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.
The Cathedral is a wonderfully 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.
When I finally got my 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.
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.
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?
The Cathedral is very eclectic. Its 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.”
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!
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.