The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine is one of Manhattan’s most impressive attractions, as it is the largest cathedral in the world although it remains unfinished.
The cathedral was designed in 1888 with construction beginning in 1892. Originally designed in the Byzantine Romanesque style, a change of architects in 1909 had led the cathedral into a radical stylistic change to a Gothic Revival design. They intended to dismantle the dome and construct a massive Gothic tower in its place, but this never happened. And as a result, the Cathedral reflects a mixture of architectural styles. You can see the Romanesque style in the Crossing (where Sunday services are typically held), the dome, chapels, granite columns around the altar and the tiled barrel-vault ceilings. With the second phase of building you can see the Gothic influences in the nave, choir stalls and stained glass windows. The Great Rose Window on the western wall of the Cathedral is forty feet in diameter, it is the third largest rose window in the world and is made of over ten thousand pieces of glass.
The third phase of construction beginning in the 70’s, is more modern with the Bell Towers and stone carvings around the Central Portal. But after a fire in 2001, it was closed for repairs until 2008. To this day, the cathedral still remains unfinished, with construction and restoration a continuing process. As a result, it has been nicknamed St. John the Unfinished.
The first cornerstone of the cathedral, was laid in 1892, the same year Ellis Island opened. With more than half of New York’s population in the 19th century being foreign born, the founders built the seven chapels of the Tongues to commemorate the major immigrant groups that were coming to New York and helping to build the city. Today, people from many faiths and communities worship together in services held more than 30 times a week.
But the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine is about more than faith. It has a soup kitchen that serves around 20,000 meals annually. They host events every year from performances, visual art exhibitions, poetry readings and lectures as well as special events like the the Halloween Extravaganza, the free New York Philharmonic Memorial Day Concert, Winter Solstices concerts and the New Years Eve Concert for Peace. But it may be best known for its Blessings. They have a Blessing of the bicycles, a Blessing for Broadway, and my favourite…a Blessing of the Animals where you can actually bring your cat, dog, horse, cow, etc. into the cathedral for a little God action.
Step outside to the front of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine and you’ll see some interesting add on architecture. On the top right corner is what seems like be a section (turret?) that was added after the fact and doesn’t even match the stone of the building. It seems to be missing its twin on the other side of the building making it look a bit lopsided. Then next to that is even something more bizarre. It looks like a pyramid has been dropped onto the center of the Cathedral. For more oddities, step into the gardens. You’ll find amusing signs like “Thou shalt not poop” and “Collect what you shall receive” regarding your dog’s business. Do you think you’ll be struck down if you poop and run?
Even more interesting is the Peace Fountain. The sculpture depicts the struggle of good and evil, as well as a battle between the Archangel Michael and Satan (who is decapitated). The sculpture also contains the Sun, the Moon, flames of freedom, 9 giraffes, a crab, a lion and a lamb. And although it’s called a fountain, there is currently no water on the site.
Cathedral of Saint John the Divine is worth a stop. If not for the crazy mixed up architecture, just to say you’ve been to the Unfinished Cathedral that is still a work in progress. Who knows what it’s going to look like in another 100 years?
Cathedral of Saint John the Divine 1047 Amsterdam Ave, New York, NY 10025