Project Canterbury

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

From Masonic World, volume two, number two, March, 1925.

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, 2008

The Cathedral of St. John The Divine

Specially Written for the Masonic World


IT IS particularly fitting that the Masons, who were the principal builders of cathedrals and churches during the greatest cathedral-building period, should now have a prominent part in the movement to build America's greatest cathedral. Leader Scott, in "The Cathedral Builders: the Story of a Great Masonic Guild," says, "Little need be added to the story of Freemasonry during the cathedral-building period; its monuments are its best history, alike of its genius, its faith and its symbols--as witness the triangle and the circle, which form the keystone of the ornamental tracery of every Gothic temple. Masonry was then at the zenith of its power, in its full splendor; the Lion of the Tribe of Judah its symbol; strength, wisdom, and beauty its ideals; its motto to be faithful to God and the Government; its mission to lend itself to the public good and fraternal charity. Keeper of an ancient and high tradition, it was a refuge for the oppressed, and a teacher of art and morality to mankind." Later the Masons added to their fame in the rebuilding of London after the fire and St. Paul's Cathedral.


THE Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which has a charter half a century old, and of which the corner stone of the present edifice was laid in 1892, will measure up to the standard of magnificence and grandeur set by the famous temples of commerce of America's greatest metropolis. Architects estimate that the Cathedral, built, in the ancient way, of solid stone, will probably outlast all the great commercial structures of the city. As such, the Cathedral is probably the most enduring civic enterprise now before the public eye and in the opinion of many will represent besides, the outstanding artistic contribution of America to this country.

No cathedral in the English-speaking world, and only two in the whole world, St. Peter's at Rome and the Cathedral of Seville, will surpass New York's great cathedral in size. Credit for the courage to plan the edifice on so grand a scale is due to the founder, Bishop Horatio Potter, who when asked why he advocated such a stupendous plan, replied, "That the timid souls of his generation may not reduce it to something future generations would hold inadequate and unworthy."

That this mighty church will be worthy of this magnitude, in the point of architectural excellence in beauty of design, is evidenced by the comment of Dr. Alfred D. F. Hamlin of the Department of Architecture at Columbia University, who says, "Nothing comparable to this superb design has ever been conceived or executed before in America, and the cathedrals of Europe may fairly be challenged to surpass or even to equal it."

THE Freemasons of the present day are following old tradition by taking their increasingly prominent share in the building of the greatest cathedral of the New World.

At a dinner given to 1,500 workers in the campaign to complete the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, on Washington's Birthday, this year, Bishop Herbert Shipman, in the absence of M. W. Arthur S. Tompkins, Past Grand Master of the Masons of the State of New York, announced a contribution of $12,000 as the "first installment" of the gift of the Masons to the fund to complete the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and received an ovation from the assembly.

The Fraternal Division of the Committee on Community Cooperation is the group in which the Masons are represented in the Cathedral campaign. This division is under the Chairmanship of Judge Tompkins and is one of the nine major divisions of community interests which make up the Committee of Community Cooperation of which the Hon. George W. Wickersham is Chairman. The others are: Business Men's Division, Haley Fiske, President of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, Chairman; Professional Men's Division, Gen. George W. Goethals, Chairman; Educational Division, Dr. John H. Finley, former Commissioner of Education of the State of New York, Chairman; Women's Division, Mrs. Hamilton R. Fairfax, Chairman; Military Division, Col. George Wm. Burleigh, Chairman; Interdenominational Division, Raymond B. Fosdick, Chairman; Historical and Patriotic Division, Gen. Charles H. Sherrill, Chairman; Arts Division, Prof. Alfred D. F. Hamlin, Chairman.

Among the many contributions pouring in from the fraternal field acknowledgement was early made of a donation by the Police Square Club of $100 and also one of $100 from the Post Office Square Club.

