While Fifth Avenue’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Park Avenue’s St. Bart’s are arguably more famous, The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine ranks near the top of the list of New York’s great landmark churches. This magnificent cathedral is certainly one of the world’s most unique, featuring a unique conglomeration of Romanesque, Byzantine, and Gothic styles, as a result of a change of architects nearly twenty years into the building’s construction period. And, despite the cathedral’s cornerstone being laid in 1892, the structure remains only two-thirds completed today. The differing architectural styles, combined with the stark nature of an unfinished building, create a very unique atmosphere that stands in stark contrast to the more refined appearance of St. Patrick’s. Should it ever be completed, the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine it will be the world’s largest cathedral, with an interior over 600 feet long and 146 wide.
I visited the cathedral on a Sunday morning, while the 11:00 AM Holy Eucharist was in session. I was happy to find that much of the nave was still accessible to visitors not attending the service. While the cathedral’s front façade is imposing, it is only a hint at the incredible dimensions that await visitors as they enter the building. Leading away from the entrance, the nave stretches 600 feet in length, with a ceiling that towers more than 100 feet overhead. But not all of the glory lies ahead; turning around and facing back toward the entrance reveals the stunning Great Rose Window, a masterpiece created with more than 10,000 pieces of glass, and the State Trumpet of the cathedral’s Great Organ.
Lining the north and south sides of the nave are a series of bays commemorating everything from America’s poets to the AIDS pandemic to modern sports. Many of these bays feature priceless treasures, including the cathedral’s famous 17th century Barberini Tapestries, a work of 12 pieces entitled Scenes from the Life of Christ. Reaching the crossing, visitors will note the transition from the nearly finished nave to an area of the structure that has never been completed. The crossing is topped by a temporary dome, that may one day be replaced by a large tower should the cathedral ever be completed. This area of the building also exhibits the most evidence of the tragic December 2001 fire, which destroyed the north transept, caused extensive smoke damage to the Chapels of the Seven Tongues, and silenced all five of the cathedral’s organs. Due to the fire, and ongoing restoration, the chapels are currently closed to visitors.
The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine has become one of my favorite places to visit in New York, and is worth the trip to the north end of Central Park for a visit. The cathedral is easily reached by subway (1, B, and C trains to Cathedral Parkway/110th) or bus (M4, M104, M60, and M11 are all nearby). More information can also be found on the cathedral website.