Going Underground at the Washington National Cathedral

Washington National Cathedral/Photo: herebydesign/net

When summer temperatures start to soar, it’s a blessing to find a peaceful place to unwind. That’s why I like to head to the Washington National Cathedral. I bypass the main sanctuary, though, and take the stairs down underground. There, I find cool refuge in the beautiful chapels of the lower level.


Most of us who live in DC are familiar with the Washington National Cathedral whose ornate towers and soaring buttresses punctuate the skyline of the city. The cathedral is the sixth-largest in the world and the second largest in the United States. Built in the shape of a cross, it seats about 4,000 people. 

Inside, the main sanctuary is no less impressive with its ten-story vaulted arches, stunning stained glass and countless stone sculptures and decorations. Intricate woodcarvings, wall-sized murals, mosaics and cast bronze gates adorn the 9-bay nave.


The National Cathedral’s 9-bay nave

But what particularly interests me is what lies beneath the famous nave. Here, in the cool depths of the cathedral’s lower level are a group of five chapels known as the Crypt. Far removed from the public eye, they each have their own theme, architectural style and accompanying adornments (or purposeful lack thereof).

Tales from the Crypt

Due to the cathedral’s Episcopal affiliation, the visual imagery in the Crypt portrays mainly New Testament themes. However, if that’s not your thing, the chapels offer much to the non-affiliated as well. It’s well worth the trip, especially if you’re looking for a private retreat for meditation or prayer.

Finding the chapels requires a little sleuth work, though. To access them, head down the flight of curved stone steps located near Holy Spirit Chapel. Then pass through the gift shop.


Stairs down to the Crypt

At the far end of the shop, you’ll see the visitor’s lounge on the right. If you walk to the back of this lounge and look left, you’ll see an arched passageway leading to the Resurrection Chapel.


Completed in 1925, the Resurrection Chapel is Norman in style. It remained bare for decades until in 1951, Art Deco artist Hildreth Meiere designed and completed the mosaic behind the altar. The massive piece features Christ in a triumphant pose, moments after his resurrection.

The north and west walls also feature mosaics, in this case framed by six semicircular arches. The colorful artworks depict Christ emerging from the tomb and his appearances to the disciples.


The Resurrection Chapel

To the right of the Resurrection Chapel is a small stone chapel with an over-sized name – the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. The small, windowless room features a simple altar and stand filled with rows of votive candles.

Exiting the chapel to the right of the altar, turn right and then left again to see the best known of all the chapels, the Bethlehem Chapel.


The Bethlehem Chapel contains the cornerstone of the cathedral laid by Roosevelt in 1907. Located beneath the altar, the stone incorporates a piece of rock from a field near Bethlehem. The chapel also contains imagery relating to Jesus’ genealogy and birth, including a set of stunning stained glass windows behind the altar that depict the story of the Nativity. This was the first part of the cathedral to be completed in 1912 and services have been held here daily ever since.


The Bethlehem Chapel


Across the hallway is the Chapel of St. Joseph of Arimathea, accessed by descending a broad flight of steps down into an impressive, vaulted space. The chapel’s Romanesque style of architecture mimics the medieval custom of building a Gothic structure over the crypt of an earlier Romanesque one. In fact, its four huge columns provide the base for the Cathedral’s central tower. 

A mural behind the chapel’s main altar, painted in 1939, tells the story of Joseph’s gift of his own grave to the disciples following the Crucifixion for use as Jesus’ tomb.


Chapel of St. Joseph of Arimathea


If you climb back out of the Chapel of St. Joseph and head right then left, you’ll be in a long corridor at the end of which you’ll see a garden. To the right is the tiny, unadorned Good Shepherd Chapel. Tucked away behind a wall, the intimate space has seating for just seven people and is lit only by the light that streams in through its deep-set stone windows. A wrought-iron gate separates the Good Shepherd area from the rest of the Cathedral.

At the far end of of the space is a rough-hewn altar over which hangs a stone sculpture of a shepherd holding a lamb.The stirring figure, meant to symbolize God as protector, is rubbed smooth by the many people who have touched it.


A cool and peaceful interlude for a hot summer’s day.

To learn more about the Washington National Cathedral, its hours and programs as well as to see a map of the lower level, click here.

All photos/ herebydesign.net

3 thoughts on “Going Underground at the Washington National Cathedral

  1. This is your best blog yet, and I am so disappointed that in all my many trips to DC, that I never got to the National Cathedral. At least now I feel that I have seen it thru your eyes.Thank you for your moving presentation.

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I tried hard to evoke the feeling of being underground in these incredible spaces. I guess it’s a good thing that not many people know about them – that leaves lots of room to appreciate these beautiful spaces. Happy New Year!

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