As the Washington National Cathedral rose above the surrounding landscape, the pealing of Carillon bells signaled our approach. Every Saturday at 12:30 pm the carillonneur makes his ascent up 150 limestone spiral steps to arrive at the highest point in Washington DC, the central tower, reaching 301 feet towards the sky. Sitting at the keyboard, looking out at some of the most stunning views of the city, this talented musician is surrounded by 53 Carillon bells, the largest weighing 12 tons and almost 9 feet in diameter, the third heaviest in the world. The sounds he produces are nothing short of angelic and we were thankful our timing was spot on to give audience to this beautiful melody.
While most of us know this majestic landmark as the Washington National Cathedral, its official name is the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul and it has been “called to serve as the spiritual home for our nation”, welcoming all faiths. It is the 6th largest cathedral in the world and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City is the only cathedral in this country that is larger. Made principally of Indiana limestone, it is an architectural marvel and each element has a story to tell, from the lovely gardens to the stained-glass windows, to the gargoyles stationed around the property. The flying buttresses, pointed archways, large windows, and ribbed vaulting proudly display the traditional Gothic design.
The first foundation stone for this lofty undertaking was laid in 1907 in the presence of President Theodore Roosevelt and the final finial was set in place 83 years later to the day in 1990, under the watchful eye of President George H. W. Bush.
The National Cathedral is the location of funeral and memorial services for almost all the 21 U.S. Presidents since 1893 and many Presidential Inaugural Prayer Services are held here. More than 220 people are interred beneath these towers, two notables being Woodrow Wilson and Helen Keller.
Some interesting facts contained within these walls:
- 231 stained-glass windows honoring important people, spiritual leaders and important achievements. The Space Window displays a piece of lunar rock in an air-tight nitrogen-filled capsule.
- 288 angel statues
- 112 gargoyles (my favorite). A Darth Vader sculpture sits atop the northwest tower.
- The Great Organ consists of 10,650 pipes.
- 9 chapels within the Cathedral
- $65 million was raised, all in private donations, to complete the Cathedral.
Today scaffolding sheathes the Cathedral silhouette, the result of an 8.5 magnitude earthquake that rocked the east coast on August 23, 2011, sending cracks through the flying buttresses, toppling gargoyles and finials, and punching a hole through the roof. The central tower is encased in a metal framework and metal netting has been draped inside, around the top of the tower, to prevent stray stones from causing further damage. Unfortunately, all this metal now covers some of the magnificent stained-glass windows, but many can be viewed here. The largest of these windows is the North Rose Window, a stunning 26 feet in diameter, depicting Judgment Day.
The Washington National Cathedral tells an iconic visual story, woven throughout its stained-glass windows, carvings and tapestries, the movement of mankind from creation to redemption. I only wish we’d had many more hours to explore her many facets.