Sunday, February 27, 2011

St. John the Divine: Amsterdam Ave and 112th Street

St. John the Divine, w/ Partially Completed South Bell Tower
WOW!  All I can say is that everyone should take the time to go up to St. John the Divine for their "Vertical Tour" (purchase tickets at  After visiting St. Patrick's Cathedral earlier in the week, I thought, "Why am I trekking all the way up to St. John the Divine?"  But was I ever glad that I did.  There is no experience quite like it.

First off, the cathedral is the largest cathedral in the world (yes, larger than St. Patrick's, which is only the largest Catholic cathedral in the U.S.), so the Gothic arches are spectacular and the stained glass windows (most from the 1930s) were plentiful and beautiful (see above, left and right photos).  Each of the 14 themed bays with these windows depict predictable religious and very unusual secular images honoring professions like communications (with a TV!), medicine, arts (with Poet's Corner stone plaques honoring the likes of Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, and Gertrude Stein), and sports.

Secondly, the cathedral has some very distinguished art.  The front doors (3 tons each, 18' high and 6' wide) are cast, with scenes from the Old and New Testaments, by the same company, Barbedienne of Paris, that cast the Statue of Liberty.  There are art pieces ranging from the rare Barberini tapestries from the 17th century, the Guastavino roof tiles (similar to the ones in the lower level of Grand Central by the whispering arches--see my post on Grand Central) in the domed roof of the "temporary" crossing, and a white gold triptych by Keith Haring in 1989 (the last work he created before his death in 1990) (see above right). 

Then there is the 40' in diameter Great Rose window (the largest in the U.S.) above the front doors (see left).  My photo doesn't do it justice, but needless to say, it is really breathtaking.  Even the central nave (see right) and the flanking aisles are awe inspiring with their sheer height, appearing to reach toward the heavens with their long thin lines that seem too delicate to support such high domed ceilings.

Oh, but I haven't even gotten to the Vertical Tour--so distracted recalling all the general fabulousness of the cathedral.  You can take one of the many general tours that are offered (both self-guided and guided) (see, but if you can manage walking up 12 stories worth of narrow spiraling stairs, you should really try to schedule in the Vertical Tour ($15 for adults and $12 for seniors and students).  You will not be disappointed.

View from Outside of Flying Buttress
As you climb up, you take several stops, going out on the flying buttresses (see below left photo taken from the flying buttress), standing on the mid-level passageway, standing on a landing between the domed roof and the steel supported protective outer roof, and the finally standing on the outside of the top roof with fantastic views of Morningside Heights all the way down to the Empire State Building (see above right).  There is really nothing quite like this tour.  You get a chance to see the beautiful stained glass windows at eye level (look back at the photos above), look through hand crafted flower "portals" about 100' above ground level (see below), and really get to appreciate the grandeur of the cathedral's Gothic arches in a way that is not possible from the floor of the cathedral. 

Hand Carved Wooden Choir Seats
View of Main Altar in Romanesque Style
I should also spend a little time addressing the older, original eastern part of the cathedral, which was done in the Byzantine-Romanesque style.  This part of the cathedral (which includes the choir area (see below left), the main altar (see below right), and the 7 chapels) was started in 1892 by the architectural firm of Heins and LaFarge and wasn't completed until 1911.  The rest of the cathedral was re-designed in the Gothic style by Ralph Adams but even the central nave wasn't completed until 1941 (one week before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which again stopped construction).  The south bell tower was started again in the 1970s but was not completed and there are no current plans for the completion of that tower, the north tower, or the transept (the "arms of the cross" part of the cathedral)--you can see the rough hewn nature of the "temporary" stonework in the crossing portion of the cathedral, which is also quite interesting to compare against the finer stonework of the cathedral.

I will let you discover the rest of this magnificent NYC site for yourselves, but will post some additional photos with captions (below) to share the rest of my memorable visit in brief.  I think what this cathedral needs is a great benefactor like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or Oprah (or all of them) to complete the remaining 1/3 of the cathedral.  In the meantime, PLEASE visit this cathedral and support the congregation of only about 200 (the cathedral could seat over 4,000).  Enjoy!

North Side Aisle by Central Nave

View of South Side Aisle from Interior Arm of Flying Buttress

Intersection of Bay and Nave from Interior Arm of Flying Buttress

View of Cathedral Close with Peace Fountain

View from Roof of Decorative Spires and Unfinished South Bell Tower

Altar in Main Eastern Most Chapel, St. Saviour

Intricately Carved Altar and Stained Glass in St. James Chapel

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