At the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine

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The Cathedral welcomes everybody to its services, irrespective of denominational affiliations, nationality or worldly estate. The Cathedral also welcomes those who belong to no denomination. —Edward Hagaman Hall, A Guide to the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in the City of New York (1920)

What does it mean to be a house of welcome and of refuge, to offer sanctuary to those in need? What are the threads connecting us, as individuals and as communities? The Value of Sanctuary (exhibition on view at the Cathedral, February 14-June 30, 2019)

1. Portal of Paradise

What do you see, Saint John, your look of anguish palpable in granite where you stand? On watch between your doors, what do you wish for silently, besides the world’s end? You clutch your quill and parchment; to your left, carved into columns by some mediator skilled in stone, Apocalypse is deftly chiseled, cleft, and shaped. Mute Revelator, stilled while tidal waves shake buildings loose, Four Horsemen feel your weight, and cars drop off a shattered Brooklyn Bridge. It can’t be news to you...Passing, should we feel awe, or scoff to see such ruin fashioned into art? —Beloved views and boroughs blown apart.

John Angel, trumeau figure of Saint John, 1946; limestone; Simon Verity and assistants, Portal of Paradise project, 1988-1997; limestone

2. Peace Fountain

Beloved views and boroughs play no part in this bronze sculpture brushed with verdigris— this dormant fountain where paired beasts report for duty on the Ark. Here Noah blesses all who enter wordless, strong or weak. (A real peacock squawks, awkward and splendid in the garden—iridescent, sleek, metallic blue and green, opinions candid.) Archangel Michael, stroking the giraffe who nuzzles him, claims victory: Satan’s head (yes, his: don’t say his name) commits the gaffe of dangling from a crab-claw, vanquished, dead, beneath blue sky, the whole tableau outlandish— Out of the real, unsmiling sun, we vanish.

Greg Wyatt, Peace Fountain, 1985; bronze; incorporates small bronzed sculptures made by children

3. Poets’ Corner

Out of the real, unsmiling sun, we vanish through the Golden Doors: the nave’s north side where poets’ names, engraved, refuse to perish— The flicker of human voices in dim light. The wall confronts us with its dedication— Below, stone tablets (dark gray) feature lines, one from each poet so honored, each inscription fixed and final. Above us, stained glass shines vermilion, sapphire-blue with Saint Paul’s counsel— Think on these things honest, true, and just three candles lit: a space that’s noiseless, still, yet crowded with voices—Hayden, Bishop, Frost. So many more, all far from where we chart the course of words to our collective heart.

4. Tapestries for Familiars

The course of words to our collective heart awakes our vision: in Crusaders’ Bay, whose cut-glass art of war is counterpart to real-life bloodshed, hangs a tapestry that traps a wolf. The predator’s gold eyes glare back—in menace? Tolerance?—her silver- gray coat shining under sanctuary’s stars, so lushly furred that we absolve her. Beside her hangs her match: a trio of crows finds refuge in the jacquard sky, its twilight less blue than the lake whose water flows, shimmering, out of sight. Black stars are bright when skies are pale for those who seek safe harbor slyly, though they worship at no altar.

Kiki Smith, Cathedral, 2013; Harbor, 2015: cotton jacquard tapestries

5. Collective Heart

Shyly, though we worship at no altar, we greet this Heart, luminous, charged with light sent coursing through its lace, a metaphor imposing in its scale, tethered in flight. Webs melt to tracery where stained-glass blue breaks through magenta chains, their filigree delicate, monumental: threaded tissue of the heart’s unseen anatomy. Who sewed this stunning textile, latticed wave culled from no body, offering its mix of startled hope, pink shroud beyond the nave? Come Lent, it’s lowered to veil the crucifix— A sacred heart, the fabric of some heaven cascading from whatever grace we’re given.

Eva Petrič, Collective Heart, 2016; assemblage of found hand-made lace

6. Nosferatu in the Nave, 1990s

Cascading from whatever grace we’re given, a memory of organ music swells. Infernal soundtrack: some lost Halloween, a silent movie, tremolos and trills pursuing Nosferatu, silvery in mist and make-up—not the resurrection that we hoped for after Calvary. Sun-touched, he fades to smoke. Cue the procession of the puppets: paint, papier mâché, life-sized and leering down the nave, the pipes’ vibrato deafening, no Passion Play despite the ghostly bishop: archetypes of All Souls, Saints, and Hallows through the filter of our fears, received and given shelter.

7. The Fate of the Earth

Among our fears, received and given shelter here and now are those for Earth itself: two dozen bronze reliefs where bison falter under gunfire, tribes pursued, the gulf between invaders and indigenous uncrossed by anything but ammunition; where plains and woodland creatures, cowed and countless, dwellers of sea and sky, their terror human in its etching, flee or huddle close; one forest cut down, another blocked by cars, one where a Black man, lynched, could not refuse the dark trees’ canopy, the avatars of gentle grazers curious, their graven eyes alarmed… These woods are no one’s haven.

Peter Gourfain, The Fate of the Earth: 24 Bronze Panels on the Theme of Ecology, 1984-1989; cast bronze

8. Memorial to September 11th

Some would say this world is no one’s haven. A woman of bronze—eyes shut, her body tensed— resists catastrophe: whom will she save in time, who will be lost?—hands raised against the jets impaling them, her life surrendered to the wounds she’ll bear. Could we forget? She shields her chest, incarnate icon rendered to embody more, her heart the target no saint could divine through endless hours of ruin and ash…She has no womb, no legs; instead, the glass case that contains a tower’s heart-shaped rubble grounds her: concrete fragments, steel rods, lingerie…Relics on view— Unfinished history we’re passing through.

