Photo: Helena Kubicka de Bragança

The Cathedral, The Symbolic

The Cathedral draws on strong architectural traditions and symbolism, which were intended, whether one thousand or one hundred years ago, to affect a visitor’s experience. Many of these can be “read” in its architecture, enriching the experience of the building.

The Cathedral follows several major medieval traditions: it is built on high ground—Morningside Heights is at one of the highest natural elevations in New York City—and its ground footprint is (in design, at least) shaped like a Roman cross. The entrance stairs provide further uplift toward the heavenly plane, and more stairs within the Cathedral elevate the Great Choir and chapels, and above them the High Altar. This holiest part of the church is traditionally found in the eastern end of the building, closest to the rising sun, a symbol of renewal and resurrection.

The Nave follows a similar vertical convention. Each vertical set of stained glass windows is dedicated to one of fourteen forms of human endeavor, including Labor, Medicine, Education, Military, Arts, and Sports. On the ground level, the windows show a variety of historical and scriptural figures engaged in a particular activity—the Medical bay, for example, shows Jesus performing healing miracles as well as Louis Pasteur inoculating a sheep. The higher set of windows show saints associated with the same activity and a rosette window at the top depicts Jesus. He appears in many variations, crowning each window and completing the progression from the human plane to the sacred and divine.

From west to east run three aisles of bronze floor medallions, collectively referred to as the Pilgrims' Pavement. The side aisle medallions show the names and crests of key pilgrimage sites, as well as significant sites in Anglican history, while the central aisle marks the miracles performed by Jesus, from birth through the Feeding of the Multitude at Bethsaida. The pavement should end with the Resurrection, but is truncated by the unfinished floor of the crossing.

References to Saint John the Divine, the Cathedral’s namesake, are infused into the building. John is credited as the author of the Book of Revelation, relating his vision of the end of the world. The number seven is the most prominent symbol in Revelation, and structures the text itself. Sevens are therefore abundant in the Cathedral: in its seven chapels, north and south side bays, and in its dimensions.

John’s symbol, the seven stars or candles, is echoed in the seven lamps above the High Altar. The colors of the paving stones in the Apse and Great Choir echo the precious stones named in Revelation as those adorning the walls of the New Jerusalem. Visitors will find many more examples of this “sacred geometry,” with its symbolic numbers and shapes, throughout the building.

The Cathedral’s symbolism spans from the building as a whole to the smallest corner of its windows. Designed to create a sense of uplift, awe, and human connection, architecture does its part in the Cathedral mission to be “a house of prayer for all people and a unifying center of intellectual light and leadership.”