Thursday, 22 January 2015

Catholic Cathedrals of North America : 1
Saint Patrick's New York

Nestled amidst the bustle of Manhattan, Saint Patrick's Cathedral.
The North American continent has a wonderful richness and variety of Cathedral churches, which we hope to explore in coming months in these columns. For this post, we turn our attention to (arguably) the most famous and well-loved of the Cathedrals of the United States : Saint Patrick's Cathedral in New York City.

This masterpiece of the Gothic Revival was designed by the American architect James Renwick from 1853, work commencing on the building in 1858. Renwick had toured Europe to inspect its great Cathedrals before commencing his designs and, as a result, Saint Patrick's has much in common in style and detail with French Cathedrals and with the great Cathedral of Cologne.

We find a certain similarity of composition in the facade of the Cathedral of Rheims and Saint Patrick's New York. This was even more evident before the spires were completed on the New York Cathedral in 1888 (see photographs below). Saint Patrick's is not a large Cathedral by any standard, but its small size is off-set by the soaring appearance of its facade and its marvellous interior.

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Splendidly composed facade of Saint Patrick's Cathedral.
Attentuated portals are enclosed by the massive buttresses.

Rheims Cathedral, France.
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The unfinished Cathedral,
shewing similarities to Rheims Cathedral
but in a more compact form.

The construction of Saint Patrick's Cathedral was interrupted by the American Civil War (1861 - 1865) and in the wake of that terrible conflict, the Cathedral was not able to be completed as planned. 

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An artisan working on the nave ceiling of the Cathedral.
The photograph shews clearly that the entire structure is formed
from plaster, neatly painted to resemble masonry.

The most significant change is that the ceiling, which was intended to be entirely stone vaulting, was instead made in the lath and plaster technique in imitation of stone (see adjacent photograph). Stone vaulting could not be afforded. Consequently, Renwick's design for exteriors walls supporting a stone vault with flying buttresses was modified and remains today in a curiously unfinished state.

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South-west aspect of the Cathedral shewing Renwick's
unfinished flying buttresses along the aisle walls.

After the Cathedral's completion in 1888, the only addition to the building was the construction of a Lady Chapel (1900 - 1908 ) emerging from the apse. It follows in most every respect the character of the apse from which it extends.

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The East end of the Cathedral, shewing the Lady Chapel
and buildings associated with the Cathedral.

One of the consequences of the Cathedral now being surrounded with the skyscrapers of Manhattan, as could never have been foreseen in the 1850's, is that the interior is rather dark. Furthermore, successive generations have added stained glass to the clerestory windows. And so, we turn to a marvellous old photograph from 1907 to illustrate this Cathedral's splendid interior.

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Marvellous 1907 photograph shewing the interior of the Cathedral
bathed in natural light.
The grandeur and wonderful proportions of the building
are well-shewn in this photograph.

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This photographs shews the inventive treatment of the southern wall of the transept.

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Bird's eye view of the chancel.
We turn now to liturgical arrangements of the Cathedral. The adjacent photograph, taken from high in the vault during recent restoration work, shews the large area of the chancel. A large area of tiled pavement separates the two sides of the choirstalls and leads to the steps of the High Altar, which rests beneath a civory or altar canopy. It will be noticed that this chancel is very spacious.

Beyond the arches of the apse is an ambulatory and beyond this can be seen the Lady Chapel. The chancel is separated from the ambulatory by timber parcloses.

But this is not the original arrangement of the Cathedral's sanctuary. The photograph below shews something altogether different. Prior to 1942, the High altar was a composition in the High Victorian style. It gleamed white and because it was very lofty and communicated most of the width of the chancel, was a real focal point for the Cathedral.

Although from the perspective of liturgical ideals crowning the High altar with a civory is usually desirable and admirable, in the instance of Saint Patrick's Cathedral, the change was not successful visually.

The civory - a composition in a free Gothic style - was purposely left very open, so that it would be possible to see through it to the apse beyond. The design of this civory is not sufficiently three-dimensional for it to have an adequate visual impact in this large space.

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Photograph taken during a wedding in the Cathedral in the 1930's.
The old High altar visually dominates, drawing all eyes towards it.


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The Cathedral photographed in the 1960's.

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An early photograph of the 1942 High altar and civory.
A dossal was suspended behind the altar to assist focus.

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Another view of the civory.

This view from the rear of the civory
shews the entrance to the Cathedral Crypt.

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A beautiful view of the Cathedral taken at the beginning of the 20th century.