Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church


Saint Matthew the Apostle Cathedral, Washington D.C.

March 6th, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

I visited the cathedral church of Washington D.C. this past weekend –the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle. Most my age probably remember this church from the funeral of President John F. Kennedy. The church was cleaned and restored in 2003 and the results are stunning. What was a fairly dark and somber interior is now restored to its original brilliance. The cleaned mosaics shimmer under the newly installed lighting.

(Click on images to see a larger size.)

One of America’s foremost muralists, Edwin Howland Blashfield (1848-1936), designed and executed the mosaics in the chancel, on the pendentives and in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. His assistant, Vincent Aderente (1880-1941), executed the painted murals which where designed by Blashfield.

View a short video clip I made.

The Cathedral beautifully expresses the environment of a Temple of Christian sacrifice. The eschatological nature of the Christian liturgy is clear: heaven and earth are united in timeless liturgy.  The imagery is magnificently rendered to express transfiguration –sanctification in Western terminology, deification in Eastern terms. This is how, I believe, a church interior should be decorated; with a clear expression of what the liturgy is all about and a suggestion of the beauty that awaits us. Many of our new churches -heretically in my opinion- express an aimless journey focused inward on ‘community’ instead of turning toward the Lord.

The chancel imagery is, appropriately, the most powerful in the Cathedral. Saint Matthew the Apostle is depicted seated in a 35 feet high mosaic behind the altar. An angel stands behind him enveloping Matthew with a scroll inscribed with the Saint’s name. The Evangelist holds a book with a passage from his gospel: “Jesus saw a man sitting in the custom house named Matthew and He said to him ‘Follow Me.’ And he arose and followed Him.” In the pediment below, two peacocks –symbols of immortality—drink from a cup from which rises the Chi Rho, the symbol for Christ.


Above Saint Matthew, a 49 feet wide and 25 feet high lunette mosaic includes eight angels and the Agnus Dei of the Book of Revelation –Jesus, the Lamb of God, resting on an altar. The circle in the middle of the altar represents eternity. On the right, the bottom angel holds the pillar of Christ’s flagellation; the second angel up holds the crown of thorns; and the third holds the legend IHS, the first three letters of ‘Jesus’ in Greek. On the left, the lowest angel holds the spear that pierced the side of Christ; the next angel holds the hammer and nails; and the third up from the bottom holds the wood of the cross. The angels closest to the Lamb hold trumpets and herald the Gospel. The imagery is strongly evocative of the Book of Revelation and the Catholic understanding of the sacrifice of Christ as ritually ‘made present’ on the altar below.

The Chapel of Saint Anthony of Padua provides an interesting contrast. Off the east side of the nave, the slightly more realistic mosaic is architecturally framed to create the illusion of a landscape outside that side of the building. An historical painted mural of saintly and eminent Americans is located above the entrance, at the back, and is designed in imitation of Raphael’s famous painting in the Vatican Palace of the School of Athens. On the opposite side from the Saint Anthony Chapel is the Chapel of Our Lady which contains three mosaics by Thomas S. La Farge which represent biblical passages referring to Our Lady and the genealogy of Jesus. Mary looks like she’s doing a tap dance the way she is posed in a sculpture by Gordon S. Kray. (It is beautifully sculpted but… it looks like a tap dancer at the end of her routine.)

The Blessed Sacrament Chapel is outstanding. The Tabernacle is framed by a background illustrating the two disciples from the story of The Road to Emmaus at the moment when they recognized the Lord in the breaking of the bread.

Unfortunately, beautiful enriched imagery is usually considered superfluous or downright ‘politically’ incorrect in today’s Church. We have pretty much jettisoned thinking of Beauty as an attribute of God and an important ingredient in our ‘worship spaces.’ Minimalistic, simplistic, mundane and even ugly are in; uplifting, inspirational and hopeful are out.

Here is the parish website

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2 Responses to “Saint Matthew the Apostle Cathedral, Washington D.C.”

  1. avatar Dan Riley says:

    Bishop Clark allowed smaller light bulbs to be installed in the original light fixtures, while he was trying to sell his idea of “renovation” of Sacred Heart Cathedral to the parishioners.

    He said that they needed better lighting.

    A member of the Sacred Heart Preservation Committee actually took pictures of the low watt light bulbs.

    Most of the parishioners never went back to the cathedral after the renovation.

  2. avatar christian says:

    Saint Matthew the Apostle Cathedral is beautiful!

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