The National (Episcopal) Cathedral
At a vantage point of 676 feet above sea level, the Gloria in Excelsis Deo (Glory be to God in the Highest) tower overlooks l’Enfant’s executed plan for the nation’s capital city. A ten-bell ring and fifty-three-bell carillon comprise the inner workings of the tower, which measures just over three hundred feet. Over a hundred angel heads with different hairstyles and facial expressions grace the uppermost part of the tower. “Why so much work, time and effort in the creation of these heavenly messengers, when no one can see their beauty from the ground?” one inquirer asked.
“The important thing is that God sees,” replied the sculptor, “And they are there to glorify His name.”The beginnings of the National Cathedral can be traced to Major Pierre Charles l’Enfant’s concept of a church in the new federal city, erected for national purposes.
In the new nation, nothing was attempted in line of fulfilling his vision. It is reported, however, that Joseph Nourse, one of the first civil officers of the government and personal friend of George Washington, used to pray under the spacious trees of Mount Saint Alban. His prayer was that God would build a church on “Alban Hill” in a future timeframe of His choosing. Long after his death, St. John’s School for Boys came into being on this site. The school’s upper room became a chapel in which Joseph Nourse’s granddaughter taught Sunday School for many years. At her death in 1850, forty gold dollars were found tucked away in a small box. They represented savings from her needlework sales. Inscribed upon the box were the words: “For a free church on Alban Hill.” A fund was begun with these proceeds and schoolboys from St. John’s dug the foundation of St. Alban’s, the first free church in the District of Columbia.
Over and over again, God’s hand protected this plot of land from falling to secular usage, by the presence of the little church of St. Alban’s, which stood its ground upon Alban Hill – confident sentinel of what was to come.
Founded as a “House of Prayer for all People, forever free and open, welcoming all who enter its doors to hear the glad tidings of the Kingdom of Heaven, and to worship God in Spirit and in Truth,” the working out of the Cathedral ideal began in 1893 when Congress granted a Charter to the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation of the District of Columbia for its construction. In the Preamble to its Constitution, a threefold purpose for the creation of a Cathedral church in the diocese of Washington is stated:
First: It shall be a House of Prayer for all people, forever free and open, welcoming all who enter its doors to hear the glad tidings of the Kingdom of Heaven, and to worship God in Spirit and in Truth. It shall stand in the Capital of our country as a witness for Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever, and for the faith once for all delivered to the saints; and for the ministration of Christ’s Holy Word and sacraments, which according to His own divine ordinance is to continue always to the end of the world.
Second: It shall be the Bishop’s church in which his Cathedra is placed…
Its official name is that of the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. In 1907 President Theodore Roosevelt laid the foundation stone of the National Cathedral, which comes from a field near Bethlehem.
The architects chosen to do this formidable task were Dr. George F. Bodley of London and Henry Vaughn of Boston. The designs and working drawings of the Cathedral since 1920 are the principal undertaking of the architect, Philip Hubert Frohman of Boston and Washington. Mr. Frohman penned these lines:
An aerial view of the Cathedral discloses the shape of a cross, vivid reminder of our Christian heritage. The National Cathedral is slightly smaller than the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, but larger than St. Paul’s in London. It is the sixth largest Cathedral in the world.
High up on the nave walls of the Cathedral, flags of the fifty States in the Union are Displayed. At the principal service each Sunday, they are carried in the processional. Each year, beginning with the first Sunday after Independence Day, the flag of Delaware, first state to join the Union, is carried. This is followed by Pennsylvania, and so on, until all fifty States have been recognized. But what of the two remaining weeks in the year, one might ask? Flags of the District of Columbia and the United States of America are honored during the last two weeks of the year.The Cathedral’s great organ comprises over ten thousand individual pipes. Trumpets over the main altar symbolize an important call to assemble and worship the Most High God.
About sixty volunteers arrange the flowers and take care of the altars in the National Cathedral. There are about nine hundred volunteers in all who minister to the needs of the Cathedral.
