On Ben Bradlee

Some thoughts on the day, from my personal blog, Andy Bittner’s Head…

Andy Bittner's Head

One of the great pleasures of being an employee at Washington National Cathedral is the opportunity to be a fly on the wall, at some incredible moments in history. Such was the case today, when I was allowed to attend the funeral of Benjamin C. Bradlee, former Executive Editor of the Washington Post. Just covering a position in the front hall, as the public filed past fairly intense security measures, seeing Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein arriving together, as I said in my Facebook status, was enough to drive my History-O-Meter right off the scale.

I was a ten year old boy, when Watergate happened. It was a hard thing to follow, for a ten year old, and, honestly, what I actually remember most was the green, felt tablecloth in the Senate Committee meeting room, which was so like the one my parents and grandparents used, when they played cards…

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Arcadia Publishing and Andy Bittner

I am very happy to announce that I have been contracted by Arcadia Publishing, to “author” the Images of America series book on Washington National Cathedral. This is a very exciting opportunity for me. The Images of America series has become ubiquitous in the U.S., to such a degree, all I need to do to describe what it is I’m doing is to refer to the little sepia-toned book, found in book stores everywhere, that is the history of your hometown documented in old pictures.

This is an additionally exciting opportunity for me, and hopefully for the readers of Andy’s Big Church Blog, as the project has earned me complete, unrestrained access to the photo archive at Washington National Cathedral. With over 1 million images in the archive, I’ve been given permission to bring the occasional fascinating photo here to the blog, and discuss some of the intriguing truths, people and situations I’ve found along the way.

For example…

The processional for Washington National Cathedral's Christmas Eve service enters the center aisle through the scaffolding of the unfinished cathedral's construction site.

The processional for Washington National Cathedral’s Christmas Eve service enters the center aisle through the scaffolding of the unfinished cathedral’s construction site.

There is so much that’s fascinating to me about this picture. I see one of Walter Kantack’s beautiful iron chandeliers hanging at the top. Presumably, this is one of the lanterns now hanging in the west tower porches. In the meanwhile, the lighting hanging from the scaffolding is a hodgepodge of cans and overheads, like one might’ve seen in a service station garage. I also like the big, bullhorn-type speaker mounted to the scaffolding. I see Lee Lawrie’s white marble sculpture of George Washington standing in the background. That statue now stands in the bay dedicated to President Washington, at the west end of the completed nave. The floor is still bare concrete and the nave is just one bay long, but the people came to worship in what there was of the Cathedral, and were probably as amazed as anyone is today.

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Rowan LeCompte: The Luckiest Kid

Rowan LeCompte first came to Washington National Cathedral in the summer of 1939, as a 14 year-old on a tour. He was born on St. Patrick’s Day in 1925, in Baltimore, Maryland, and, while raised in a family circle that included interests in music, painting and architecture, he arrived at Washington National Cathedral with no specific interest in stained glass. The day trip to Washington, and thus to the cathedral, was provided by a visiting aunt. Until that time, Rowan’s knowledge of Washington’s cathedral was informed, primarily, by an article in an old National Geographic Magazine, but, even at a distance, he knew it when he saw it. The cab turned up Massachusetts Avenue.

The windows in Washington National Cathedral's Glover Bay, by Rowan LeCompte, celebrate the founding of the Washington National Cathedral in the home of Charles Glover.

The windows in Washington National Cathedral’s Glover Bay, by Rowan LeCompte, celebrate the founding of the Washington National Cathedral in the home of Charles Glover.

I’ll let Rowan, himself, tell you of what came next…

“In those days one entered on the South Transept steps which were made of concrete, and you walked up to a great piece of un-built structure which was covered with tar paper and came to a big tin door in a tin wall which was covered with scaffolding. The door opened, and we came into a space that from the outside seemed to be black, but once in the door I could see we were in a magic twilight, a heavenly place. I had never seen such a thing! A great, soaring, mysterious space and it was filled, to my delight, with music. The organ, which had just been installed, was being used for practice. And the great Handel Largo from “Ombra mai fu”, was one. It was known in those days as Handel’s Largo. But in any case, the organist was playing an organ transcription of it. And the awe of the interior, the dim light, the magic of the North Rose shining there in the gloom,…it wasn’t gloom; it was mystery. It was anything but gloom. It was a magic place. And filled with a degree of awesomeness and beauty and spirit. How else can I say it, that I had never seen in my life before, or experienced. And I was simply struck, if not dumb, I was certainly bowled over.”

Rowan returned to the Cathedral a few times that year, and on a visit in October he took note of Lawrence Saint’s “Moses” window. That moment would remain Rowan’s oldest specific memory of an attraction to the art of stained glass, throughout his life. Following that moment, he returned to Baltimore, got books on stained glass from the Enoch Pratt Free Library, and taught himself how to design and fabricate small glass panels on the living room floor of the family home. There’s an architectural tradition in Baltimore of stained glass panels in the transoms above the row house front doors, which resulted in the presence of small stained glass shops in almost every neighborhood. Rowan’s first creations were made from glass scraps collected from nearby stained glass shops.