Meredith Bergmann, September 11th: A Memorial for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine 2, 2012; bronze, steel, glass, fragments from the rubble of the World Trade Towers

9. AIDS Memorial Book and Banner

Our history’s not finished. Passing through to Saint Luke’s Bay, we’re dazzled by the Gospels cast in stained glass, fables taught as true, though no one conjured cures or miracles for those whose names are written in the AIDS Memorial Book on permanent exhibit in this healers’ space… How fast the decades speed past, though we linger, silhouette and shade beside the banner, brightly dyed, its scattering of rainbow squares converging in memoriam: a plague denied too long, too many mourned, new voices surging— From the altarpiece, the Saint’s carved visage gazes down in love, our common language.

The dedication ceremony for the AIDS memorial in the Cathedral’s Saint Luke’s Bay took place November 9, 1985.

10. There Are Black People in the Future

Whose history defines our common language? Words signed or spoken cast their song and spell— From cuneiform to scroll and printed page, our voices reach through time. In words we dwell, and so, it’s toward the future that we call through broadcasts, ghostly footage, backlit screens, like figures caught in stained glass or a mural, stuck, unheard. But art becomes a means to bridge that gulf when time’s a billboard, wired and hung between a bay’s broad columns, background black, block letters blazing white, words seared against the void for all to see, the sound of one voice from the future reaching through in witness to a truth we always knew.

Alisha B. Wormsley, There Are Black People in the Future, 2019; mixed media, part of The Last Billboard Project; also featured in the Communications Bay

11. Great Rose Window and Homeless Jesus Sculpture

In witness to a truth he always knew: Saint John—in exile, awestruck by a vision staged for him alone—set down each clue and cryptic symbol, faithful to his mission. The Great Rose Window on the western wall spans forty feet: all time at his command, John’s guide—red-robed, enthroned—regards us all, serenely, not unkindly; close at hand, heraldic Greek, dextral and sinistral Beginning and End, shimmer in sky-blue glass… Outside, upon a park bench, sculptural, a man lies, swathed in folds that hide his face, bare, wounded feet revealed: another image we encounter on our pilgrimage.

Timothy Schmalz, Homeless Jesus (2013, original installed in Toronto); bronze; casts installed around the world

12. Sculpture Garden with Mythic Beasts and Real Birds; Synod House Archway

We encounter on our pilgrimage pigeons that mob and occupy the grounds; a mermaid of uncertain lineage, small sculptured beasts, mute Pegasus in bronze; the hutch, home to a peacock trinity: two ocean-hued, its star attraction white, whose plumage may suggest divinity but comes from a genetic oversight. Miraculous misunderstandings…In the arch that marks the Synod House, three gatherings look down from sandstone rows—sons of the Church, scientists, artisans—and each one sings, it seems, chaotic voices raised in chorus — The nests in niches are their hidden source.

John Evans and Co., Synod House western façade and archivolt sculptures (1913); sandstone

13. Muriel Rukeyser Poetry Wall

What else is waiting at the hidden source of spell or blessing? Pages digitized, the poems of prisoners, offered not to scholars but to far-off strangers, words devised to summon faith, forgiveness, ask for grace. They flash onscreen; still more, conceived in hope, rest in a binder, Xeroxed script that weighs incarceration’s cost against the scope of all that’s forfeited, hand-printed charms stilted or decorated like the raw untutored drafts kids make…Struggles and storms displayed or bound by three rings with the vow that Muriel’s wall will welcome every verse, all voices free to speak, without remorse.

“I care about a world in which there is not a sense of acceptance or rejection. Every poem that is offered will be posted.” —Muriel Rukeyser, Poetry Wall dedication plaque, Military Bay

14. The Great Bronze Doors, Revisited

Saint John, you’re free to speak without remorse as we stand silent here at your Cathedral doors, examining the riven waters of the sea and sky…We’ve come full circle. God’s invisible—this hand is His, dividing light and dark—while Eve and Adam, as naked as you’d guess from Genesis, give names to beasts, in view of Amsterdam— Sixty tableaux, half-tarnished….Stone Saint John, who looks out on the street and not the splendor, have your visions given way to reason through the years? Should we leave now, or enter once again in hopes that, if you wish, your own face might relax its mask of anguish?

Henry Wilson (designer), Great Bronze Doors (featuring sixty relief panels of Biblical scenes), 1927-1931

15. Postscript: Worlds to Come

What do you see, Saint John, that brings you anguish? Beloved views and boroughs blown apart? Out of the real, unsmiling sun, you vanish into words and our collective heart. Shyly, though we worship at no altar (heartened by whatever grace we’re given), fears persist, conceived and given shelter— Maybe it’s true this world is no one’s haven. If history’s not finished passing through, will love one day become our common language? In witness to a truth we always knew, we, too, encounter on our pilgrimage the light from bright wings waiting at the source where all are free to speak without remorse.

Note: The north and south sides of the nave are divided into “bays”: themed recesses that feature stained glass windows designed to reinforce their focus—perfect exhibition spaces. From the cathedral website: “Each vertical set of stained glass windows is dedicated to one of fourteen forms of human endeavor…On the ground level, the windows show a variety of historical and scriptural figures engaged in a particular activity…The higher set of windows show saints associated with the same activity and a rosette window at the top depicts Jesus” (“Explore our Grounds”).