Infinity Made Imaginable

This post is one of several that share how we include architecture in our homeschool.  Other posts in the series include:  Connecting Architecture to History, Architecture Scavenger Hunt, and The Grandeur that is Dome. 

Last spring and summer, we were reminded that a millennium and a half after the fall of Rome, our society is still building churches, banks and city hall buildings reminiscent of pagan temples complete with columns, pediments, arches, and the occasional dome. This spring, after spending our fall and winter in the Medieval period, I was hoping to make similar connections but was in despair at the utter dearth of castles, fortified citadels or Gothic Cathedrals in Virginia. Then I remembered the Washington National Cathedral.

National Cathedral Pilgrim Observation Gallery hallway
National Cathedral Pilgrim Observation Gallery hallway

The Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul also called the Washington National Cathedral was still under construction when my family lived in Alexandria years ago.  Construction on the Cathedral began in 1907, but like European cathedrals of the Medieval era, worship began in the space long before the building was complete.  The Bethlehem Chapel situated in the Crypt level under the High Altar was built first, and opened for worship in 1912.

The Cathedral is immense, the sixth largest in the world, built completely of stone, and employs no steel support structure whatsoever.  It is believed to be the last truly Gothic work of architecture in the world.  The Cathedral was finally completed in 1990 with the placement of the last cross-shaped stone finial on the southwest corner of the south tower.


To prepare for our field trip, The Daughter and I read through pertinent pages in our books, The Annotated Arch, by Carole Strickland and A Chronology of Western Architecture by Doreen Yarwood.  Neither of these books are what Charlotte Mason would call a living book, so we also pulled out David Macaulay’s book Cathedral: The Story of its Construction.  Macaulay is known for his beautiful illustrations, and this book does not disappoint.  The text combines detailed-enough architectural design and construction methods with a story about the key players involved in building a cathedral – masons, stone-cutters, carpenters, glass makers – and of course, the Bishop.  From our public library via Inter Library Loan, I borrowed the highly recommended  Architecture: Young People’s Story of Our Heritage aka Young People’s Story of Architecture by V.M. Hillyer and E.G. Huey.  This book, if you can find it, offers a solid introduction to Architecture for elementary children.  We found it less detailed, but also less frenetic than our other books, while still hitting the architectural highlights of ancient, and then Western civilization prior to the Renaissance.

The Cathedral provides a brochure that includes a map layout of the structure and some basic information.  There are also helpful handouts which can also be found on the website that focus on specific architectural interests:  gargoyles, stained glass, the Western facade, the gardens and grounds, and the views from each side of the Pilgrim Observation Gallery.

In our egregiously brief time, just three hours, we chose to focus first on the aspects of the Cathedral which represent the leap forward in Architecture that the Gothic style represents:  the striking height of the structure and towers and the walls of stained glass windows, both of which are made possible by rib vaults carrying the weight of the roof, not to the walls, but to immense stone piers, and the flying buttresses which resist the outward pressure.  All of these attributes are present in their purest form at the Washington National Cathedral.


West Facade, or front of the Washington National Cathedral (photo courtesy A View On Cities dot com)
West Facade, or front of the Washington National Cathedral (photo courtesy A View On Cities dot com)

We started by taking the elevator to the Pilgrim Observation Gallery.  If you look at the Western Facade, or the front of the Cathedral there are two towers which rise 232 feet into the air.  The tower to the left, or the north, is the tower of St. Peter, the tower to the right, or south is the tower of St. Paul.  The Pilgrim Observation Gallery connects the two towers at midrise. In the picture above, you’ll see a row of windows that stretches across the building just above the (round) Rose Window.  Those are the windows of the Pilgrim Gallery Walk.



The Cathedral is built at the city’s highest point, Mt. St. Alban, making the Pilgrim Gallery Walk one of the highest spots in Washington D.C.  approximately 112 feet above ground. We found it mildly disorienting to peer through the beautiful windows of 14th century design.  Expecting to see a village with cottages and gardens, carts and oxen, fields and farm land off in the distance, we were rudely jolted back to the 21st century by the sight of apartments, high-rise office buildings and RFK Stadium.

Gloria in Excelsis Tower where the nave and the transept roofs meet.
Gloria in Excelsis Tower where the nave and the transept roofs meet.

The Pilgrim Gallery Walk forms a rectangle around the mid-point of the two towers.  Seventy windows offer views from every compass point, so looking to east, from the back of the two towers of the West Facade we could see the roof over the Nave (central aisle and seating area) and the large central tower called the Gloria in Excelsis TowerFrom this vantage point we had a great perspective of the flying (arches) buttresses (pillars) supporting the walls.  We could also see the detailed stone work on the pinnacles and the tracery on the tower.  The view will be even better next time we visit – with binoculars! In the CNN Video at the end of this post, one can better see that the roof visible in this picture is a separate structure that covers the stone ribs and arches that form the vaulted ceiling that the worshiper contemplates with awe from below.


Down on the ground, in the Bishop’s Garden, we were treated to a different perspective.  From this lower angle we could see the southern side of the cathedral with the St. Peter and St. Paul towers to the left, the exterior of the Nave in the middle, and to the right, the South Transept entrance (cut off in this photo), and the Gloria in Excelsis Tower.  At 301 feet above ground, 676 feet above sea level, and situated where the Nave and North and South Transepts intersect at the Crossing, the tower’s 36 pinnacles adorned with cherubim and seraphim look down on everything else in the city.  Two sets of bells ring from the tower; a set of 10 peals rejoice on Sunday afternoons and Tuesday evenings, and Saturday afternoon recitals play the 56 bell carillon.  In the photo above, the flying buttresses can be seen from two angles.  Three levels of stained glass windows with lovely stone tracery are visible.  The top-level or Nave Clerestory windows, the mid-level windows also called Triforium windows, and main level windows which are along the Arcade or Ambulatory Walk, which in the Washington National Cathedral brochure are called Memorial Bays.

You’ll notice scaffolding around the Gloria in Excelsis tower and the South Transept entrance to the Cathedral.  This is due to repairs that are underway as a result of damage from the August 2011 earthquake.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge commented that “the principle of the Gothic Architecture is infinity made imaginable.”   The sense of infinity is everywhere at the Washington National Cathedral.  There are everywhere vanishing point views through arch after arch after arch; towers whose pointed pinnacles disappear into blue sky; immense stone pillars which lead the eye up into myriad ribs and arches that spread and stretch supporting the ever receding  ceiling.

In case you’re wondering, we did take some pictures inside the Cathedral!  I’ll be sharing some of those photos in a future post.  Thanks for reading!

For a very interesting video featuring the Head Stone Mason – click here:

Here are a few other exterior pictures, please note that several of the photos are not my work. I’ve noted the photographers in the caption:

If you employ the Charlotte Mason method in your homeschool, you might enjoy a post that Jennifer Stec posted for the Charlotte Mason Institute on this topic here:  – Studying Architecture in the Context of a Charlotte Mason Education, by Jennifer Stec


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