By this time, Rowan had developed what I like to refer to as “The Cathedral Bug”. Anyone who knows me well knows what I’m talking about. The Cathedral Bug is a heart and mind possessing attraction to cathedrals, particularly Gothic cathedrals. I’d imagine the Cathedral Bug is a much older affliction than our cases at Washington National Cathedral, but all of my experiences of it have been at Washington. Anyway, Rowan had it, and he had it bad. Living in Baltimore, his solution became the Episcopal Pro-Cathedral of the Incarnation, a Gothic-style church, being built as the Synod Hall for a larger (eventually not built) cathedral, under the direction of Philip Hubert Frohman, also the senior architect at Washington National Cathedral.

Designed by Philip Frohman, Baltimore's Cathedral of the Incarnation was originally intended as the Synod Hall for a larger cathedral. The larger cathedral was never built.

Designed by Philip Frohman, Baltimore’s Cathedral of the Incarnation was originally intended as the Synod Hall for a larger cathedral. The larger cathedral was never built.

Rowan’s repeated presence at the pro-cathedral was noticed by that church’s senior canon, Harold Arrowsmith, who eventually also became aware of Rowan’s interested in stained glass. Then, on yet another day that would bear heavily on the rest of Rowan’s life, Canon Arrowsmith introduced Rowan LeCompte to Philip Hubert Frohman. It was a day that would change the course of art and architectural history.

Washington National Cathedral architect, Philip Hubert Frohman, depicted in the Ascension mosaic in Resurrection Chapel.

Washington National Cathedral architect, Philip Hubert Frohman, depicted in the Ascension mosaic in Resurrection Chapel.

Rowan developed a relationship with Mr. Frohman, who freely shared his opinions on stained glass; that stained glass should inspire, exhibiting “richness and sparkle”. Mr. Frohman taught the young stained glass artist how to properly present his work and offered commentary on some of the small projects Rowan had already completed. Eventually, Mr. Frohman invited the young artist to produce drawings for a small window space, in a small crypt level chapel, at Washington National Cathedral. When completed, Mr. Frohman would take the plans to the Cathedral’s Building Committee, but, just before he did, he turned to the young LeCompte and asked, “By the way, Mr. LeCompte, how old are you?” When Rowan replied that he was 16 years old, Mr. Frohman responded, “Good God… I’d thought you were older.” When Mr. Frohman returned from the Building Committee, with approval for Rowan to produce a window for Washington National Cathedral, well, I’ll let Rowan explain it…

“Everything went blurry before me, and really I had never experienced such extremes of joy as I did then. Never.”

Rowan LeCompte installed his first window at Washington National Cathedral at the age of 16.

Rowan LeCompte depicted in the Ascension mosaic in Washington National Cathedral's Resurrection Chapel

Rowan LeCompte depicted in the Ascension mosaic in Washington National Cathedral’s Resurrection Chapel

At the age of 18, in 1943, Rowan went into the U.S. Army, and his active service would take him from foxhole-to-foxhole, from Normandy, France to Germany. Along the way, he formed a lifelong friendship with one of his unit buddies, Charlie Matz. As Charlie and Rowan fought their way across France, leave from their duties would occasionally allow them to visit some of the great, French Gothic cathedrals. Along the way, Rowan, somehow, managed to infect Charlie with the “Cathedral Bug”. When Charlie returned from the war, he attended a seminary and eventually ended up assisting Rowan with the iconography of some of his greatest works. At the same time, from foxhole-to-foxhole across northwestern Europe, Charlie managed to infect Rowan with an interest in Charlie’s sister, Irene. On returning from the war, Rowan would marry Charlie’s sister, and return to the pursuit of his art with Irene Matz as a working partner.

Stained Glass Window by Norman Rockwell

Stained Glass Window by Norman Rockwell

By 1960, Irene and Rowan had earned some attention for their work and notoriety as experts in the field of stained glass. Around that same time, painter Norman Rockwell decided to attempt to reproduce a scene he had witnessed years before at Westminster Abbey; a workman, perched on scaffolding, repairing stained glass. Reproducing the look of stained glass, however, gave Rockwell trouble, and he turned to Rowan and Irene for advice. In the end, in Rockwell’s painting “Stained Glass Window”, the window’s design is based on a plan submitted by LeCompte for a window at National City Christian Church in Washington, D.C., and the workman depicted in the painting is the same workman that Rockwell witnessed that day at the Abbey; Rowan LeCompte.

