Whimsy and irreverence at the Washington Cathedral

Donna Shear

September 20, 1990|By Donna Shear

To passersby on the tree-lined streets of Northwest Washington, the web-like scaffolding that surrounds the Washington Cathedral seems as permanent as the structure itself. Begun in 1907, the august cathedral has always been a work in progress, destined to remain forever unfinished.

But no more! Late this month -- consecration ceremonies are scheduled Sept. 28-30 -- the cathedral will be a work completed, its scaffolding torn down.

This article, by a free-lance Baltimore historian, tours some of the cathedral's thousands of carvings, not all of them saintly.

STAND AT any side of the cathedral and you will see themcuriously shaped creatures attached to the side of the building. On the wall, a plump, 3-foot-long frog hovers 20 feet above your head. To the left, a pointy-eared devil juts out from the stone. What is a carving of a devil doing on the side of a house of worship, especially a devil with a set of golf clubs inscribed on his chest?

Proceeding around to the front of the cathedral, you notice a winged dragon, poised for flight. The dragon's mouth is open, identifying it as a gargoyle. You learn that "gargoyle" derives from the old French term for throat. A pierced piece of stone projecting from a gutter to carry rain water away from the building, it protects the stone walls from dampness and discoloration. You observe that the gargoyles may be carved as human or animal forms. The figures that do not feature water spouts are known as grotesques. Like the gargoyles, grotesques can be comical or absurd.

Continuing around to the south wall, you see other creatures: an owl with a book under its wing, a winged skeleton and a frog in an Elizabethan painter's frock, holding paintbrushes and palette. Flying mice and corpulent trolls add to this architectural beastiary.

An exhibit in the observation gallery describes the two basic methods of stone carving: free-hand and "working the model." Most of the cathedral's carvings -- those of saints and apostles -- were created by the latter method. Free-hand carving is more informal.

The designs for these figures did not have to be cleared through the cathedral's building committee. As a result, these secular figures are often more humorous and interesting than the formal religious statues gracing the cathedral.

The gallery features models of several of these "unofficial" figures. Facing you are quarter-scale plaster models of two grotesques with opposing political views: a pacifist and a pro-war militant. The peace demonstrator wears a mask to protect himself from tear gas. The accompanying grotesque, with hair fashioned like missiles, appears to be shouting angrily. Clutched tightly to his cheek is a handful of rockets. His finger is poised to "push the button."

Occasionally, the free-hand carvings celebrate behavior that is slightly less than reverent. The little devil you saw earlier, it turns out, is a gargoyle of Roger Morigi, a former carver at the cathedral. Created as a humorous tribute by fellow carver Paul Palumbo, the devil is badly in need of a shave. Jammed into one of his pockets are chisels and files, the main tools of the carver. Parodying Morigi's temper and bad habits, the devil's other pocket sports a little stiletto, gun and whiskey bottle. Crossed golf clubs inscribed on the figure's chest attest to his favorite pastime. There is also a grotesque of Paul Palumbo: a chubby figure dangling upside down from the northeastern transept. His cheeks are puffed out in an appreciative whistle for any woman who happens by.

Adjacent to him is the disapproving figure of the cathedral's dean (now emeritus), Francis B. Sayre, hands to his face in a horrified gasp.

Dozens of carvers have worked on the cathedral in its nearly 100 years. Today, one carver, Vincent Palumbo, son of senior carver Paul Palumbo, remains. Sadly, the cathedral's official guidebook now out of print), dismisses these skilled craftsmen. The book carefully describes architects and approval committees and enumerates names and dates for the political and ecclesiastical figures.

But the secular carvings, and the skilled craftsmen who created them, are dismissed with the peremptory comment that their names are too numerous to mention. Yet the earthly carvings endow this dignified house of worship with a much-needed humanity. In the high seriousness and right reason of cathedral construction, the carvers bring humor, irreverence and whimsy.

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