Turning over the wall calendar at the manse last evening from August to September, I was pleased to see that the image for this new month was a wide-angle shot of the main doors at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan. For those of you who have never seen or noticed them before, the massive, bronze doors in the center of the West Portal, which faces 5th Avenue, weigh 20,000 pounds each. They feature what I consider to be one of the most beautiful pieces of public sculpture in this country, an image of the first American Indian to be put on the path to sainthood in the Church.
Because the doors are open during the day to allow worshipers and visitors to enter the church, they may not seem familiar to many of my readers, even if they have actually visited St. Patrick’s before. One tends to rush in to see the interior of the building, rather than pausing to notice such details. Among other elements of sculpture, the doors feature statues of saints and blesseds who were either American-born, or came here from other countries to spread the Christian faith.
The figures on these great doors were sculpted by the aptly-named British artist, John Angel (1881-1960), who emigrated to the United States in the 1920’s, and who today is probably not as familiar a name as he ought to be. He himself was an Anglican, not a Catholic, but a man very much a part of the Western tradition in art. In his 60’s, in an interview with Time magazine, he described himself as being an uneducated artist: “I never went to school; I’m an ignoramus.” This is not entirely accurate, but it does give us some indication of how the artist saw himself, compared to his contemporaries.
Be that as it may, we need only look at his work for St. Patrick’s, or at the Protestant cathedral of St. John the Divine not far away, to see that Angel was clearly no ignoramus. Reproduced below is a photograph I took of my favorite element from the doors of St. Patrick’s. It is a sculpture of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680), a convert to Christianity from the Mohawk-Algonquin tribes in what later became New York State, and the first Native American to be beatified by the Church.
Not being of American Indian heritage myself, nor having a particular devotion to Blessed Kateri, I must admit that my attraction to this sculpture is largely an aesthetic one. And yet seeing the piece in person, in the round (or rather semi-round), it is hard not to be moved by it, whatever your ethnic background or religious affiliation. There is something about the sculpture that makes the viewer linger over it, wanting to experience the same tranquility that the figure appears to be lost in. John Angel, if you will forgive the pun, could produce something truly angelic.
While the statue is strikingly simple, showing Blessed Kateri with her eyes closed in prayer, the reader will note that her face is raised toward Heaven, rather than downcast as one might expect. She is presented to us completely lost in contemplation, communicating with something beyond the physical world – a something that is both internal and external to her and to our senses. And when the sun strikes her features in the afternoon, the effect is particularly stunning.
People often forget that Catholics were a fundamental part of the history and formation of what eventually became the United States from the very beginning, albeit initially in smaller numbers than those who immigrated from Protestant countries. One need only look at the fact that Blessed Kateri lived in the 17th century in New York, long before there was a United States, to realize that this is the case. French and Spanish missionaries came to convert native peoples and minister to colonists, and even sometimes to die as martyrs. Catholics from Britain, including one of my ancestors, settled in places like Maryland and Virginia in the early 1600’s, in part to be able to practice their Catholic faith and make a living for themselves without fear of reprisals, lack of opportunity, or imprisonment.
I highly recommend, gentle reader, that the next time you find yourself in Midtown Manhattan, you take the time to pass by and see this sculpture for yourself. John Angel’s image of this deeply devout woman is not only aesthetically beautiful, but also honors her significance in the spread of the Christian faith in this country, and the contributions that Catholics have made and continue to make to our culture. It is something I suspect will stay with you, in your mind’s eye, as it has with me.