Actually I based a lot of my suggestions of sights we should see in DC on things I’d seen while on that middle school trip. I think we were there for a week, and we saw far more than I could have retained. I guessed however, that anything which DID stick in my memory from that trip was probably worth seeing. After all, most 12 year olds are more interested in hanging out with friends than seeing national monuments.
Probably the most memorable images from that first trip were our tours of the cathedrals in Washington DC. I thought there were several, now I’m not sure how many we went to see. Definitely more than just the National Cathedral.
Matt and my mom and I went to the National Cathedral first, because that was the only cathedral we could find any information on.
In a way, we picked a bad day. We got there at about noon on a day where tours were canceled until one. The reason for this was interesting: there was a graduation in progress.
The National Cathedral has two high schools associated with it– a boy’s school and a girl’s school. On the day we visited, the girl’s school was having their graduation mass. I don’t know if they call it mass at the National Cathedral, which is (I think) Episcopalian. I went to a Catholic school and we called it mass. It made me think of all the small prayer services and holiday masses, and I wondered whether they had them all in the cathedral, vast and beautiful.
It must have been an amazing place to have a graduation. We stood and back and waited until it was done. There couldn’t have been more than fifty girls, so the whole thing seemed rather quiet, and more relaxed than I would have expected for the setting. It was lovely. The architecture of the cathedral makes it a fascinating setting for any service, or just to walk through.
They have continual tours, and though we waited until one for the first tour to begin, we ended up wandering without it, which I think was more enjoyable, if less informative.
We got a vantage point that I never saw on my first tour, because the upstairs floor would be too cramped to bring a large group. I remember being a bit disappointed in the cathedral as a 12 year old, because I’d wanted to see the gargoyles and grotesques, but couldn’t see any close enough to really see them. From the upstairs observatory we could see much better, not to mention a great view of the surrounding area. There’s no doubt that the National Cathedral is awe inspiring. An exhibit on the main floor told us that it took almost a hundred years (83 actually) to build. I didn’t realize when I visited in 1993, construction had only just finished three years ago.
What I really remembered from my first trip was that while the National Cathedral was the stone worked gothic arches that you envision when you hear the word “cathedral,” it wasn’t the one that struck me as most beautiful.
None of the local advisors seemed to know what I was talking about when I mentioned another cathedral, a place full of mosaics and side chapels. For some reason it took us half the week to find the Cathedral of St. Matthew.
St Matthew’s is a Catholic cathedral, and like many Catholic buildings walks the line between beautiful and gaudy. Churches lined with gold tend to annoy me, the overt expense reminds me of a time of dishonestly rich cardnals and popes.
St. Matthews manages to avoid that feeling, though I imagine the piles of marble used must have cost every bit as much as gold plating. Everything is so colorful that it’s almost distracting.
Not quite though. Unlike the flashiness of gold, marble is beautiful but understated, expensive but not braggingly so. The cathedral is full of skillful beauty, with marbled alters tucked away in side corners, and mosaics lined up on the walls like paneling. I could have looked at the art of this cathedral for hours, but Matt and I decided we’d better make it quick instead.
Unlike the National Cathedral, St. Matthews is not so orderly a tourist attraction. I imagine they give tours (I went on one when I was 12) but when we walked in, the building was silent with worshipers. We tiptoed around the perimeter, trying not to disturb anyone. At one point my camera flashed (it turns it back on every time the camera restarts) but I mostly covered it.
I’m sort of conflicted over whether this building should be more of a tourist attraction. On one hand, it’s an amazing sight. I suppose construction probably didn’t take 83 years, and the type of beauty is completely different from the majestic depth of the National Cathedral. Spanish rather than French maybe. The difference I see is that the National Cathedral is a coherent masterpiece, while St. Matthew’s is a gallery of brilliant mosaics. It’s not that they clash, it’s just that they are meant to be seen one at a time, up close. In prayer I suppose, though as a non-believer, I’ll have to appreciate it for artistic value alone.
It seems a shame that more people don’t know about St. Matthews, but on the other hand, part of the beauty may well be it’s quiet. So nice to walk in and see people meditating, praying, thinking, believing, instead of chatting and taking photos. I think they try at the National Cathedral to retain a sense of holiness, they remind you to please be respectful and speak in lowered voices, but they tell you in a tour-guide yell, so it’s hard to take it seriously.
St. Matthew’s is a church first and foremost. I love it because it’s beautiful, but I’m not sure it would be quite so beautiful if it weren’t so respectfully hushed.
The two cathedrals can’t be fairly contrasted. Stone work vs. marble. Architecture vs. mosaics.
One area where you ought to be able to make a straight comparison are the stained glass windows.
In the National Cathedral, each window is different, with a separate burst of color and composition. Oddly, in St. Matthew’s, where each nook and cranny is individually crafted, the windows are very nearly identical. The windows in St. Matthews seem to be made of impossibly thin marble pieces (either that or painted glass to look like impossibly thin marble pieces). The variety of windows in the National Cathedral is breathtaking, but I couldn’t pick a winner between the two.
I’m glad I saw both. For the National Cathedral I’d say it’s worth taking out an hour or more. At St. Matthew’s we felt disruptive, and left after 20 minutes, which was enough to see everything since the space is so much smaller. I won’t claim St. Matthew’s is prettier, or more impressive than the National Cathedral, but I am surprised that one is almost unknown to tourists while the other is a visitor staple.