Tuesday, February 19, 2008
The National Cathedral... an experience of civic religion
Most of you know about my interest in material culture--how people create objects to illustrate their values and beliefs. I loved touring the Washington National Cathedral on Sunday with Kendall and Krista. The building itself is a testament of culture and national identity. Construction began in 1907 and followed the pattern of European Gothic cathedrals--sort of an example of American refinement. The typical cathedral pieces are all there--but done in a new, American way.
The rose window in most European cathedrals demonstrates judgment and hell. In this cathedral, the colors and light symbolize life and hope. The tour guide said that the color changes depending on the direction of the sun.
The stained glass windows illustrate both biblical stories and American stories. Three windows show the three branches of government--with the Supreme Court, the White House, and the Capital at the top, and biblical stories underneath (how appropriate that King Solomon and his wisdom goes with the judicial branch). There is a whole window dedicated to American agriculture, with one lancet including a John Deere tractor. One pane depicts the creation of the moon and the earth and contains an actual moon stone from the first American mission to the moon (the astronaut who stayed in the shuttle while the others walked on the moon attended St. Alban's school, right next to the National Cathedral).
Traditionally a screen separates the nave from the altar. In the National Cathedral, in the spirit of democracy, the screen is open so all can see and participate.
We went up to the tower and walked around, admiring the view. It was a cloudy day, but we could see the monuments and the Capitol on the National Mall, as well as the temple and Bethesda and Silver Spring. The tour guide told us about one "Americanized" gargoyle in the shape of Darth Vader. We couldn't find it, but this picture tells it all.
While we proudly proclaim a firm separation of church and state, I love that we can use both to illustrate beliefs and values. We can talk about our country at church and we can use churches to demonstrate our national identity. I suppose we should also have a National Synagogue and a National Mosque, too.