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Gargoyles and Stained Glass: Washington National Cathedral through the Eyes of a Wells Middle School Student

February 28, 2013
Alexandra Stassinopoulos

Alexandra Stassinopoulos

Eighth-grade students from Wells Middle School visited the Washington D.C. area for a five-day whirlwind trip of our Nation’s capital. Wells Middle School student Alexandra Stassinopoulos chronicled for some of her experiences over these five days. This is her final article capturing a visit to Washington National CathedralAlexandra’s first article covered the Wells visit to Gettysburg, and her second article covered a tour of Arlington Cemetery.

You don’t usually hear the words “gargoyle” and “Darth Vader” in the same sentence – unless, of course, you’re standing outside the National Cathedral in Washington D.C.

When people visit the National Cathedral, the one thing most people remember is none other than the gargoyles. Traditionally, gargoyles are supposed to ward off evil spirits, but as far as I can tell, they scared off the spirits centuries ago and nowadays, their job description mostly involves gargling. Yes, that’s right, gargling. As in what you do after you brush your teeth. When it rains, the water flows through pipes on the roof, preventing the water from pooling, and come out of a gargoyle’s mouth making a gargling sound, hence the name.

The National Cathedral’s gargoyles aren’t just any gargoyles. Neither are they grotesques. Grotesques are often mistaken for gargoyles, probably because most are similarly hideous, even though they never gargle. These grotesques, like gargoyles protect the building from water, only without spouting water. Instead of being scary or having eternal constipation, the National Cathedral’s gargoyles and grotesques are, well, let’s say… unique. The Cathedral didn’t want normal gargoyles – we are in the United States after all – so they let their stonemasons have some fun. But I do have to warn you, unless you fully understand the extent of stonemasons’ bottled up imaginations, you should probably avoid giving that instruction in any other circumstance.

National Cathedral Darth Vader Gargoyle

When you visit the Cathedral, if you look carefully enough, you can see all sorts of things hanging out on the Cathedral’s ornate exterior. Now famous, these grotesques and gargoyles include carvings of giant bugs, any one of Noah’s menagerie, Rosa Parks, Medusa, the Minotaur and maybe, if you’re lucky, one of the stonemasons themselves. However, the most well known grotesque, and the only one I was able to find personally, was a carving of none other than Darth Vader.

Besides enjoying the illustrious carvings on the outside walls, the other thing that the struck me were the beautiful stained glass windows. These windows depict colorful intricate designs as well as scenes from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible and scenes from the Book of Genesis. My favorite window was pretty special though, as far as windows go, because it included a piece of the moon. Imbedded in the center of the window, a piece of moon rock brought back by the Apollo 11 mission is surrounded by dark blue glass, through which strains of yellow trace various circles, giving the window an appropriately “out of this world” feeling. Near this window, is one of the Cathedral’s three rose windows. Rose windows are circular stained glass windows, and are usually intricate. The Cathedral’s are infinitely stunning.

Moon Rock Window

Moon Rock Window

Now, you might have noticed that I said that some of the windows contained scenes from the Old and New Testament of the Bible. That’s because even though it is the National Cathedral of the United States it’s also technically the Episcopal Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul… and a symbol of religious freedom. Even though the National Cathedral is an Episcopal church, it’s the exact opposite of exclusive. Anyone in the world can come in, attend services, take a tour, pray or light a candle, regardless of their own faith and beliefs. This is in stark contrast to other parts of the world. In some places, even today, people are murdered, wars are started, families are torn apart, and countries are destroyed – just because somebody cannot bear to think that the person sitting next to him doesn’t believe in the same God as he does, or doesn’t have the same practices as he does. So, keeping that in mind, tell me, how many other places can you find where religious freedom is basically stamped on its doorstep?

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Washington National Cathedral Rose Window

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