The History Hat – Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle


Hello History Hatters! The southeast quadrant of the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C. is home to the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, which is the seat of the Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington. It is also a historic, artistic, and architectural treasure trove. The parish of St. Matthew the Apostle
began with this church, built in 1840, at the corner of 15th and H streets
northwest. In 1890 the growth of the congregation necessitated a larger place
of worship. The parish decided to relocate to the fashionable Dupont Circle neighborhood, where large mansions recently had begun to appear. Contemporary was some of the most prominent structures erected in the Dupont Circle neighborhood, the cathedral’s construction began in 1893. New York architect C. Grant Lafarge designed a cathedral that would become one of the most unique architectural and artistic ecclesiastical buildings in the United States. The church kindly granted the History Hat special access to film its interior, but first, let’s take a look at its remarkable exterior. Earlier, in 1891, LaFarge’s architectural firm, Heins & LaFarge, won a design competition for the Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Records reveal they drew inspiration from the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, St. Mark’s in Venice, Italy, and St. Front in Perigueux, France. To this day, St. John the Divine remains unfinished, and Heins & LaFarge were forced to make extensive renovations to the original design by the Church’s Board of Trustees, to include more gothic elements. As you can see, the Gothic style creates a sense of verticality, drawing our eyes ever upward to the skies. By comparison, the architecture of St. Matthew’s, while tall, standing 200 feet at the top of its dome, we are first struck by its massive quality, its thick red brick and sandstone walls, its overall sturdiness. From the street level, it also appears to have a well-balanced symmetry. All of these elements are typical of
Romanesque architecture, which is a blend of ancient Roman and Byzantine
architectural styles popularized in Europe from the late 10th century C.E., until the rise of the gothic style in the 13th century C.E. If we looked at the stone, terracotta, and marble facade we, find four sets of Corinthian columns linked together in a horizontal line. The
columns support a semi-circular tympanum mosaic. Again, the circular shape and emphasis on the horizontal rather than vertical, are tenants of Romanesque architecture. The mosaic depicts St. Matthew the Apostle. The title apostle means he was one of Christ’s disciples, and to Catholics, Matthew is the Patron
Saint of civil servants because he was a tax collector prior to becoming an
Apostle of Christ. The mosaic depicts Matthew holding his gospel, meaning he was one of the four authors who recorded an account of the life and death of
Jesus Christ. Before we step inside, take note of the three bronze doors representing the Holy Trinity, that of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
The small rectangular transom cavities above the heavy doors permit light to
enter through their fish-scale grilles. These are popular in Romanesque design,
for example, we can find similar doors down the street at the Carnegie
Institution of Washington, or the ancient Roman Pantheon in Rome, Italy. As we peek inside, behold the Cathedral’s gorgeous interior. However, keep in mind that this structure lacked any decorations when the nave and dome were first completed in 1913. If we squarely focus on the architecture we will notice key differences from a gothic cathedral. In this example from York England, our eyes move forward toward the altar and upward toward the ceiling. Whereas, in St. Matthew’s, our eyes are keen to wander a bit. The Cathedral’s nave is still designed in the shape of a cross, but the limited use of columns in lieu of piers to support the rounded arches and vaulted ceilings creates various pockets of space, which lure our visual interest. These are also key elements of Romanesque architecture. While the Cathedral remained undecorated, just outside its doors and across the street, in 1924, Irish artist Jerome Connor completed a monument dedicated
to the nuns of the Civil War battlefield. The monument was funded by the Ladies
Auxiliary to the Ancient Order of Hibernians of America and approved by Congress The upper inscription reads: “They
comforted the dying, nursed the wounded, carried hope to the imprisoned, gave in
his name a drink of water to the thirsty.” In shallow relief bronze, the nuns are
depicted wearing the habit of their corresponding orders. They are flanked by
two statues representing patriotism and peace. At the time of the monument’s completion, the facade and front steps had just been completed in the prior
year. Inside, mosaics above the altar and the
dome’s pendentives and two murals on the transepts were installed between 1917
and 1926. These were all designed by Edwin Blashfield, whose murals adorn the dome of the Library of Congress. The mosaics bear similarities to murals
from early Christian churches in Ravenna, Italy. The central figure is a seated
