August 25, 2011

Washington's National Cathedral

The worst damage from the earthquake in DC on Tuesday was to the National Cathedral's central tower, where three of the four spires cracked and fell onto the Cathedral roof. There are no internal damages, thankfully.  The Cathedral is not covered under Earthquake insurance, so they are currently raising funds to fix the spires.
The Cathedral is a fascinating building, and one of my favorites in Washington.  Built on Mount St. Albans, it is the highest point in the District, and can be seen from almost anywhere in the City. (You know I have a soft spot for churches on the tops of hills.) The cornerstone, laid in 1907, was inscribed with the words "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." The construction was completed in 1990. It was envisioned as  the Church of America with all the grandiosity and yes, genuine religious sentiment that that term entails.

Done in the Gothic style, but on an American-super-sized scale, it also employed the work of many American artists in now-overlooked crafts, like stone-masonry.  Most notable among those craftsmen and artists is Frederick Hart (1943-1999), who was honored with an obituary by Tom Wolfe:
...By and by, Hart got to know the crew and took to borrowing tools and having a go at discarded pieces of stone. [Master Stone-mason Roger] Morigi was so surprised by his aptitude, he made him an apprentice after all, and soon began urging him to become a sculptor. Hart turned out to have Giotto's seemingly God-given genius -- Giotto was a sculptor as well as a painter -- for pulling perfectly formed human figures out of stone and clay at will and rapidly.

In 1971, Hart learned that the cathedral was holding an international competition to find a sculptor to adorn the building's west facade with a vast and elaborate spread of deep bas reliefs and statuary on the theme of the Creation. Morigi urged Hart to enter. He entered and won. A working-class boy nobody had ever heard of, an apprentice stone carver, had won what would turn out to be the biggest and most prestigious commission for religious sculpture in America in the 20th century.

The project brought him unimaginable dividends. The erstwhile juvenile delinquent from Conway, S.C., was a creature of hot passions, a handsome, slender boy with long, wavy light brown hair, an artist by night with a rebellious hairdo and a rebellious attitude who was a big hit with the girls. In the late afternoons he had taken to hanging about Dupont Circle in Washington, which had become something of a bohemian quarter. Afternoon after afternoon he saw the same ravishing young woman walking home from work down Connecticut Avenue. His hot Hart flame lit, he introduced himself and asked her if she would pose for his rendition of the Creation, an array of idealized young men and women rising nude from out of the chaotic swirl of Creation's dawn. She posed. They married. Great artists and the models they fell in love with already accounted for the most romantic part of art history. But probably no model in all that lengthy, not to say lubricious, lore was ever so stunningly beautiful as Lindy Lain Hart. Her face and figure were to recur in his work throughout his career.

The hot-blooded boy's passion, as Hart developed his vision of the Creation, could not be consummated by Woman alone. He fell in love with God. For Hart, the process began with his at first purely pragmatic research into the biblical story of the Creation in the Book of Genesis. He had been baptized in the Presbyterian Church, and he was working for the Episcopal Church at the Washington National Cathedral. But by the 1970's, neither of these proper, old-line, in-town Protestant faiths offered the strong wine a boy who was in love with God was looking for. He became a Roman Catholic and began to regard his talent as a charisma, a gift from God. He dedicated his work to the idealization of possibilities God offered man.
Read the whole obituary here. It is a marvelous piece of writing and a fine tribute to a remarkable American artist.

ANYWAY, are some photos I took of the National Cathedral in 2009 when I first visited with my parents. (Unfortunately, I have none of Hart's Creation Facade, though you can see it here.) The windows are really marvelous, and warrant careful examination (below: A window dedicated to St. Timothy in the Children's Chapel, and The Burning Bush).  In fact, I fully intend on going back as soon as it is reopened to study them more.

No comments:

Post a Comment