral services were held with over 12,500 mourners in attendance.  Last year, film and television’s elite where there to mourn the passing of actor James Gandolfini.

A view from the triforium to the main floor in St. John the Divine

A view from the triforium to the main floor

The Cathedral is a wonderful, cavernous structure in all its Gothic-ness, and still a work in process—it’s had a few setbacks over the years. In 1941, one week after its entire length had been consecrated, Pearl Harbor was attacked and everything came to a halt until after the war. In 2001, a large part of the church was destroyed by a six-alarm fire. It did not open again in its entirety until 2008.

Last summer I photographed the exterior during a lovely golden sunset but the church was closed. I vowed then to return soon after but I am embarrassed to say that the reality of “soon” turned out to be nine months later.

A view to the alter at St. John the Divine

A view to the alter

When I finally got may act together, I did a little research and found that the Cathedral offered a variety of one-hour tours, one in particular, the “Vertical Tour,” caught my attention.

On this adventurous, “behind-the-scenes” tour, climb more than 124 feet through spiral staircases to the top of the world’s largest cathedral. Learn stories through stained glass windows and sculpture and study the grand architecture of the Cathedral while standing on a buttress. The tour culminates on the roof with a sweeping view of Manhattan.  ~Cathedral of St. John the Divine website.

I loved the idea of being able to view everything from above and made a reservation. Afterwards I planned on roaming the main floor on my own.

When I arrived, I passed through enormous bronze doors and was surprised to see what looked like two huge dragons suspended from the ceiling of the nave.  I learned later that they were Phoenixes (silly me) and part of a unique exhibition by Chinese contemporary artist Xu Bing.

Rose window in St. John the Divine in Manhattan

The Rose window: 40 feet in diameter, it is the largest in the United States. It contains more than 10,000 pieces of glass. The central figure of Jesus Christ is life-sized. The bronze doors are 18 feet high, six feet wide and weigh 3 tons. They were cast by Barbedienne of Paris of the Statue of Liberty fame.

Made out of trash from construction sites, each Phoenix weighs 12 tons and is approximately 100 feet long. The show is described this way on the Cathedral’s website, “Once fierce and strangely beautiful, Xu Bing’s mythic birds bear witness to the complex interconnection between labor, history, commercial development, and the rapid accumulation of wealth in today’s China.”

Personally, I feel the Phoenixes are a bit of a disconnect and detract from the beauty of the Cathedral. I know, I know,  I’m a philistine.

View from one of the balconies in the Cathedral on the Vertical Tour

View from a triforium (aka narrow balcony) that runs the length of the cathedral. Another triforium can be seen underneath the stained glass windows on the other side

The vertical tour lived up to its name (thank goodness for my spin classes), taking us up countless spiral steps to wonderful little nooks, and walks along the triforium (a balcony-like arched walkway above the nave) where we could peer down hundreds of feet to the Cathedral floor. Here we could admire the stunning stained-glass windows at eye level. They sure are big up close!  The tour wrapped on the roof with a sprawling view of Manhattan.

An unexpected stop was between the nave’s ceiling and the Cathedral’s roof which acts as a protective covering over the precious stone architecture beneath it. It makes perfect sense, but I had no idea that it existed. I love finding out little details like that, don’t you?

Between the nave ceiling and the Cathedral roof at St. John the Divine

We stopped to stand between the nave ceiling and the Cathedral roof at St. John the Divine. The roof protects the precious marble of the nave ceiling from the elements

The Cathedral is very eclectic. It’s architecture harkens back to days of old but there is so much inside that tips its hat to modern-day. The stained glass windows depict the expected saints and other religious scenes, but they also pay homage to people and inventions more recognizable in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. You’ll see imagery of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln next to locomotives and an early version of a television set. There’s also a white and gold triptych alter piece that is the last work of artist Keith Haring, and sculptures of Albert Einstein, Susan B. Anthony and Mohandas Gandhi.

If you have a pet you’ll be happy to know that once a year you can bring your Fido or Fluffy to a service for the Blessing of the Animals or if you love cycling you can attend the Blessing of the Bicycle which “celebrates the lives of bike riders and cycling in its many forms.”

View from the choir area to the main entrance and the Rose window

View from the choir area to the main entrance and the Rose window

While the tour itself was only an hour, I shot for another two using my tripod* to capture images of the main floor. Even with three hours under my belt I felt as if I only scratched the surface.

I guess I’ll have to go back again soon, this time however, I won’t wait another nine months!

The tA iforium in St. John the Divine

Bathed in colored lights from the stained glass window, the church’s narrow triforium, a balcony of sorts, overlooks the Cathedral floor. Clergy would often use these passages ways to walk out of sight of the parishioners

One of two Phoenix sculptures by artist Xu Bing

One of the two Phoenix sculptures by artist Xu Bing,

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Massive marble columns and ornate tapestries line the walls of the Cathedral

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Visitors write the names of their loved ones on candles they light on their behalf

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The long walk to the alter from the Nave

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The intricately carved 15th century German choir stalls are on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York

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Being able to view the stained glass windows up close was one of the highlights for me on the Vertical Tour

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Looking up at the elaborately tiled barrel-vault ceilings

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The spectacular view from one of the Cathedral’s many buttresses

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One of the many exquisite tapestries hanging in the Nave

View of Manhattan from the roof of St. John the Divine

The view from the roof of the Cathedral minutes before a rainstorm hit Manhattan. The Peace fountain can be seen below on the right. .

 

For more information on planning your own visit to St. John the Divine click here.

*If you’re a photographer interested in using a tripod to shoot the Cathedral you must first visit the security office on the south side of the property. You’ll need a picture I.D., and they will inspect your tripod to make sure that the legs have rubber ends so they don’t mar the floor. Other than that the staff is pretty accommodating as long as you don’t block high traffic areas.

—If you’d like to see more posts on Rediscovering New York, view here.

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4 replies »

      • Sorry to have troubled you. I think the trouble is on my end, I am going to do some major cleanup on my machines. Please remove my comments. I want to come back to tell you what a marvelous post you have there.

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