From the heart of Georgetown you really wouldn’t want to walk to the National Cathedral. It’s just too far, so hop in a taxi. It’s currently only about ten dollars plus tip to get there and especially during the summer heat, it’s the easiest, fastest and coolest way to travel.
You have a number of options for your tour of the cathedral. You can either join a tour group at designated times, self tour with a map, or use an audio guide. I picked the latter. After a brief explanation about the on/off features from the greeter at the desk, you listen to a brief instruction and introduction on the audio guide. I was really glad I chose this option because it allowed me to move throughout the cathedral as I pleased and avoid the large groups. Each stop was numbered clearly and the map that came with the audio guide showed exactly where each stop was.
As I gazed at the vibrant multihued windows and listened to the audio guide explaining the significance of the symbolism in the art and the history behind the cathedral, I embarked upon my journey through this magnificent church.
The actual start of construction of the “great church for national purposes” did not start for more than one hundred years after it was first envisioned by Pierre L’Enfant, designer of the Federal City. In 1795, land was set aside during the city design, but the National Portrait Gallery was built on that location instead. It wasn’t until 1891 that plans were renewed for the cathedral and in 1893 a location was found on the commanding site of Mount St. Alban. Construction finally began in 1909 and President Theodore Roosevelt laid the corner stone in 1912.
Just before you enter the side aisle of the Nave, you see an alcove with a large statue of George Washington. That day it was washed in a rainbow of color from the nearby stained glass window. The statue was created by sculptor Lee Lawrie and when he designed it, he wanted to portray Washington not as the soldier, but as the man, coming into church pausing a moment before going down the aisle to his pew. The bay behind him displays symbolism representing his life and accomplishments.
When I continued along the Nave side aisle I found myself at what is called “Wilson Bay”, an alcove where the tomb of President Woodrow Wilson lies. He is the only president buried in the cathedral. His pale stone tomb has a sword sculpted on the top representing a crusader’s sword. It symbolizes his crusade for world peace following WWI. The thistles on the hilt represent his Scottish heritage. As with the other president’s bays, it was filled with loads of artistic symbolism representing President Wilson’s life and accomplishments.
At the entrance of the Children’s Chapel, a small bronze Christ child holds out his arms to welcome you into the children’s chapel. This chapel is set specifically aside for the use of children in the cathedral and light blue kneeling pillows are decorated with Sunday school bible figures.
The other chapels are dedicated to St. John, St. Mary, and the Holy Spirit and their small altars are magnificent masterpieces of art and sculpture. These peaceful chapels radiate the sensation of a sacred place and while I stood in silent contemplation I noticed that others visitors spoke only in reverent whispers.
The wall sculptures or “Reredos”, behind the high altar which are carved of French Caen stone, are centered by the “Majestus” or “Christ in Majesty” medallion which is carved in the lighter colored Texas limestone. The Majestus is surrounded by 110 saints, prophets, martyrs and angels all lined up in their tall slim niches representing the highest ideals of Christianity and the Angels praise of god.
The Bethlehem Chapel’s theme is of course, the Birth of Jesus, and it is a lovely romantic and almost feminine chapel. Designed in the Neo-Gothic style the architect attempted to perfectly replicate the 14th century decorated Gothic style and his creation makes you feel as if you have been transported back to the 14th century with its delicate lacy tracery and tall graceful stretches curving to arched points above. The stained glass windows in the ambulatory tell the story of the Nativity.
In the rear of the chapel behind a wrought iron gate are the burial vaults. It is the resting place of artists, musicians, and others honored by the cathedral. This distinguished group includes famous supporter and activist for the deaf and blind, Helen Keller and her lifelong friend and teacher Anne Sullivan.
Before leaving, I also stopped into the Museum which displayed the cathedral history and construction methods and also had an exhibit about the recent repairs undergone after the 2011 earthquake which caused several sculptures to fall from the outside and also caused cracks and damage to the interior of the cathedral. Repairs are still under way, in fact if you look closely, there is netting spanning the entire nave and clerestory ceiling.
Dinner that night was at the highly recommended Filomena Ristorante, one of the premier Italian restaurants in D.C. This restaurant is filled with old-country ambience of Abruzzi Italy with lace placemats, colorful plates, beamed ceilings and frescoed walls. The menu is extensive and the hit of our table were the Calamari Fritti appetizer which was delicately fried and served with mild and spicy marinaras and the Osso Bucco, a braised veal shank cooked to melting tenderness in rich veal stock, tomato sauce, red wine and diced vegetables, glazed in juices and served over creamy saffron-mushroom risotto. I couldn’t resist trying the Hazelnut Daquoise, a hazelnut meringue cake filled with hazelnut mousse and dark chocolate truffle, rich, decadent, high calorie……. I guess more walking would have to be part of the plan for the next day.