Going Underground at the Washington National Cathedral

Washington National Cathedral/Photo: herebydesign/net

When summer temperatures start to climb, it’s a blessing to find a quiet place to relax and unwind. That’s why I often 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 twin towers and soaring buttresses punctuate the city’s skyline. The cathedral is the second largest in the United States and the sixth largest in the world. 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 stone arches. Stunning stained glass windows, countless stone sculptures and wall-sized murals encircle the 9-bay nave.


The National Cathedral’s 9-bay nave

Still, what interests me most is what lies beneath the famous structure. Below, 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 are a treasure to all who visit them. And each has its own theme, architectural style and particular ornamentation (or purposeful lack thereof). Following are some highlights of each.


Getting started can be tricky. That’s because finding the crypt requires a little sleuth work. You might even say the chapels are purposely hidden. To access them, you must first walk down a flight of stone steps located near the Holy Spirit Chapel, then pass through the gift shop.


Stairs down to the Crypt

At the far end of the shop, on the right, there’s a visitor’s lounge. At the back of the lounge, on the left, is an arched passageway. This leads to the Resurrection Chapel.


Completed in 1925, the Resurrection Chapel is Romanesque in style. It features rounded arches and massive proportions. For decades it remained bare until in 1951, Art Deco artist Hildreth Meière completed the mosaic behind the altar. The impressive piece features Christ in a triumphant pose just moments after his resurrection.

The North and West walls also feature mosaics, each framed by six semicircular arches. The colorful artworks depict Christ’s emergence from the tomb and his appearances to the disciples.


The Resurrection Chapel

To the right of the Resurrection Chapel, the small, stone Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage features a simple altar and votive candle stand.

Upon exiting the prayer center, turn right and then left again to see the best known member of the Crypt, the Bethlehem Chapel.


The Bethlehem Chapel contains the Cathedral cornerstone laid by Roosevelt in 1907. Located beneath the altar, it incorporates a piece of rock from a field near Bethlehem. The chapel itself contains imagery relating to Jesus’ genealogy and birth. This includes a set of stunning stained glass windows located behind the altar depicting the story of the Nativity

The Bethlehem Chapel was the first part of the National Cathedral to be completed in 1912 and services have been held here daily ever since.


The Bethlehem Chapel


Across the hallway from the Bethlehem Chapel is the Chapel of St. Joseph of Arimathea. Located at the bottom of a flight of stone steps, it is an impressive, vaulted space. The chapel’s architecture mimics the medieval custom of building a Gothic structure over the crypt of an earlier Romanesque one. And here’s an interesting fact – its four columns provide the base for the National Cathedral’s central tower! 

Behind the main altar, a mural tells the story of Joseph’s gift of his own grave to the disciples for use as Jesus’ tomb. It was painted in 1939. 


Chapel of St. Joseph of Arimathea


Climbing back out of the Chapel of St. Joseph, head right then left. At the end of a long corridor is a garden. On the right is the tiny, unadorned Good Shepherd Chapel. Tucked away behind a wall, the intimate space seats just seven and is lit only by the light of its deep-set stone windows. A wrought-iron gate separates the Good Shepherd Chapel from the rest of the Cathedral.

The simple wood pews face a rough-hewn stone altar over which hangs a sculpture of a shepherd holding a lamb. The stirring figure, symbolic of God as protector, is rubbed smooth by the many hands that have touched it.


All in all, the chapels offer a cool and peaceful interlude on 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

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