This post is a follow up to Infinity Made Imaginable, discussing our field trip to the Washington National Cathedral, and is one of several that share how we include architecture in our homeschool. Other posts in the series include: Connecting Architecture to History, Architecture Scavenger Hunt, and The Grandeur that is Dome.
My family lived in Northern Virginia during my teenage years, and I attended Mt. Vernon High School. Our high school’s tradition was to hold Baccalaureate services (yep, with prayers and Scripture and hymns) in the Washington National Cathedral for the graduating seniors. The Choir and Madrigal ensemble were expected to sing for these services. We all thoroughly enjoyed sitting in the beautifully carved wooden Choir, situated between The Crossing and the High Altar, thrilling at the sound of our reedy teenage voices echoing larger, rounder and purer as the stone arches worked their alchemy, blending and carrying our sound out to the distant recesses in a way that microphones fail to reproduce.
Gothic architecture has a transcendent quality, lifting the eyes heavenward, leaving the heart humbled, yet exultant, and the neck just slightly strained! As I mentioned in my monthly wrap up post April Looked Like This, it is one thing to look at pictures of Gothic Architecture in a book. It’s quite another to walk up the steps and cross the threshold. The High Altar is so far off it’s barely discernible, the arches draw your eye up, up, up to sky-sweeping rib vaults and color-drenched stained glass. Cool-to-the-touch stone is carved into delicate tracery here, and massive pillars of towering grandeur there. One has the sense of entering into a spiritual metaphor of Euclidean transcendence, the landscape strewn with the glorious geometry of intersecting line, arch and space.
On our field-trip visit, black protective netting had been hung under the Ribbed Vaulting in the Upper Clerestory section, a precaution resulting from the August 2011 Virginia Earthquake. This had the disappointing effect of dimming the Upper Clerestory stained glass windows and cloaking the highest point of the ceiling in shadow. To offset the darkness, painfully bright high-powered spotlights illuminated the space, but cluttered the purity of the architecture, and the extremes in light level confused my camera phone. Still, there was still plenty to see. If you want to follow along here is a link to the Self Guided Tour Brochure.
To explore the main level of the Cathedral, we took the pilgrim route and proceeded along the Ambulatory Walk, an aisle that follows the inside perimeter of the Cathedral, starting on the south end and progressing east viewing the beautiful stained glass windows in the Memorial Bays, and visiting the several chapels along the way. The High Altar, at the east most point, is beautifully carved and a study in itself.
Then we turned and followed the North aisle westward, returning to the main entrance at the West Facade. We stopped at the Crossing to take in the immense pillars that support not just the arched ceiling above us, but also the intersection of the Nave and the North and South Transepts and their fair share of the weight of glory – the enormous Gloria in Excelsis Tower is just above.
There is a surprisingly small circular stair that leads from the Main Level to the Crypt Level which leads to a gift shop. We chose to explore the area behind the gift shop and found a beautiful miniature Cathedral called the Bethlehem Chapel. I didn’t find out until reading the brochure later, that this lovely chapel was the first completed portion of the Cathedral. It is located directly underneath the High Altar Area on the main level, and features a beautiful Nativity stained glass window.
As we wandered further we discovered another chapel in which the shift in architectural style was quite obvious. The interior arches were rounded, the columns broader and chunkier, and colorful mosaics of scenes from the life of Christ sparkled from the walls. These attributes are Romanesque and Byzantine and we read later that the architects of the Washington National Cathedral chose to follow the tradition of building a Gothic structure on top of a former chapel of an earlier style. The Joseph of Arimathea Chapel is situated directly under the crossing, there were people worshipping, so I didn’t take photos. The other crypt level chapel fittingly named the Resurrection Chapel features scenes from the life of Christ in sparkling mosaic including a particularly stunning mosaic of the Resurrected Christ outside the tomb.
There is a great deal to see at the Washington National Cathedral. As I mentioned in the first post Infinity Made Imaginable, our visit was about three hours, so we focused primarily on architecture. Hours could be spent on the multitude of stained glass, the rose windows and space window (with a real space rock!). More hours could be dedicated to the fantastic carving and sculpture that is literally everywhere you look. Still more time could be spent enjoying beautiful artwork in many forms: mosaics, needlepoint kneelers, tapestry, painted altars, sculpture, metalwork, carved wood, and even the tilework on the floor. We do hope to go back again one of these times that we visit #1 Son at GMU to focus on some of these things. Below my humble images are some links with beautiful pictures by professional photographers that better show the beauty of the National Cathedral.
A few more photos:
Rod Dreher of American Conservative writes about God and Geometry at the American Conservative and recommends this book Universe of Stone which discusses Chartres Cathedral. I borrowed the book through Inter Library Loan and didn’t particularly care for the cynical tone of the commentary. You might like reviewing it yourself though. He also recommends David Stephenson Art which features a stunning collection of photographs of European cathedrals.
This video has a lovely tour of the inside of the Washington National Cathedral, with some lovely details that you don’t typically see: