Cathedral Church of St John the Divine

sights / Religious

Lonely Planet review

The largest place of worship in the United States has yet to be completed – and probably won’t be any time soon. But this storied Episcopal cathedral nonetheless commands attention with its ornate Byzantine-style facade, booming vintage organ and extravagantly scaled nave – twice as wide as Westminster Abbey in London.

Founded in the 19th century by Bishop Horatio Potter, the first cornerstone for the Cathedral was laid on St John’s Day in 1892. But the construction – as its incomplete state will attest – was hardly smooth. The engineers had to dig 70ft in order to find bedrock to which they could anchor the building. Architects died and were fired. And in 1911, the initial Romanesque design was exchanged for something bigger and more Gothic. Construction has been halted on countless occasions (whenever funds run out). To this day, the north tower remains unbuilt, and a ‘temporary’ domed roof, constructed out of terra-cotta tile in 1909, still shelters the Crossing. In 2001, there was a raging fire to contend with, too. Much of the church has since been restored, but the north transept, which was severely damaged, has not been rebuilt. If it is ever completed, the 601ft-long Cathedral will rank as the third-largest church in the world, after St Peter’s Basilica in Rome and Basilica of Our Lady of Peace at Yamoussoukro in Côte d’Ivoire. Just don’t count on this happening any time soon.

Framing the western entrance are two rows of Gothic-inspired sculptures that were carved in the 1980s and '90s by British artist Simon Verity (b 1945). On the central pillar stands St John the Divine himself, author of the Book of Revelation . (Note the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse under his feet.) Flanking him are various biblical figures, including Moses, John the Baptist and Noah. Themes of devastation are rife, but most unnerving is the statue of Jeremiah (third on the right), which stands on a base that shows the New York City skyline – Twin Towers included – in the process of being destroyed. The nave is laid out west to east. Lining this monumental passageway are two magisterial sets of 17th century tapestries. The Barberini Tapestries from Italy depict scenes from the life of Christ, while the Mortlake Tapestries, based on cartoons by Raphael, show the Acts of the Apostles . Installed in 1932, the largest stained glass window in the country contains more than 10,000 individual pieces of glass. The design features a red-robed image of Christ at the center, from which trumpet-bearing angels radiate outward to the prophets. One of the most powerful organs in the world, the Great Organ was originally installed in 1911 and then enlarged and rebuilt in 1952. It contains 8035 pipes arranged in 141 ranks. The 2001 fire damaged the instrument, but a careful five-year restoration brought it back. You can hear it roar during services and concerts. Behind the choir is the silver triptych ‘Life of Christ,’ carved by '80s pop artist Keith Haring (1958–90). It's one of the last works of art he produced prior to succumbing to an AIDS-related illness at the age of 31.

The Cathedral is situated on a lovely 11-acre plot. On the south side of the building, you’ll find the whimsical Children’s Sculpture Garden (check out the bizarre Peace Fountain, which shows the archangel Michael and Satan doing battle) and the Biblical Garden, containing plants mentioned in the Bible.

Tours are offered at 11am and 1pm Saturdays and at 1pm Sundays. Vertical tours, which take you on a steep climb to the top of the Cathedral (bring your own flashlight), are at noon and 2pm Saturdays. Regular prayer services are held four times daily (see the website for the schedule). Two special services worth seeing are the annual Blessing of the Animals, a pilgrimage for pet owners held on the first Sunday of October, and the Blessing of the Bikes, held on May 1, when local riders tool in on everything from sleek 10-speeds to clunky cruisers. If attending a regular service, remain seated and refrain from taking pictures.