LITERATURE constantly records the activities in similar lines of the ancient brethren. The author of the "Cathedral Builders" connects the Freemasons of the cathedral-building age to the ancient College of Architects of Rome, the interpreters of the glorious classic art of the empire. Her thesis is that the missing link is to be found in the Magistri Comacini, a guild of architects who, on the breakup of the Roman Empire, fled to Comacini, a fortified island in Lake Como, and there kept alive the traditions of classic art during the Dark Ages; that from them were developed in direct descent the various styles of Italian architecture; and that, finally, they carried the knowledge and practice of architecture and sculpture into France, Spain, Germany and England. An inscribed stone dated from 717, shows that the Comacine Guild was organized as Magistri and Discipuli, under a Gastaldo, or Grand Master. Moreover, they called their meeting places loggia, a long list of which the author recites from the records of various cities, giving names of officers, and, often, of members. They, too, had their Masters and Wardens, and oaths, token, grips and passwords, which formed a bond of union stronger than legal ties. They wore white aprons and gloves, and revered the Four Crowned Martyrs of the order. Square, compasses, level, plumb-line and arch appear among their emblems. "King Solomon's Knot" was one of their symbols, and the endless interwoven cord, symbol of Eternity, which has neither beginning nor end, was another. Later, however, the Lion's Paw seems to have become their chief emblem. From illustrations given by the author they are shown in their regalia, with aprons and emblems, clad as the keepers of the great art and teaching of which they were masters.

A VISITOR to the great Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Morningside Heights, New York City, will find, even in the present building, objects of such great artistry and historical interest that he may profitably spend some time in making a tour of the building.

After thirty years of intermittent construction, the present fragment of the structure, about one-third of the whole, is built. This fragment includes the Crypt, Choir, Crossing and the beautiful chevet of chapels, called the Seven Chapels of Tongues, which surround the Choir. The completed portion of the Cathedral is in constant use. Foundations for the great Nave were laid before construction was delayed at the time of the war. Sufficient funds have already been raised to complete the Nave, and construction will be resumed in the spring. Its capacity, already large, of 1,700 seats, is frequently exceeded by the crowds which attend the great services peculiar to a cathedral, on occasions of national civic joy or sorrow. In the vast completed edifice approximately 10,000 seats will be available, and it is estimated that between thirty and forty thousand people may be given standing room at special services.

As a visitor enters the temporary west door, he comes immediately into the Square Crossing, from the sides of which one day the Transepts will spring out to form the arms of the cross, which is the ground plan of the building. The Crossing will seat nearly 2,000 people and is practically filled at the regular services on Sunday. The visitor's eye will first be attracted to the tremendous pillars which form a kind of crown behind the altar. These are the largest pillars in any building in the world. The altar and reredos which they overshadow are both of white marble and the proportions may be gathered from the fact that the center figure of Christ is over seven feet tall.

In the Crossing stands the white marble pulpit, a gift of a Presbyterian, Mrs. Russell Sage, exquisitely carved, with panels representing scenes in the life of Our Lord, and immediately behind the pulpit and between the Crossing and the Choir is the Delafield Memorial Parapet, consisting of nineteen figures, each of which, in a separate niche, represents the outstanding Christian in each century. These figures attract a great deal of attention, running, as they do, from St. Paul to Abraham Lincoln, and crowds of visitors stand in front of the uncarved granite block which now represents the 20th century, wondering whose face and figure will one day be carved there to represent the one who did the most for Christian civilization in our generation.

RUNNING all around the Choir, behind the stalls and the Altar, is a passageway called the Ambulatory. This forms, as it were, a ring around the head of the Cross, and from it, like rays, spring seven beautiful chapels. These are called the Chapels of the Tongues, and they bear this name because they are dedicated to the use of different national groups, each group being represented by its own chapel.

The first chapel on the right is St. James', dedicated to the Spanish and Latin-American group, and in this beautiful building, which is in itself as large as a small church with its own special organ and choir stalls, is the tomb of Bishop Henry Codman Potter, under whose auspices the building of the Cathedral was begun. The next chapel is the Italian Chapel, and is called by the name of St. Ambrose. It has a beautiful alabaster Altar and a heavy gilt Reredos behind it, one of the finest specimens, perhaps, of Italian Renaissance work in this country. Each chapel has its own metal gateway or screen, beautifully figured in the highest artistry of the metal worker. That of St. Ambrose represents across its lintel scenes in the life of St. Ambrose, the figures all being cast in bronze. The third chapel is St. Martin's and this is dedicated to French services. It contains what is thought by many to be the most beautiful windows in the Cathedral, and also a statuette of Joan of Arc, at whose feet rest two stones from the Cathedral at Rouen, where the Saint was imprisoned before her execution.