At some point in the late-1950s or early-1960s, someone at Washington National Cathedral decided the six blank stone panels on the walls of Resurrection Chapel, were simply too blank. Mr. Frohman had first envisioned the small Norman-style chapel as being completely encrusted in mosaic and glass, in the tradition of the eastern Orthodox churches. In Frohman’s thinking, this was an obscure reference to the Norman churches of Sicily, the only location where Norman architecture had crossed with eastern Orthodox embellishment. However, decades earlier, the Cathedral’s Building Committee had decided such a plan was simply too much, and opted instead for one beautiful Hildreth Meier mosaic over the chapel’s altar. So, in reconsidering mosaics for the Resurrection side panels, the Cathedral approached Rowan and Irene for any artist recommendations they might be able to make. The LeComptes knew no mosaic designers, nor had they ever done mosaic work themselves. Then, after explaining that the mosaic fabrication would be done by one of the world’s leading mosaic fabricators, the Cathedral offered the design commission to Rowan. Thus did Rowan LeCompte, amidst his rise to prominence as a stained glass designer, add mosaics to his portfolio. During the design, fabrication and installation of these mosaics, the six appearances of Jesus after the Resurrection, Irene became ill. She passed away in 1970, during the installation of the fourth mosaic panel, “Doubting Thomas”. The sixth panel, the “Ascension” panel, was designed to include self-portraits of Rowan and Irene. In a turn unusual for an artist, Rowan paid to be the donor of the final panel and to have it dedicated to Irene’s memory.

Irene Matz LeCompte depicted in the Ascension mosaic, in Washington National Cathedral's Resurrection Chapel. The Ascension mosaic is dedicated to Irene's memory.

Irene Matz LeCompte depicted in the Ascension mosaic, in Washington National Cathedral’s Resurrection Chapel. The Ascension mosaic is dedicated to Irene’s memory.

In the 1970s, Rowan would receive the largest and most important commissions of his life; those for Washington National Cathedral’s west rose window, “Creation”, and for all 18 of the Cathedral’s three-story high, nave clerestory windows.

A close look at Rowan LeCompte's Creation window, the west rose window at Washington National Cathedral.

A close look at Rowan LeCompte’s masterpiece, Creation, the west rose window at Washington National Cathedral.

“Creation”, considered by some to be among the most beautiful windows in all of Christendom, was dedicated on Easter Sunday in 1976. The commission for the 18 clerestory would be completed over the following 25 years. Rowan LeCompte delivered his final window, a reworking of an earlier window, to Washington National Cathedral at the age of 86, and the last time he walked out, at the end of a career spanning seven decades, he walked out one of the leading lights of stained glass design in human history.


The last time I spent with Rowan was several years ago, when he brought a small group of people from his retirement community to the Cathedral and gave them a brief tour of the glass in the north nave outer aisle. During that tour, while presenting a set of windows by Irvin Bossanyi, Rowan turned to his guests and said, “Now, this man was a REAL artist.” I knew immediately that Rowan was referring to the fact that Bossanyi had worked in many different media, but Rowan’s guests tittered at the apparent display of modesty that let this one great artist refer to another great artist as a “REAL” artist. At the end of the tour, I took the opportunity to confirm my understanding of that moment, and Rowan agreed. Perhaps “multi-media artist” might have been a more appropriate term for what he had meant to say. I explained that, as a Cathedral Docent, one of the things I love to do most is tell his story. How then should I describe him, if not as a “REAL” artist? “You just tell them,” he confided, “I was just the luckiest 14 year-old to ever walk into the room.”

Sunlight pouring through Rowan LeCompte's windows in Washington National Cathedral's south nave clerestory, bathe the surrounding architecture in cascades of color.

Sunlight pouring through Rowan LeCompte’s windows in Washington National Cathedral’s south nave clerestory, bathe the surrounding architecture in cascades of color.

Rowan LeCompte passed away on February 11, 2014, at his home in Waynesboro, Virginia. A service celebrating his life and his work will be held at Washington National Cathedral, with his family, his friends and surrounded by his life’s work, on Monday, July 21, 2014. With the way art tends to last in buildings like Washington National Cathedral, Rowan LeCompte’s star should continue to rise for centuries to come, and I fervently believe he will eventually be regarded as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. Tomorrow, we send him on his way.

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A Penny for Your Thoughts: The South Carolina Quandary

In the very northwest corner of Washington National Cathedral’s nave is the Lincoln Bay, dedicated to the memory of President Abraham Lincoln. It is the very first bay on the left as one enters the nave’s main entrance, and is opposite, across the nave, from the Washington Bay. Because of its proximity to the cathedral’s main entrance, I often use this space as something of a primer on how to understand and read Gothic architecture.

Abraham Lincoln, by Walker Hancock

Abraham Lincoln, by Walker Hancock

On visiting, most visitors to the space will immediately recognize the heroic-scale, bronze statue of President Lincoln by Walker Hancock (who, by the way, is played by John Goodman, in the movie, “Monument Men”), Lincoln’s farewell address to the city of Springfield, Illinois carved into the wall, and, perhaps, the dedication on the wall just outside of the space. However, throughout the space are numerous other artistic references to Lincoln’s life and legacy. The large, abstract window, entitled “The Agony of Civil War”, while quite complex in iconography and meaning, by the artist’s description, could be viewed as simply as this… Everything in the window that is not flame colored is either blue or gray, the uniform colors of the opposing sides in the American Civil War.