Hundreds of bosses grace the high vaulting of the Cathedral’s architecture. These can be described as projecting stones, often ornately carved, at the intersection of ribs. Their function is to tie the ribs together into a single neat unit. One of the three largest bosses, four feet in diameter, illustrates a family grouping with open hymnal, worshipping the Lord in song and praise. Father and daughter share an open songbook, while mother, son and youngest daughter lift up their hands in a gesture of wondrous praise. Another smaller boss depicts the lines of the Psalm: “O let the earth bless the Lord,” and “O ye whales and all that move in the waters, bless ye the Lord.”Themes such as the good Shepherd, Christ reigning in Majesty and the angel of Revelation 6:5 weighing souls in the scales of Judgment, are here portrayed. The central boss of the crossing shows Christ ascending into heaven, the pivotal doctrines of our faith being sculptured in twenty-four main bosses from the west portal to the sanctuary itself. Dynamic in their expression and impact, are the bosses depicting, in turn, Christ’s arrest, the soldiers casting lots for His garments, a group of despairing disciples, a strong centurion guarding the sealed tomb, and finally, the empty tomb.
The Jerusalem Altar
Impressive in its regal simplicity, the Jerusalem Altar is constructed of stone coming from the same quarry outside Jerusalem from which Solomon’s Temple was built. This symbolizes a close association with the place of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. Stones from the chapel of Moses on Mount Sinai are set into the floor before the High Altar, in such a manner as to have the priest stand upon them when a reading of the Ten Commandments is given. One hundred and ten statues are represented in the limestone reredos of this altar. They speak of the many unknown Christians to whom Christ referred in the Bible as follow:
A central figure of Christ the Majestic reigns in the midst of these saints, both known and unknown, who loved and served the Lord in this life.
The Glastonbury Cathedra, or Bishop’s Chair is formed of stones from the Old Abbey Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Glastonbury, England, from which the National Cathedral derives its name. It is a solid stone chair to the left of the High Altar, just inside the communion railing, and was given by the congregation of Glastonbury to the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Washington. The earliest roots of Christianity in England have their origin in Glastonbury, where Joseph of Arimathea is purported to have been the first to preach the gospel.
A sixty-foot long communion railing divides the great choir from the sanctuary. Needlepoint kneelers depict images of the fruit of the vine and sheaves of wheat, symbols of the Last Supper. The designs of a Victor’s crown, which predominates the crown of thorns, symbolize both the suffering and the glorious resurrection of Christ. Black, red and white butterflies portray the new life which one receives in Christ Jesus. A polished wooden railing displays twelve columns. The eleven pillars of the church are carved to mirror the faithful apostles chosen by Christ. Only Judas Iscariot remains unfinished, a solid piece of wood – mute, and without human form or character. The Canterbury Pulpit is shaped out of stones from Canterbury Cathedral and carved with figures in bas-relief, illustrating the translation of the English Bible, from Alfred the Great to the Revised Version of 1885. It was given in memory of Archbishop Stephen Langton, the first to divide the Bible into chapters and verses.
The Chapels of the National Cathedral
Nine chapels radiate the beauty of our Christian heritage. Each plays an active role in the services of the Cathedral. Among the chapels on the ground floor are, the Children’s Chapel and the Chapel of the Holy Spirit. They open their arms wide to all who pass by.
The crypt level offers three exquisite chapels depicting the three main events in the life of Christ the Messiah. These are the Bethlehem, St. Joseph of Arimathea and the Resurrection Chapels, which celebrate, in turn, the Lord’s birth, death and triumphant resurrection from the dead. Among those buried in the crypt behind the Joseph of Arimathea Chapel is Helen Keller and her teacher and companion, Anne Sullivan. A plaque on the wall designates Helen Keller’s date of birth and departure from this life in both English and Braille. The Good Shepherd Chapel – rough-hewn, and reminiscent of Christ’s gracious simplicity, is the only chapel in the Cathedral open on a continuing basis for those who wish to life up their requests and praise to God at any time of day or night.
The Children’s Chapel
This was the first of its kind in the world and was given by Mr. and Mrs. Roland L. Taylor of Philadelphia. It was built in memory of their little boy who died at age six, yet who has influenced the lives of countless children to date. An inscription in the chapel reads:
Everything in this chapel is built to accommodate little people. The miniature organ, chairs and kneelers all reflect their namesake. The low vaulting in the ceiling is full of rich detail, while a gilded wooden reredos portrays Biblical scenes from the New Testament, such as the boy Jesus in the Temple surrounded by religious teachers of his day and later, gathering the little children into His arms. The wrought-iron grille and gates at the entrance to the chapel contain hundreds of animal heads. This theme is carried out in the altar rail kneeler, which features Noah’s Ark. Many of god’s creatures are exquisitely stitched in pairs upon it. Outlined over the entranceway door are the words: “Suffer little children to come unto Me,” with a statue of the boy Jesus extending his hands in a gesture of love, nearby. A miniature stained-glass window in the south wall depicts the boyhood stories of David, Samuel and Timothy, together with the lad in whose possession were the five loaves and two fishes. This chapel is a favorite spot for baptisms, having its own child-size baptismal font.