Passing out into the Ambulatory again, we look up and see the tremendous clerestory windows above the roofs of the chapels, giving the light to the east end of the Cathedral. These are marvelously colored works of art and are considered the finest range of windows in this country. The central window, above the High Altar, is the Whitelaw Reid Memorial. In the Ambulatory immediately behind the High Altar is the tomb of the founder, Bishop Horatio Potter, who was the Bishop who obtained the charter for the Cathedral. Opposite this is the entrance to the Belmont Memorial Chapel, called the Chapel of St. Saviour, which is used for Oriental services. The outstanding features of this chapel are the magnificence of the window, the purity of the white marble Altar, the right angel of the four supporting, which has the likeness of Major Belmont's first wife, and the brilliant splendor of the bronze colored Reredos behind it. This is the easternmost chapel and forms the apex of the Cathedral.

EXT to that is St. Columba's Chapel, dedicated to the use of the British group and peoples. The next one is St. Boniface, very severe in type but distinguished by a simple splendor of its own, belonging to the German group. At the last is the Scandinavian Chapel of St. Ansgarius, in which Swedish, Norwegian and Danish services may be held. This contains one of the most beautiful pieces of sculpture in this country, called "The Sacrifice," by Malvina Hoffman, which represents the sacrifice of women in the great war. It was originally executed for Harvard University for the men who died in the war and in memory of Robert Bacon, but as Harvard had no appropriate place to put it, it has been temporarily left in this chapel. In the same chapel is a stone from Worcester Cathedral, England, inscribed with the date 1320, which is one of the many objects of antiquarian interest that the Cathedral possesses.

Another of the same sort is the stone at the base of the table at the right of the altar, which is part of the Cathedral of Bury St. Edmunds, England, where the knights assembled after they had obtained their rights from King John at Runnymede, and the Greater Charter of English liberties was signed.

It is interesting to know that among operations going on in the Cathedral, there is being built the Stuyvesant Memorial Baptistry, a gift of the descendants of Peter Stuyvesant, which will be one of the most beautiful of its kind. This is located beyond the north Ambulatory, west of St. Ansgarius' Chapel. This gift approximates a cost of $257,000.

Among other objects of great artistic beauty and value are the twelve magnificent Barberini tapestries, worked in Italy some 250 years ago, representing scenes in the life of Our Lord. These great tapestries which hang on the walls are each about 16 by 14 feet in size.

It is impossible in a magazine's columns to give adequate conception of the wealth of beauty to be found in the present building, and if this is true of this uncompleted portion, one needs but little imagination to see the splendor of the building which is soon to be finished in its entire beauty.

When the Nave is complete, one will enter one of the five doors on Amsterdam Avenue and see the interior of the building over 200 yards in length. If one were to walk around it, one would walk one-quarter of a mile. Going up the side aisle, the visitor will pass a series of alcoves, in some of which altars will be placed to form chapels.

In many cases these will be the memorials of great organizations and associations or groups of givers. For instance, there will be a naval and military alcove, in which will be placed the insignia of regiments, the battle records, the memorials of famous soldiers. In another will be the coats of arms and crests of the great national and patriotic societies, all of them works of art and all of them tinged with a deep patriotic significance. Another, it may be, will be dedicated to the spirit of all true sport, as this Cathedral of St. John the Divine represents everything that is wholesome and necessary in the life of man.

Near at hand will be a beautifully executed niche, containing "The Golden Book" in which are to be inscribed the names of all donors, irrespective of the amount of their donation. Thousands and thousands of names will be inscribed in this memorial book, representing every section of the life of this city and nation and the world, and, towering above it, will be the Children's Arch, built by the donations of the children who have become so much interested.

The architectural beauties of the Cathedral are so tremendous, since it will be the third largest in the whole of the world, and, perhaps, the most beautiful, that a visit to it, even though it is not yet finished, should be a matter of educational interest to everyone.

Project Canterbury