With Malice Toward None

Lincoln Bay tympanum, “With Malice Toward None”

Beneath the window, in the tympanum space above the door, two hands pass an olive branch above a key quote from Lincoln’s second inaugural address… “With malice toward none”. There are Civil War uniform caps Confederate, kepi-style, uniform caps carved into the termination stones of the molding over the door, a window dedicated to Lincoln’s mother and stepmother, images from the lyrics of the Battle hymn of the Republic are carved into the boss stones of the bay’s vaulted ceiling, and more.

Federal kepi - Lincoln Bay

Federal uniform cap, with wheat behind. The wheat represents abundance, as a key strength of the Union.

Confederate, kepi-style, uniform cap

Confederate uniform cap, with oak behind. The oak represents spiritual strength, as a key strength of the Confederacy.











Of particular note are 34 Lincoln pennies set into the floor of the bay. They are, it is explained, 34 pennies, representing the 34 states in the United States of America, at the time Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated to the Presidency. In the center of the display is a star, consisting of 21 pennies, surrounded by a circle containing 13 pennies. Of the 34 pennies, 33 are set face up, while the one penny in the center of the star is set face down, representing, or so we are told, the state of South Carolina, as the first state to secede from the United States. We are also told that the 13 pennies in the circular surround represent the 13 original colonies/states. In these descriptions, I find one of the few flaws I’ve ever detected in the iconography at Washington National Cathedral. South Carolina is one of the original 13 colonies, and, thus, South Carolina should be included in the 13 pennies in the outer ring. So, which is it? Is the South Carolina penny face down in the center of the star, or included among the 13 original colonies/states in the outer ring? It really can’t be both ways. If the penny in the center, face down, represents South Carolina, then the outer ring represents 12 of the 13 original colonies/states plus Vermont, apparently promoted, or, if South Carolina is in the outer ring, we have some unidentified state’s penny turned facedown in the star.

The ring and star pattern in the floor of the Lincoln Bay is made up of 34 Lincoln pennies.

The ring and star pattern in the floor of the Lincoln Bay is made up of 34 Lincoln pennies.

Frankly, throughout my life, I have found the iconographic representations at Washington National Cathedral to be very well thought out, very well executed, and very moving, and, if this inconsistency on the floor of the Lincoln Bay is as bad as it ever gets, it’s all still wonderful. Perhaps, eventually, someone will want to solve this situation, either by adjusting the image or adjusting the description. Perhaps we could turn the center penny up and turn one facedown in the outer ring, or, maybe, we could describe the face down penny in the center of the star as representing Kansas, the last state into the Union before Lincoln was inaugurated, and the state whose issues and status, as slave state or not, brought the larger arguments that precipitated the American Civil War to a head. Who knows? For the meanwhile, it is what it is, the South Carolina quandary in the floor of the Lincoln Bay.

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A Thought to Woodrow Wilson on Veterans Day.

At the 11th hour of the 11th day, in the 11th month of 1918, the guns of the Western Front fell silent, and the massive, almost incomprehensible slaughter known as The Great War, “the war to end all wars”, and later as World War One, was over. Over 37 million people, both civilian and combatant, had been killed in a little over four-and-a-half years, and there was, literally, a dark, 430+ mile scar, the Western Front, running through the center of western Europe, from the North Sea to the Swiss border. This date, November 11, is celebrated in many nations as a date of somber remembrance, and in the U.S. we honor all of those who have served our nation in the military services.

As a docent at Washington National Cathedral, this day, almost necessarily, is also a day for honoring President Woodrow Wilson, the man given much credit for the end of the Great War’s carnage. Honored as a great hero by some, and vilified as one of the worst U.S. presidents by almost as many; Wilson was a man of his time, and, given the nature of his time, probably did as well with the circumstances as almost anyone could. His detractors love to point out that he would not even have been the President of the United States, had Theodore Roosevelt not run as a third-party candidate and split the Republican vote. Sour grapes. That sounds like a story about Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Party to me. Time, fate, the American people and God put Thomas Woodrow Wilson in the White House, and I firmly believe he was THE man for the job.

President Woodrow Wilson holding his grandson, Francis Bowes Sayre Jr. Known in the family as “Frank”, the young Sayre would grow up to become Washington National Cathedral’s sixth and longest serving dean.

