Cathedral of St. John the Divine

The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine on Amsterdam Avenue is not only one of the oldest buildings in Morningside Heights, but also one of the most fascinating. The historic cathedral has many secrets, from a gold triptych by Keith Haring to a very unusual sculpture featuring the Archangel Michael, the decapitated head of Satan, and nine giraffes. Here are ten secrets of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

10. Keith Haring Triptych 

Keith Haring Triptych-St John the Divine-Morningside-Manhattan-NYC-Paris

“The Life of Christ” was Keith Haring‘s last work before his death. There are at nine versions of this triptych, cast in bronze and covered in white gold, one of which is located in St. John the Divine’s The National AIDS Memorial. (Another version can be seen in Paris at Saint Eustache, which we covered in our NYC vs Paris series).

9. The Cathedral was never finished

St John the Divine Guastavino tiles

A Guide to the Cathedral from 1921 posited that it might take 700 years for the Cathedral to be completed, since it was employing true Gothic building methods. However, as of now it appears that the Cathedral will never be completed. A “temporary” ceiling consisting of tiles is still in place a century after it was supposed to be demolished so that the Cathedral’s spire could rise.

Additionally, the crossing was never completed, resulting in an extremely truncated cruciform layout. (For photos of what the Cathedral was supposed to look like upon completion check out our previous coverage in The NYC that Never Was: The Half-Finished St. John the Divine.)

8. History in Stone From St. Paul to Albert Einstein

Cathedral of St John the Divine Washington, Lincoln, Shakespeare, and ColumbusClockwise from top left: William Shakespeare, George Washington ,  Abraham Lincoln and Christopher Columbus representing their respective centuries

In 1922, at a cost of $16,000, the Cathedral installed a stone parapet. The parapet contained “one sculpture for each of the Christian centuries, each figure being that of the personage who in that 100 years did the most, in the opinion of the Cathedral authorities, for the uplift of the world.”

The twentieth-century niche was left empty with instructions that it was to remain empty for seventy-eight years in order to determine who would be worthy of filling the void for the century. According to the New York Times, the front runners in 1922 were Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Lloyd George, and Charles Evans Hughes.

Cathedral of St John the Divine Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Susan B. Anthony, and Albert Einstein
Figures representing the twentieth-century, from left: Martin Luther King, Jr., Albert Einstein, Susan B. Anthony, and Mahatma Gandhi

7. Resting Place of Madeleine L’Engle

Tomb of Madeleine L'Engle Cathedral of Saint John the Divine

Madeleine L’Engle is most famously known for writing the Newberry prize winning young adult novel, A Wrinkle in Time. However, in addition to being an author, L’Engle was a devout Episcopalian. She served as a volunteer librarian and writer in residence at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. When she passed away in 2007, she was interred in the Cathedral.

6. Largest Rose Window in the United States

Cathedral of Saint John the Divine Rose Window Stained Glass Window

Saint John the Divine claims to be the largest cathedral in the world, defined as a church that is also the seat of a bishop. (St. Peter’s, for example, is not a cathedral). Measured by length or internal volume, it is one of the five largest church buildings in the world. Additionally, it possesses the largest rose window in the United States. The window, which is the fifth largest in the world, was constructed out of 10,000 pieces of stained glass.

5. Modern Images Hidden in Stained Glass

Cathedral of Saint John the Divine Upper West Side Stained Glass Windows

In addition to having numerous stained glass windows that depict Biblical and post-Biblical religious scenes, Saint John the Divine has a plethora of modern imagery hidden throughout their stained glass windows. The Nave features fourteen themed bays, which honor professions and human endeavor.

The Cathedral claims that any profession can fit into one of these themes, which include Communications, Medicine, Law, and Sports. The themed bays juxtapose traditional religious imagery with modern and secular images, including a 1925 prototype television, a train, Betsy Ross, Robert E. Lee, and even the sinking of the Titanic.

Cathedral of Saint John the Divine Upper West Side Michelangeo caving david stained glass window

4. Multicultural Gifts

Siamese cabinet gift of king Cathedral of saint john the divine upper west side

As evidenced above through the topics depicted in its stained glass windows, Saint John the Divine has embraced the multi-national demographics that make up its congregation. According to the Cathedral,  it was chartered as “a house of prayer for all people.”

The Chapels of the Tongues, located behind the High Altar, are dedicated to, and have design elements referencing, seven immigrant groups that settled in the United States in the early twentieth-century. Additionally, the Cathedral possesses two Japanese cloisonné vases donated by the Japanese ambassador in 1926 on behalf of Japan, and a pair of teak Siamese Book Cabinets that were a gift of the King of Siam, in 1930.

3. Vertical Tours

Photo by Bhushan Mondkar for Untapped Cities

Saint John the Divine is one of the few places left in New York City that allows visitors to access to its roof and a unique vista of the City. In addition to offering some insight into the Cathedral’s history and iconography, the tour allows visitors to come face to face with some stained glass windows, to discover the Cathedral’s attic, and to get a spectacular view that on a clear day can included the spire of One World Trade Center.

Cathedral of Saint John the Divine Vertical Tour View of Upper West SideView from the Cathedral’s Roof

2. Oldest Building in Morningside Heights

Just south of the Cathedral is a Greek Revival building that predates Saint John the Divine’s tenure on the Upper West Side. It was constructed in 1843 as the Leake and Watts Orphan Asylum and was designed by Ithiel Towne, who also designed Federal Hall.

In 1891, the Asylum moved to Westchester and Saint John the Divine intended to demolish the building in order to build the Cathedral’s crossing. For a number of years the church let the building deteriorate with the hopes that it would just fall down. Ultimately, the building was restored and now houses a state of the art Tapestry and Textile Conservation Laboratory as well as other Cathedral functions.

1. Decapitated Head of Satan, Peacocks, and More

Peace Fountain-Cathedral St John the Divine-Decapitated Satan-Giraffes-DNA-NYC

Just south of the Cathedral, lies its 11.3 acre close or campus. Visitors can stroll through a biblical garden, where the different plants are all species mentioned in the Bible, and gawk at peacocks and a hive of 15,000 honeybees. One of the close’s highlights is the Peace Fountain, designed in 1985 by Greg Wyatt. The fountain was created to mark the 200th anniversary of the Diocese of New York. It depicts the Archangel Michael embracing one of nine giraffes after his defeat of Satan. There is also a lion lying down with a lamb. The fountain’s spiraling base represents a double-helix of DNA.

Additionally, the Children’s Sculpture Garden, a series of small bronze animal sculptures created by local K-12 students surrounds the fountain. (For more information on the Peace Fountain check out our previous article Daily What?! The Peace Fountain at Saint John the Divine features the Decapitated Head of Satan and 9 Giraffes)

Also check out the Secrets of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Top 10 Secrets of Grand Central Terminal, and Secrets of the New York Public Library