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, secluded place to unwind. That’s why this time of year, 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, which began construction in 1907 when President Theodore Roosevelt laid the first cornerstone. Built in the Gothic Revival style, its pointed arches, soaring buttresses and ornate towers punctuate the skyline of a quiet, residential area in Washington’s upper northwest quadrant.

The Washington National Cathedral is the sixth-largest cathedral in the world and the second largest in the United States. Built in the shape of a cross, it seats about 4,000 people. Though it is officially the seat of the Episcopal Church, it is open to all, having been designated by Congress America’s “National House of Prayer.”

Inside, the main sanctuary is certainly impressive with its ten-story vaulted arches, stunning stained glass windows and countless stone sculptures and decorations. Intricate woodcarvings, wall-sized murals, mosaics and enormous cast bronze gates adorn the 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, far removed from the public eye, are a group of small chapels known as the Crypt. There are five of these little gems, each with their own theme, distinctive architectural style and accompanying adornments (or purposeful lack thereof).

Tales from the Crypt

In keeping with the cathedral’s Episcopal affiliation, the visual imagery in the Crypt portrays mainly New Testament themes. However, just like the upstairs sanctuary, 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.

To access the chapels, head down a flight of curved stone steps located near Holy Spirit Chapel off of the main level, then pass through the gift shop.


On the far end of the shop, you’ll see the visitor’s lounge on the right (filled with lounge chairs and some desks). If you walk to the back of this lounge and look left, you’ll see an arched passageway leading to the Resurrection Chapel.

Romanesque in style, The Resurrection Chapel is characterized by its semi-circular arches and clearly-defined forms. Thick walls, sturdy pillars and rounded arches frame six ‘windows’ of colorful mosaics depicting the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.


To the right of the Resurrection Chapel is a small stone chapel with a big name: the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. A group of wood chairs faces 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 most well known of the chapels, the Bethlehem Chapel.

The Bethlehem Chapel is significant because it contains the cornerstone of the cathedral that was placed by Roosevelt in 1907. The stone is now located under the altar. The chapel contains imagery relating to Jesus’ genealogy and birth, including a set of stunning stained glass windows that encircle the back of the altar. This was the first part of the cathedral to be completed in 1912, and services have been held here every day since.


Across the hallway is the rather somber Chapel of St. Joseph of Arimathea, accessed by descending another flight of wide steps down into a tomb-like space.  Also built in the Romanesque style, it tells the story of Jesus’ entombment after the crucifixion. The chapel was constructed to mimic the medieval custom of building a Gothic cathedral over the crypt of an older one.


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. On the right is my favorite space, the tiny, unadorned Good Shepherd Chapel. The chapel is tucked away behind a wall and has deeply set stone windows looking out on a garden. Four wood benches face a rough-hewn altar over which you’ll see a simple stone sculpture of a shepherd holding a sheep.

The stirring figure was placed in the chapel to give comfort to those who are injured or suffering.  It is meant to symbolize God as protector and 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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