President Wilson was an intensely intelligent man, and very well spoken. I believe he understood that the people of the world were going to have to start thinking and acting globally, as one, or we might otherwise simply do ourselves in. Following the war, President Wilson destroyed his own health, touring exhaustively to promote ratification of the treaty ending the war and for the formation of the League of Nations, forerunner to the present UN. Despite the fact that it was largely the idea of their own president, the U.S. never joined the League of Nations. Within one year of the armistice, the end of fighting, President Wilson suffered a severe stroke, and his case, as an incapacitated President, was pivotal to the creation of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which sets forth guidelines for such situations.

On February 3, 1924, Thomas Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States of America, died in his post-Presidency home on S Street, NW, in Washington D.C. While he was to be laid to rest at Washington National Cathedral, President Wilson’s funeral actually took place at his home, before his remains were brought to the cathedral for interment. The only public entrance to the cathedral, at the time, was a door to the first crypt level chapel, Bethlehem Chapel, known as The Way of Peace, and this is how President Wilson’s remains entered the cathedral for the last time. I’ve always felt that was particularly appropriate for the man who was given a lion’s share of the credit for ending The Great War.

Wilson to the Way of Peace

In 1924, the casket and remains of President Woodrow Wilson were brought to what there was of Washington National Cathedral, and interred beneath the only chapel completed at the time. As can be seen, the Cathedral environs were mostly a muddy construction site at the time.

He was laid to rest in the sub-crypt beneath Bethlehem Chapel, which remained his tomb for over 30 years. On the 100th anniversary of his birth, December 28, 1956, President Wilson’s remains were translated to his permanent tomb, on the south side of Washington National Cathedral’s nave, where he is surrounded by images and symbolism from his life, and quotes from his writings and speeches.

The Tomb of President Woodrow Wilson

Located in the south outer aisle of Washington National Cathedral’s nave, President Wilson’s tomb is in about as glorious a setting as that of any U.S. presidential tomb, and the final signature of approval on all art and architecture in the space would have been the signature of President Wilson’s grandson, The Very Reverend Francis Bowes Sayre Jr., dean of Washington National Cathedral at the time the tomb was constructed.

Visited by many, admirers and detractors alike, President Wilson, in his current circumstances, does not lack for company. I often like to spend time at Wilson’s Tomb, praying for the man; son, father, grandfather, educator, President, who God thrust into the gap at one of history’s darkest moments. I pray that he has found the peace that he so fervently desired for the world.

So, today, as we thank our veterans, I also recommend to all a moment of caring and thanks for Thomas Woodrow Wilson, The War and Peace President.

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In Between, with Samuel Yellin

Among the great glories at Washington National Cathedral is one of the most amazing collections of 20th century wrought iron to be found anywhere in the world. That collection is anchored on the incredible work of one Samuel Yellin, considered by many to be among the greatest wrought iron artists in all of human history. Yellin, who lived from 1885-1940, was known in the metalworking industry as “Devil with a hammer”, both for his incredible skill and for his sense of humor. At Washington National Cathedral, Yellin was afforded the opportunities of immense scale and produced many noteworthy works of art. The gates to Holy Spirit Chapel are considered his masterpiece, and, perhaps, the pinnacle of his career. For me, of all Yellin’s work at Washington National Cathedral, my favorite is a screen between St. Mary’s Chapel in the north choir aisle, and Holy Spirit Chapel, situated where the choir meets the north transept. This screen is obscured on the Holy Spirit Chapel side by a hanging tapestry, but is seen from the St. Mary’s Chapel side, backed by the flat, tan backing of the tapestry. It is a design wonder.

The St. Mary’s Chapel screen is simpler, in many ways, than some of the more highly acclaimed Yellin works in the cathedral. While the Holy Spirit Chapel gates, and the gates to Children’s Chapel are marvels of complex, detailed, representative imagery, the St. Mary’s Chapel screen combines simple, bold strokes with a design genius that, for me, rivals the creativity of M.C. Escher. Look briefly at the picture below, and then quickly continue on to the next text.

St. Mary's Chapel screen

St. Mary’s Chapel screen at Washington National Cathedral

When you looked at the picture, what figure did you notice first? Did you see a screen of large, four-leaf clover shapes, or a screen of eight-pointed star shapes? I wonder if we could analyze a person’s personality, based on what they saw first? Anyway… In the visual language of Christian art, the quatrefoil, or four-leafed clover shape, is, of course, representative of the cross, and, therefore, representative of Jesus. The star is an artistic attribute representing Mary, the mother of Jesus; the St. Mary, to whom the chapel is dedicated. In bold iron strokes, the two images interlock in an incredible, one-and-the-same design. The depth of suggestion continues, as, at the heart of each quatrefoil, at each intersection of the larger, grid-like framework, Yellin has placed a decorative, five-pointed star; Mary again, and this time at the heart of the Jesus suggestion. Even further, among the clever artistic references in this incredible screen, is the fact that each of the larger, eight-pointed stars is constructed of four Ms, turned head-in. Mary, Mary, Mary, Mary. Awesome.