St. Matthew with an angel behind him. The peacocks and their feathers
symbolize paradise and eternal life. The two murals on each transect are
dedicated to the calling and martyrdom of St. Matthew. According to the Gospel of Matthew, just after Jesus healed a paralyzed man, he saw Matthew sitting in a tax collection post and instructed him to follow him. Matthew complied and became one of Christ’s disciples. The mosaic above St. Matthew is called “Angels of the Crucifixion,” where Christ is represented as a sacrificial lamb. The
angels hold the crown of thorns and other symbols of Christ’s crucifixion by
the ancient Romans. The Cathedral’s pendentive mosaics depict the authors of the four Gospels as the tetramorph or four forms. These specific creature forms
traced back to the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel and two ancient symbols of Near
Eastern astrology. For over a thousand years, the evangelists each have been depicted and their own unique form. St. Matthew is associated with the
winged man because his gospel focuses on the humanity of Christ, as it
addresses his genealogy. St. Mark appears with a lion because his gospel begins with the roar of St. John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness, who links Old Testament prophecies to the arrival of Christ. Saint Luke is symbolized by an ox, an animal widely used in ancient sacrifices. His gospel focuses on the sacrificial character of Christ’s death, and it begins with the sacrifice offered by Zacharias to the Temple of Jerusalem. Saint John is associated with the Eagle because the eagle is a symbol of that
which comes from above. His gospel reveals Christ was born the son of God to the Virgin Mary. The final work designed by Blashfield, completed in 1931, is a mural above the main entrance featuring prominent Catholic Americans
and Saints, reminiscent of Raphael’s “School of Athens” in the Vatican. In 1939, this parish church was designated a cathedral and construction would begin on the fifth chapel, whose entrance is just passed the Crypt, where three former Archbishop’s of Washington are interned. The chapel of St. Francis of Assisi contains murals by Thomas LaFarge, nephew of the Cathedral’s architect. These scenes depict st. Francis receiving the stigmata, or wounds of Christ, and here, he is taking a lifetime vow of poverty. Earlier, in 1898, the Cathedral’s first
chapel was constructed in honor of St. Anthony of Padua, a follower of Saint
Francis. Although the marble was completed early
in the Cathedral’s history, the beautiful mosaics were not installed until the
1960s. These highly detailed mosaics by Angelo Gherardi depict scenes from the life of St. Francis and his disciples in the Umbrian hills of Italy. Also, during the 60s, mosaics designed by John de Rosen were installed in the Blessed Sacrament chapel, as well as in the newly constructed Baptistery. The Baptistry also contains marvelous stained glass work by master glassworker Gabriel Loire from Chartres, France. If you look closely, you can see the fracture marks where the artist struck the glass with a hammer to diffract light. The mosaics located within the Chapel of the Blessed Mother were also designed by Thomas LaFarge. They reference the human genealogy of Christ. The statue of Mary by Washington artist Grodan Cray is more recent, as it replaced a vandalized original in 1984. The 1960s also marked the installation of the wood and gold leaf statuary of the Wedding Chape,l carved by Italian artist Vincenzo Demetz, which depicts the wedding of the Virgin Mary. Likewise, the upper gothic-style Chapel of the Holy Angels was also completed at this time. It’s Cathedral lore that President Kennedy, our nation’s first Roman Catholic president, used to attend services while seated in upper Chapel during his presidency to avoid drawing unwanted attention. On November 25th, 1963, the body of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy departed from the White House in a procession toward the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle for his funeral service. “With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own. A marble plaque reminds visitors, “Here rested the remains of President Kennedy at the Requiem Mass, November 25th, 1963 before their removal to Arlington where they lie in expectation of a heavenly resurrection.” Other historical events to note at the Cathedral have also been solemn, but not as sorrowful. Mother Teresa visited the Cathedral in 1974, Pope John Paul II visited in 1979, and Pope Francis visited in 2015. My name is Bob Gallagher. I’m a parishioner at St. Matthew’s Cathedral and I’ve been here for about 20 years, and I’m one of the official tour guides. Please know that you’re always welcome
to visit St. Matthews. You can take a virtual tour on our website. The website will also contain other detailed information about the Cathedral. Mass
times, personnel, our staff, and phone numbers in case you’re interested in
making an appointment for a visit. We welcome you at any time. Thank you for watching. Subscribe by clicking on the History Hat logo as we continue to explore the mysteries of history.

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