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Spires and Crosses: The World's Largest Cathedral Is in New York and It Is Really, Really Massive

The world's largest cathedral isn't in Europe.

St John the Divine Cathedral
The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City. |

The world's largest cathedral isn't in Europe.

You would be mistaken if you thought St. Peter's Basilica in Rome held that distinction.

It is actually the Cathedral Church of St. John Divine, seat of the Episcopal bishop of New York.

And as you might expect, St. John the Divine is massive. So much so that its official capacity is reportedly 4,500 people.

As its nickname St. John the Unfinished infers the cathedral is far from complete, though construction has been stalled for decades.

Nevertheless, it is truly magnificent — perhaps one of the most striking cathedrals I have ever visited, if only because of its shear size and blend of architectural styles.

When construction started in 1892 the design by architects George Heins and Christopher LaFarge called for the Romanesque Revival style, but by 1911 when Ralph Adams Cram took over following the death of Heins it had morphed into 13th century French Gothic.

While not intended the combination of two distinct styles actually made it like many of the great English cathedrals that seamlessly blend Romanesque or Norman with the later iterations of Gothic.

At St. John the Divine, the east end — the oldest part — is Romanesque Revival. The most visible element is the gigantic columns separating the high altar and ambulatory. The rest of the cathedral, including the nave, is typical of Gothic Revival, though there are also more modern additions.

The crossing under the Byzantine-inspired dome is full of modern statuary, including depictions of classic Christian symbols like fish. Meanwhile, the north transept, damaged by a 2001 fire, features elaborate copies of 16th century Flemish tapestries.

A nude female Christ and non-Christian religious art displays installed intermittently between side chapels have been highly controversial. These, along with secular events that regularly rent the space, have drawn the ire of traditionalists and small-'o' orthodox Christians.

Ignoring the theological debate over these controversies, there is no question that St. John the Divine is worth a visit the next time you are in New York.

One can only imagine how much more impressive the cathedral would be if it had been finished — something that will probably never happen, if only because the dwindling Episcopal Church writ large no longer has the prestige nor deep-pocketed patrons to spend the hundreds of millions of dollars required to finish construction.

If you go

St. John the Divine is open to visitors in addition to worshippers at its daily religious services, which include classic Anglican evensong. Sightseeing hours (admission is $10 for adults and $8 for students and seniors) are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Keep an eye out for details big and small — the rose window is said to contain 10,000 pieces of glass.

Spires and Crosses is published every week.

Dennis Lennox writes about travel, politics and religious affairs. He has been published in the Financial Times, Independent, The Detroit News, Toronto Sun and other publications. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.

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