St. Mary's Chapel screen - stars

Mary, Mary, Mary, Mary

While I am really most amazed by the design in the St. Mary’s Chapel screen grillwork, I must also mention the beautiful flowers and spirals of the decorative, horizontal band that runs across the screen at waist height. The spirals add a delicate counterpoint to the bold strokes of the larger grillwork, and, even as I’m writing and viewing the pictures myself, I see that what seem to be flowers at the ends of the spirals are, more likely, stylized fleur-de-lis, another Christian art attribute commonly referring to Mary.



Among the great glories of Washington National Cathedral, how many people stop to consider this one, seemingly non-descript screen? On the north side of the north choir aisle things can get a little dark, and most passers-by will be understandably distracted by the 500 year-old, David and Goliath tapestries. Nonetheless, in this one architectural device, a screen between two chapels, there is a richness and depth of meaning and detail that speak of faith, of the interconnected-ness of everything, and of the wonder of God to be found in the heart, mind and hands of a profoundly gifted artist. What did you see first, a cross or a star? They’re both always there, come find them for yourself sometime.

St. Mary's Chapel screen - horizontal detail

In between, with Samuel Yellin

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Jamming with Brubeck

If I recall correctly, it happened on a day, about a dozen years ago, when I was taking pictures in the Bishop’s Garden at Washington National Cathedral. It was a beautiful afternoon, and the garden was resplendent in all its blooming glory. As I worked from shot to shot, I began to realize there was music coming from inside the cathedral. It was hard to determine exactly what I was hearing. The music was alternately upbeat and classical, with occasional choral accents and an electrically amplified quality to the sound. Well, I like good music as much as, if not more than, the average person, so it wasn’t long until I headed inside to see what I was hearing.

Climbing the steps of the cathedral’s south transept and entering through the south transept doors, I was greeted by the sight of a large chorus, a small orchestra, several classical vocal soloists and, believe it or not, the Dave Brubeck Quartet.

The Dave Brubeck Quarter, with Dave Brubeck in front, and behind, from left-to-right, saxophonist Bobby Militello, bassist Michael Moore, and drummer Randy Jones.

It turned out the chorus was a combination of the Cathedral Choral Society and the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Show Choir, the orchestra was the Cathedral Choral Society Orchestra and the Dave Brubeck Quartet was -need I say it again?- THE DAVE BRUBECK QUARTET!

This incredible collection of performers quickly explained the combination of musical sounds I’d been hearing outside. It turns out the whole ensemble was rehearsing Mr. Brubeck’s Mass, To Hope! A Celebration for a performance later that evening, and, with the cathedral’s south transept completely empty, I got a front row seat.

Brubeck To Hope cover at 105

The cover of To Hope! A Celebration, features a photo of Washington National Cathedral.

The rehearsal was fascinating, and the music incredible. Then they came to “All My Hope”, a raucous and rousing piece of music near the end of the Mass. I really can’t say enough about this wonderful piece of music; it swings, it rocks, and it jams. The simple lyric speaks to me intensely, and it has become one of my favorite pieces of religious music, of all time.

“All my hope is in you, O Lord, You are my rock and my strength. Hope in darkness, my hope in light. You are my rock and my strength.

You are my rock! You are my strength!

My hope, my light, my peace, my joy, my faith, my God everlasting. You are my rock and my strength.”

I had heard Mr. Brubeck perform the same piece at the Cathedral years earlier, and who knows why I didn’t realize just how wonderful it was then? Maybe it was because I was on a date. Maybe it was because I was listening from a seat high in the west balcony, the full length of the nave away from the action, or maybe I just wasn’t ready to realize. This time, however, I got it.

Anyway, the middle section of “All My Hope” is a real jazz rocker, with a completely absorbing swing beat that reached right out and grabbed the drummer in me. Okay… Admitting to air-drumming is embarrassing, but I admit it. There I was, in the front row of the south transept of Washington National Cathedral, sitting alone at the front of an empty section of seats, just a few feet from Dave Brubeck and his quartet, and I got so swept away by the rhythm of this song, I un-self-consciously started air-drumming along. Well, after a few moments, Randy Jones, the quartet’s drummer took notice of my passionate pantomime, and, as we made eye-contact, began to smile. Unabashed by his display of amusement, I locked eyes with him and continued to drum along. Then, to let him know I might actually know a little about drumming, I threw a couple of syncopated air-drum accents at him. Mr. Jones laughed, and, nodding his head first, mimicked my air accents, but actually drumming the same beats back at me. Then it got way better.

While all this was setting up, Dave Brubeck had his head down over the keyboard, on the opposite side of the stage, with the big grand piano between he and I. Suddenly, when he heard Jones shoot in a couple of unanticipated accents on the drums, his head popped up from behind the piano, to see what was going on. From there it all happened so fast, it’s hard to describe in sequential detail, but looking at Jones, Mr. Brubeck saw Jones was looking at me, and suddenly the three of us were connected. I was air-drumming, Randy Jones was laughing, and a very entertained Dave Brubeck really started jamming. The result was a prolonged and unscheduled jam session that eventually had conductor Russell Gloyd completely lost and tossing his copy of the score into the air. In time, Brubeck pounded on the notes that would bring the whole party back to what was scored, and that particular run-through of “All My Hope” ended in laughter.

