Monday, 3 March 2014

The Spirit of New York?

One characteristic that's pretty typical of American visitors to Europe is that they are generally amazed by how old things are, so it's hardly surprising that Understanding Frenchman and I, on our first visit to the USA, were struck by the young-ness of nearly everything that we saw. At first we felt it as an absence: if you can't wander the medieval centre, admire the Gothic churches, discover some Roman ruins and even stumble upon the odd prehistoric dolmen, what, as a tourist, are you supposed to do? And if the fun of travel lies in blending in with the local culture, how do you do you integrate when the striking feature is that everyone is so different? By the end though, I felt that it was one of the most interesting things we experienced in New York.

One of the most interesting places that we visited was definitely the Cathedral of St John the Divine, which is in Harlem, near the north-west corner of Central Park. From the outside, it doesn't look that different to many European Gothic cathedrals - a prime example of how settlers in America often exported both works of art and artistic and architectural styles, as the cornerstone of the cathedral was only laid in 1892. Enter the building, though, and you will discover unique features that mark it as being of its own place and time and not just a pastiche of another era on another continent.


One part that I really liked was the 8 Chapels of the Tongues, each devoted to a different immigrant group from the 19th and early 20th centuries and a symbol of New York's diverse population. (It's also interesting to note, however, that Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Spain all get their own chapel, while the Scandinavian countries are together and Eastern Europe shares with Asia.)

One of the Chapels of the Tongues
In other ways, the Cathedral demonstrates a much more modern outlook than it's European counterparts. Hanging in the nave when we arrived was this beautiful light sculpture, created by a Chinese artist. There are 14 bays honouring professions, including a stained glass window showing a 1925 television to represent communications, and a sculpture made from the remains of burned buildings is a memorial to all firefighters dating from 1976. Another sculpture, this time in bronze panels, shows scenes of environmental destruction, while the altar is consecrated to world peace.

The Chinese Sculpture
In its mission too, the Cathedral shows itself to be forward-thinking and open-minded, claiming to be "nourished by the ideas and liturgies of other faiths." It calls on artists, writers, musicians and philosphers to "help educate our imaginations", and holds services blessing cyclists, and especially bike messengers, and animals. (Camels and bumble bees can attend as well as cats and dogs.)

Signs of a modern-day sense of humour?
I'm not pretending to make any judgement on the relative values of any cathedrals' works, or to criticise or praise either St John the Divine or any other church, but it did give me a great insight into what might possibly be the most fascinating and powerful aspect of New York's (America's?) culture - the opportunity and the willingness to draw on a huge range of cultures and traditions and to take the best of them to create something that from the outside might look like its ancestors, but on the inside is really very different. 


  1. The signs are priceless! The font is too.

    I was shocked how "new" things were in Canada, i.e. people bragging about whatever building being there "since the 1960s"!

  2. I agree with Zhu above! Yesterday I went to a museum built in 1812 which is, granted old, but in England, almost all the church's are 10th century, I used to live in a 15th century thatched cottage!! 'Thou shalt not poop' - love it!