Arts Everyday Living: Gothic Miracle–Cathedral on the Mount Today

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(Note: My main blog for the week will now be on Wednesdays instead of Mondays.)

I’m beginning 2015 with a blog on cathedrals, one of the most magnificent architectural structures in the history of art and I plan to focus on this theme  throughout the year.  Today, I’m highlighting my personal impressions of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., just completed in 1990, unlike most of its predecessors that were primarily built in the Middle Ages. I’ve included some additional fast facts too at the end of the blog.

In all probability the Cathedral will not be built for a hundred years, as cathedrals build themselves slowly.

Bishop William Paret, National Cathedral, 1891

I used to live several blocks from the National Cathedral, watching its massive outline emerge in the distance every autumn as the trees slowly lost their leaves. Or hear its  bells sound in the neighborhood, especially on weekends or at the funeral of a national leader. I remember, too, the ceremony to commemorate the Cathedral’s completion on September 29, 1990, after 83 years of construction, spanning several presidencies from Teddy Roosevelt to George H.W. Bush.

The other day I returned on a cold December afternoon, when the west facade of limestone was bathed in luminous sunlight.



National Cathedral, west facade, 2014, photo by Joan Hart


Reminiscent of a monumental wedding cake close-up, created in the Gothic style with pointed arches, elegant pinnacles, and windows decorated with intricate stonework called traceries.


National Cathedral

National Cathedral, west facade, 2014, photo Joan Hart


Rising 234 feet above me as I tried to photograph its ascent, suddenly buffeted by the natural wind tunnel of Mount St. Alban, the highest elevation in Washington.


National Cathedral

National Cathedral, west facade, 2014, photo, Joan Hart


Its force fortunately subsiding as I turned the corner to face the 517′ 8” nave that once was “picture perfect”  in 2005.


National Cathedral

National Cathedral, nave and towers, 2005, photo, public domain

Now scaffolding covers the top of the 30 stories high central tower,


National Cathedral

National Cathedral, central tower, 2014, photo, Joan Hart


and south transept porch, both battered by the 5.8 magnitude earthquake of August 23, 2011; in only a few minutes causing an estimated $26 million dollars in destruction.


National Cathedral

National Cathedral, south transept porch, 2014, photo, Joan Hart


Yet somehow Gabriel, one of 288 Cathedral angels, survived still holding the sacred scroll, along with his fierce protectors, the gargoyles.


National Cathedral

National Cathedral, tower, 2014, photo, Joan Hart


Inside, the stained glass windows are also basically undamaged, including the ethereal Creation Rose below dominating the west entrance. Which, according to its artist Rowan Le Compte, who designed 42 of the church’s 231 stained glass windows, seeks to sing its own hymn of praise to the universe.  For all its impressive size in the cathedral that must be a tiny song indeed when we pause to consider the infinite grandeur of the cosmos, this unimaginably vast created and creating mysterious miracle.


Rose Window

National Cathedral, west rose window, Rowan Le Compte, 1976, photo, public domain


However, I was drawn to the shimmering darkness of the memorial bays, leading off the nave. The effect especially dramatic in the fading winter daylight as I aimed my camera on Founding of a New Nation above the statue of George Washington.  Unlike traditional stained glass windows, it is abstract in concept, a brilliant collage-like representation of freedom, in a dance of moving forms and sensational colors done in 1975 by Robert Pinart.

National Cathedral

National Cathedral, Founding of a Nation, Robert Pinart, 1975, photo Joan Hart


Next, the radiant power of War and Peace created earlier in 1961, emerging from the sanctuary of Woodrow Wilson’s tomb, the only chief executive buried within the Cathedral.


Woodrow Wilson

National Cathedral, War and Peace, no artist given, 1961


Then managing a detailed shot of the Andrew W. Mellon Bay window,

National Cathedral, Andrew Mellon Bay, artist not known, date unknown, photo, Joan Hart

National Cathedral, Andrew Mellon Bay, artist not known, date unknown, photo, Joan Hart

except I was hypnotized by its fiery reflections on the adjacent wall, forgetting briefly that I had to leave soon for another appointment.

National Cathedral

National Cathedral, Andrew W. Mellon Bay


Pausing once more in the nave, before I exited, absorbing the rainbow patterns cast by the clerestory windows where, in the words of Robert Pinart, the glass plays magical tricks, I feel there is an emotional response to color, very close to music.

National Cathedral

National Cathedral, nave, 2014, photo, Joan Hart



Full name: Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul; 6th largest cathedral in the world

Denomination: Episcopal, first bishop Henry Yates Sattterlee 

Formation: 1893, about a century after original National Church planned in 1791, however, cathedral mainly privately funded

4 Architects with collaboration of stained glass artists, stone carvers, sculptors, masons, fabricators, and installers

Apse begun first, west facade finished last with portal sculptural work Creation by Frederick Hart (1974)

Only North American cathedral with both peal and carillon bells

112 gargoyles including a portrayal of Darth Vader; also noted for Space Window by Rodney Winfield with moon rock in honor of Apollo 11 (1973); three rose windows

Chapels including Bethlehem Chapel on crypt floor, Children’s Chapel and War Memorial Chapel on nave level; bays as well with three dedicated to presidents Washington, Lincoln, and Wilson

Grounds by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.

Presidential state funerals: Eisenhower, Reagan, and Ford, plus memorials

National Cathedral

National Cathedral, west facade, 2014, Joan Hart, photo


The above images are used solely for educational purposes.