During the next break in the rehearsal, I took the opportunity to meet Mr. Brubeck and Mr. Jones and to thank them for bringing themselves and their incredible talents to the cathedral and to the world. It was another moment I knew I’d never forget, as Mr. Brubeck shook my hand and acknowledged the contribution I’d just made to the afternoon’s proceedings. He was so kind, a pure gentleman.

This morning, just one day short of his 92nd birthday, Dave Brubeck, jazz legend and consummate human, passed away at Norwalk Hospital, not far from his home in Wilton, Connecticut. He was a deeply religious man, a humble servant of God, and one of the most important musicians and composers of the twentieth century. His life was long and his contributions to the sheer joy of humankind are too many to be counted. However, in leaving us, today he took one step closer to the God he loved. As for me, I’ll always have his wonderful music and will never forget the afternoon I jammed with Dave Brubeck.

Dave BrubeckDecember 6, 1920 - December 5, 2012

Dave Brubeck
December 6, 1920 – December 5, 2012

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Filed under Music at Washington National Cathedral, Something Spiritual

A Catalog of States

One can never know the manner by which Washington National Cathedral might affect someone, or to what degree. As many who know me well will attest, I am always completely willing to walk up to a Cathedral visitor and simply start talking about the Cathedral. Perhaps it’s a “sidle”, I don’t k now. That word has earned a bad reputation because of an episode of Seinfeld, where the sidler-in-question was also someone who was routinely stealing credit for work done by the character Elaine. Sidling at the Cathedral is simple. One need only notice that a visitor has focused on something particular in the building and then move closer and say something like “Interesting, huh?”. Anyway, I’ve made many good friends this way, and in almost every case it seems the visitor walks away feeling as if they’ve come to know something special about the Cathedral, and more closely connected to the Cathedral experience.

On one particular day, I noticed a man perusing the seals of our 50 states, which are set into the floor of the Cathedral’s narthex (front hall). Often, surrounded by 50, often complex, heraldric seals, and not recognizing the pattern or order in which they are set, a visitor can have difficulty finding the seal of their own state. Well, on this day, as I so often do, I walked up to this gentleman and asked, “What’s your state?”

A portion of Washington National Cathedral’s narthex floor.

He looked up, and with a noticeable Middle Eastern accent replied, “I don’t have a state. I was not born here.”

“Oh, then…” I asked, “You’re not an American?”

“No,” he told me, “but I am becoming a citizen.”

“That’s wonderful.” I noted. “How lucky you are. As a new American, you could choose to be from whatever state you’d like. Look here! Just think of this floor as a catalog. Pick any state you’d like.” Seemingly entertained and amused by the concept, he started concentrating on the seals again, but this time with an enhanced intensity. At the same time, I also turned my focus to the seals in the floor, wondering what I might suggest to him. Before long though, he stopped and focused on a particular seal.

Pointing to a seal that had attracted his attention, he asked, “What is this? Tell me about this.”

Moving across the room, I said, “Oh, that’s Virginia.”

“What does it mean?”

“Well,” I replied, “this woman, standing, represents Freedom. She stands upright, with her sword sheathed, her spear to the ground, and her foot placed firmly on the chest of a king that she has defeated. See here? You can see where the defeated king’s crown has rolled away. Then, this here,” I continued, “is the state’s motto. “Sic Semper Tyrannis”. That’s Latin. It means, Thus Always with Tyrants; that this is what should always happen to tyrannical leaders.”

I’d never studied the Seal of Virginia, and I realized many years later, I’d not got it entirely correct, but the gist was accurate. It turns out the woman is not Freedom, but Virtus, representing the genius of the Commonwealth, and the king is actually Tyranny personified. Otherwise, I had the message of the image, and how it ties to the motto, correct.

I looked back up at the man, whose eyes were still on the seal, and noticed that he had teared-up, and the tears were beginning to roll down his cheeks. Finally looking up to meet my gaze, he was unabashed by his emotional reaction. With an intensity that seems to come only from a sudden emotional commitment, he looked back at me and said, “Then today it is decided. I am from Virginia.”


Filed under Something Spiritual, The Architecture of Washington National Cathedral, The Art of Washington National Cathedral, Thoughts on the Cathedral

New “About Me” Page

I know it’s a little mundane and self-serving, but I have added an “About Me” Page to this blog. Actually, the page is about me and this blog. It may provide a little insight into my personal connection to the Cathedral, and a slightly clearer definition of why I created this blog. You’ll find the page listed in the list of Pages, directly below the big “Andy’s Big Church Blog”, near the top of this page. I’ll also put a link at the bottom of this post. If you take the time to read it, I hope you find something interesting there. Thanks.



