Thursday, November 20, 2014

Carving in Stone: Washington National Cathedral (U.S.)

Living in Washington D.C., much of what happens is already recorded in history. However, there are parts of the City that still hold their mysteries close. One of those places is the Washington National Cathedral (Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.)

 Dedicated in 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt, this Gothic Cathedral has been continually worked on by various stone carvers and masons, ever since. Officially finished in 1990, the Cathedral is still being labored on, since there are grotesques and gargoyles still be carved. Also, after the 2011 Washington Earthquake, they have endeavored to repair the damaged done to the Cathedral.

 Throughout the many years, the stone carvers developed a deep sense of intimacy and connection to the Cathedral itself. As Master Carver Vincent Palumbo noted, “The sculptor creates it (the work), but we give it life. When we carve it in stone, that is the resurrection.” Many of the carvings around the building reflect this closeness. One gargoyle depicts Master Carver Roger Morigi as the devil with his stone working tools, while another one is of a mushroom cloud coming out of his head. Both are in reference to his bad temper. (People who do not know this, often think that the mushroom cloud is a commentary of the modern age.)

 Other signs of the intimacy between the Cathedral and the stone carvers are the numerous carvings of their exploits. One grotesque shows Palumbo in a truck with a flagpole. This memorialized the time when he hit the Cathedral’s flag pole with his pick-up truck. At the north side of the nave, there is a flying buttress that remains uncarved. This is to commemorate in stone the death of Stone Carver Joseph Petti, who died there, when a scaffolding gave way.

 The stone carvers share the story of a fellow carver who worked there in the 1950s. He commuted daily from Baltimore, Maryland to Washington D.C., and therefore few people had met his family. When his wife died, he wanted her to be buried in the Cathedral. (Other people who had been interred there were President Woodrow Wilson and Helen Keller.) He asked the Dean of the Cathedral Francis Sayre if his wife could be also. After being told no by the Bishop, Dean Sayre offered his apologies to the stone carver. Dean Sayre said that the man told him that it was already taken care of. According to the Dean, the masons had mixed the ashes of the wife of the stone carver into the mortar. She holds several stones together atop the south transept. Rumor has it that after the earthquake, she and the stones are still intact.

 Although Dean Sayre verified authenticity of the story, several elements make it a legend. The names of the stone carver and his wife are unknown. When the Dean was asked about the story, it was forty years after the fact. Furthermore Dean Sayre only stated what he surmised. Palumbo, who was interviewed about his long tenure at the Cathedral, told many stories, to the reporter, about specific people. The ashes of the stone carver’s wife was not one of them. Also, the legend of mixing of the ashes of the dead into the stone mortar is a story often told about other cathedrals as well. Whether it is true or not, it remains a testament to the closeness and love of the stone carvers for their Cathedral.

 Works Used.
Meyer, Graham, “Mysteries of the Washington National Cathedral.” The Washingtonian. September 2007. Web.
 Ringle, Ken, “Carving Out a Niche at the Cathedral.” The Washington Post. 18, November, 1999. Web.
 Washington National Cathedral Official Web Site. Web.

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