The Chapel of the Holy Spirit
The Chapel of the Holy Spirit is a tribute to the third person of the Triune Godhead. The reredos of this altar is a creation of the sculptor and painter, N.C. Wyeth, father of the famous artist, Andew Wyeth. Choirs of angels are depicted singing their praises to God, and playing musical instruments such as violin, harp and lyre. A gentle dove, symbol of god’s Holy Spirit, is shown in various forms of flight or descent, the gifts of the Spirit being inscribed in gold lettering between these symbolic figures, as follows: “Wisdom; Understanding; Counsel; Strength; Knowledge; Godliness; and Holy Fear (Isaiah 11:2). The wrought-iron gate to this chapel is exquisitely hand-fashioned, with graceful peacocks lining its crest.
Stained Glass Windows of the Cathedral
Glorious stained-glass windows shine forth their radiance in exquisite hues of bright reds, oranges, deep azure blues, calm and tranquil sea greens and brilliant yellows.
The National Cathedral Association Windows
These are a memorial to all the devoted Christian women who have given selflessly of their time, talents, and earthly possessions for the furtherance and upbuilding of the Cathedral ideal. They illustrate in vivid imagery, the roles of women as lifegiver, healer, purifier and teacher. The teacher portrayed in the upper portion of the right hand lancet is seen softly explaining some truth to a small child, while pointing heavenward.
The White Memorial Window
A window honoring General Thomas Dresser White and the United States Air Force catches the viewer’s eye in a blaze of orange color. Two spread-eagled wings, bright orange in hue, symbolize aircraft in flight, while a solitary tree is the central point for this creation. It tells a poignant story – one which was particularly loved by General White. Brother Lawrence fought as a soldier in medieval times. Returning home after the battle he saw the devastation which the war had caused. He noticed, however, a solitary dry tree which had survived and was coming again into bloom. It reminded him of his dry spiritual life, and that even in the aftermath of battle comes rebirth and new life. Appropriately mirrored in the uppermost lancet of this handsome vitrail is the Air Force Academy Chapel in Colorado.
The Abraham Window
The Abraham Window portrays Abraham’s agony as he seeks to obey god in offering his son and heir, Isaac, as a sacrifice upon Mount Moriah. Brilliant golden rays of light above the figure of Isaac tell the Old Testament narrative of an angel from heaven declaring:
The “Creation” Window
From a central point in the aisle of the Cathedral, one can admire both the "Creation” window which crowns the West entrance, together with the famed Space Window. Prisms of gorgeous colors fully express the artist’s subject of “The Creation of Light.” Multi-faceted gems of bright light permeate the window, diffusing it with life. The theme of this window is taken from Genesis 1:1-2:
The Space Window
A slight turn of the head now gives a full view of the Space Window, also called the Scientist’s Window. A large reddish orb representing the moon, features a central moonrock brought down to earth by the crew of Apollo 11. This circle is connected by a trajectory with a smaller, lower globe, symbolizing the earth. A major part of this unique window radiates varying shades of rich, royal blues of which the night sky is comprised. Multiple stars, flung at random into space, give a clear illustration of the artist’s theme. A caption beneath Rodney Winfield’s work of art reads:
“Is not God in the Height of Heaven?”
The Glastonbury Thorn
In 1900, the Reverend Henry Satterlee, first Bishop of Washington, received a cutting of the Thorn from Stanley Austin, owner of the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. After returning home it was planted and carefully nurtured in the cathedral close, where it flourished and grew into a sturdy tree.
“The Holy Thorn of Glastonbury” as it is also known, recounts a legend that can be traced to the staff of Joseph of Arimathea, who was the first to preach the gospel in England. Upon his arrival at Yniswitrin, later called Glastonbury, the saint’s staff was struck in the ground as proof of his intent to remain. It was this celebrated staff which sprouted leaves and became the Glastonbury Thorn which blossoms each year at Christmas. A quaint tradition in England honors each visiting member of English royalty with a blossom from the tree…