Filed under Blog News

Big Church – Big Miracle

The Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, also known as Washington National Cathedral, was built in Washington DC, between the years from September of 1907 to September, 1990. It was built as the seat of the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of Washington, as the seat of the Protestant Episcopal denomination in America, as a spiritual home for the United States of America, and as a house of prayer for all people.

The Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul

Washington National Cathedral

In my opinion, Washington National Cathedral is among the most significant accomplishments of 20th century mankind. I have a list of three. We went to the moon, we split the atom, and we built Washington National Cathedral. Perhaps such comparisons will seem absurd, at first, but bear with me. I’ll explain.

Upon its completion, Washington National Cathedral underwent a 10 year, exhaustive, electronic study, detailing its relationship with the ground beneath, and its movement as a massive, monumental, masonry structure. It is the largest completed masonry structure on the North American continent. That is to say, it was constructed entirely without the use of structural steel. It is approximately 150,000 tons of Indiana limestone, milled or handcarved, and wrapped around a brick core. Masonry structures, particularly very large ones, move. They move with the settlement of the earth below, and they move constantly as they are heated and cooled. Washington National Cathedral moves at the affect of the temperature changes that come with the changing of the seasons, as well as daily movement as the sun moves across the sky. As the building was completed in 1990, it became the focus of a team of structural engineering experts, geophysicists, and other specialists, as an opportunity to detail the physical facts of a very large, new, masonry building. The general finding of this study was, as long as Washington National Cathedral is not knocked down by earthquakes or by humankind, it should stand for the better part of the next two millennia. I ask the reader, what is the second beautiful building, built entirely within the period of the 20th century, that is likely to last 1500 to 2000 years?

When we consider the monumental Gothic structures of Europe, mostly built between the years 1200 to 1400, it seems to be the engineering that amazes us. As people of the 20th and 21st centuries, we are amazed that someone in the 13th century managed to raise such heavy stonework so high in the air. “They got that 5 ton stone 300 feet in the air how? A treadmill crane… What the heck is a treadmill crane?”

Washington National Cathedral and its crane in the late 1980s.

As modern people, the sight of very large, highly-powered construction cranes is commonplace; allowing us to discount, at some level, the construction work at Washington National Cathedral. The real answer, as to how the medieval Europeans built their big churches, is manpower. During the European medieval era, the people with the skills to build the great Gothic cathedrals were found throughout northwestern Europe. Every major city seemed to have built at least one of these great churches, and sometimes, some cities would have several secondary or lesser Gothic style churches, which were built during the medieval-era, as well. The masons, the stone carvers, the blacksmiths, the glass artists, the woodcarvers, and the experienced labor, were everywhere to be found. This is where I find Washington National Cathedral so amazing. As amazing, if not more amazing, than the ancient cathedrals. As 20th century behavior, the building of Washington National Cathedral was freakish. Building structures like Washington National Cathedral just wasn’t what 20th century people tended to be doing with their time.

For me, the miracle that is Washington National Cathedral begins with the very fact that someone in the 20th century even chose to embark upon such a project. It continues, with the unlikelihood that anyone would be able to convene a team capable of building such a structure, during the 20th century. Very few people would argue it is the most incredible collection of 20th century carved stone anywhere in the world, the most incredible collection of 20th century stained glass anywhere in the world, the most incredible collection of 20th century wrought-iron anywhere in the world, and the most incredible collection of 20th century needlepoint anywhere in the world. I believe it is likely to be considered, eventually, one of the great wonders of the architectural world, and that it was accomplished by 20th century mankind, in my opinion, renders it as improbable as its ancient siblings, if not more.

I believe Washington National Cathedral could very well be the longest lasting beauty mark 20th century mankind leaves on the planet, and for me, that, in itself, is profound. In a place like Washington National Cathedral even time becomes spiritual. Can we even imagine the perspective of those who might visit our great church in 1000 years? 2000 years? I think the only way we can even come close, is to carefully regard the way we look at the ancient European cathedrals.

I believe there could come a day, let’s just say in the year 3612, when a tour guide will stand in front of Washington National Cathedral and tell his or her group, “Washington National Cathedral was built by 20th century man.” As I consider that, I cannot imagine the guide will add, “…excluding Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, North Korea and Iran.” Such a thought makes me wonder about “God’s time”, a suggestion that beyond this mortal coil, time needn’t be linear and sequential; that God sees and knows all. In a turn-of-phrase that is almost Buddhist… that everything always already is.  If this is the case, and if someone deep into Washington National Cathedral’s future simply sees 20th century mankind as a united whole, then it already is so. Perhaps I’m wrong, or perhaps we’re simply too close to see it, but perhaps 20th century mankind is healed on the grounds of Washington National Cathedral, and we don’t even know it.


Filed under Something Spiritual, Thoughts on the Cathedral