Washington National Cathedral, in many respects, is a powerful answer to war. Pierre L’Enfant’s proposed “church for National purposes” was to offer “a proper shelter for such monuments as were voted by the late Continental Congress, for those heroes who fell in the cause of liberty, and for such others as may hereafter be decreed by the voice of a grateful Nation.” Exactly one century later, when notable citizens met at the home of Charles Carroll Glover to revive that dream, all present had lived through America’s Civil War and were well aware of the scars it had inflicted on the whole body politic. When the Cathedral building project officially began after 1898, shortly after the Spanish American War, President William McKinley was on hand for the unveiling of a flag-draped figure—the Peace Cross—that still looks out over the U.S. Capitol far below.
The message was clear from the outset that the Cathedral and the communities formed around it would stand for peace, and over time that Gospel message has rung out forcefully from the Canterbury Pulpit. Even on the days when that pulpit is silent, the Cathedral’s message of peace and spiritual renewal of all who have served pervades almost every space.
Resurrection and Renewal
The 1898 Peace Cross set a standard that would be matched many times within the Cathedral itself. In St. John’s Chapel, just south of the great choir, a 1936 sculpture by Paul Landowski commemorates the World War I service of Norman Prince and provides one of the Cathedral’s fullest statements that the ultimate goal of any military service should be to secure peace. Adorned with no fewer than five sets of wings (and one pair of airplane propellers), the tomb’s mass of pale stone—not only Prince, who stands on a cloud—seems to float. An eagle at Prince’s feet seems to hurtle onward, “where the nation would follow” as an inscription notes, but a large dove is also flying close behind.
A complementary abstract depiction of peace in the aftermath of war, dating from 1961, appears in the “War and Peace” windows of Wilson Bay where the president who led the nation through the First World War is laid to rest: Woodrow Wilson. The left lancet shows the peoples of the world sent out in harmony with the blessing of God, who lights their way. By the right lancet, God is nowhere to be found as flames surround a woman desperate to protect her children. In the center lancet, dominated by a cold ash blue, Jesus’ exhausted followers pull his dead body from the cross toward a Mother Earth that sleeps in hope. A happy child above this desolation, crowned with an Easter lily, holds forth the promise of resurrection.
The same understanding of peace as redemption after destruction, acknowledging what has been damaged and lost while also transforming the scene, comes across in three extraordinary works that commemorate notorious acts of warfare on American soil. Two of these works are crosses. The Pentagon Cross in War Memorial Chapel, made from rubble salvaged from the military headquarters after the plane strike of September 11, 2011, was a gift to the Cathedral from the Army Chief of Chaplains. Dedicated in 1952 by President Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, the chapel in which it stands is today most conspicuous for its altarpiece depicting a sorrowful Christ, his head surrounded by a dark halo or crown of thorns whose sharp and twisted shapes evoke bayonets and shrapnel. A bit further down the nave, in the contemplative darkness of Andrew W. Mellon Bay (almost a chapel unto itself) the Cathedral’s own Coventry Cross of Nails hangs on a wall bathed in light from the bay’s Presbyterian Heritage Window. This cross was made from fourteenth-century iron nails salvaged after the wartime destruction of England’s Coventry Cathedral.
Blessed are the Peacemakers
“Many cathedrals have been destroyed in wars, and I for one should like to have a hand in rebuilding one,” said John “Blackjack” Pershing (1860–1948), general of the armies, in speeches during the 1920s. Pershing served on the Cathedral Chapter for nearly a quarter century. The remains of Admiral George Dewey (1837–1917), originally interred at Arlington National Cemetery, were removed by his family for placement at the Cathedral around the same time.
A similar conviction motivated career U.S. diplomat Henry White (1850–1927), memorialized on the north side of the nave in a bay that bears his name. The full set of stained glass windows in White Bay represent the Book of Common Prayer collect “For All Sorts and Conditions of Men,” emphasizing the need to harmonize the world’s diversity so that its resources can be turned toward peaceful ends. White’s experience of worship in Westminster Abbey and at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London affected him profoundly when he had worked in the United Kingdom, and he wrote that he resolved to spend the rest of his life dedicated to the completion and mission of the National Cathedral as a result.
Two bays over, windows on the theme of Universal Peace honor politician and former Secretary of State Frank Billings Kellogg. The window is especially noteworthy for its depiction of Isaiah 2:4 (“They shall beat their swords into plowshares”) and the so-called Peaceable Kingdom of Isaiah 11:6–9 where “the lion shall lie down with the lamb … and a little child shall lead them.”
Persistence and Prayer
One level up from Kellogg Bay and its window dedicated to diplomatic endeavors, the nave’s first aisle widow to be installed honors the controversial “Maid of Orleans,” Joan of Arc, depicted praying in both the left and right lancets: before and after battle. In addition to helping recognize the long history of women’s military service, the window also provides a fine contribution to the array of military and political leaders depicted at the Cathedral in prayer. A depiction of Lincoln Praying created in 1932 by Herbert Spencer Houck, honors the faithfulness of the man who defended and led the nation back to unity during the Civil War. (It is echoed by an even larger statue of Lincoln in “Lincoln Bay” near the Cathedral’s west entrance—an area of rich iconography related to the life of that president and to the American Civil War.)
Across the nave, somewhat appropriately on the south side, Lieutenant General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson of the rebelling Confederacy appears kneeling and reading the Bible. “Lee-Jackson Bay,” where that window appears, also honors Confederate General Robert E. Lee. As docents are quick to note on tours of the Cathedral, the presence of such a controversial set of figures as Jackson and Lee underscores the building’s role as a repository of American memory, carrying the very wounds of war within its walls.
Messages of Hope
War is difficult, and the damage it inflicts is difficult to heal—a fact that the Cathedral’s iconography does nothing to disprove. The point is brought home by a carving over an entrance to Lincoln Bay showing two hands straining to grasp an olive branch. It bears the inscription “With Malice Toward None,” quoting Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, which made clear Lincoln’s total opposition to the practice of slavery as well as his total commitment to leading the nation toward unity again. The address concludes
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
The passage referred to is a guiding star for many other inscriptions throughout the Cathedral by not only Lincoln but Wilson and even Winston Churchill: letters, speeches, radio addresses urging common purpose, shared sacrifice, and the benediction of victory.
Many of these words, delivered in a golden age of oratory, sound like poetry. Sometimes, though, they actually are poetry. In a window by John Piper high above Churchill Porch on the Cathedral’s south side, a softly ramifying golden tree on a shimmering blue background abstractly depicts the resolve that Winston Churchill attempted to instill when England sought allies in the fight against a rising Nazi Germany. On the sill beneath are carved the exact words Churchill quoted—from a poem by Arthur Hugh Clough—as he made his case during a worldwide radio broadcast on April 27, 1941. As memory of World War II fades and other struggles beckon, these words that few will notice (beneath the window that many will see) increasingly appear to speak to the Cathedral’s own sense of mission and service in a world of full of uncertainty and fear:
And not by eastern windows only,
when daylight comes, comes in the light;
in front the sun climbs slow, how slowly!
But westward, look, the land is bright!
Explore the Cathedral’s iconography through one of our online virtual tours. Visit www.nationalcathedral.org/visit/onlinetours.shtml.