“A Perpetual Song of Praise”: G. F. Bodley and Washington National Cathedral

The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington, otherwise known as Washington National Cathedral, is perhaps the most striking piece of Gothic architecture in the United States. Not only is the cathedral a pinnacle in ecclesiastical architecture, but the building has a deep connection to Watts & Co. itself: the original plans were designed by one of our founders, George Frederick Bodley. So, when our Managing Director and Head of Sales visited the U.S. recently, it was only right that they visit this incredible monument; incredible on its own terms, and incredible as a Bodley design.

Our Managing Director, and our Head of Sales, in front of Washington National Cathedral

The detail and care that Bodley put into all his work – from his fabric designs, ecclesiastical garments, to grand architecture – positioned him as an ideal candidate for the design of the United State’s most impressive cathedral yet. Indeed, despite being designed by a thoroughly English architect, in a traditionally English style, the final result of his design was to be considered America’s national cathedral by many. Henry Vaughan, a previous apprentice of Bodley’s and American emigré, was brought onto the project as the American face of the cathedral’s design. Indeed, as Michael Hall writes, ‘Vaughan’s name would take priority, but there was no doubt from the beginning that the design would be Bodley’s.’ The result, too, was absolutely Bodley's accomplishment. 

Bodley’s Gothic Revivalism proved the finest choice for an impressive new Cathedral, which was to serve the newly formed diocese of Washington under Bishop Satterlee. American cathedrals at this time tended to be Romanesque or Renaissance style, but Bishop Satterlee fought for a Gothic design, believing it to be a “distinctively religious and a Chrisitian style of architecture which excels all others in inspiring prayer and devotional feeling among all sorts of conditions of men.” Similarly, both Bodley and Vaughan saw the Gothic style as an ideal foundation for Anglican worship.

Interior of Washington National Cathedral

Bodley’s central belief about architecture was that “There must be beauty as well as dignity - but it may be chastened beauty.” The design, certainly, held such an idea of beauty as its central tenet; as you can see in these images, the cathedral was always intended to serve as a bastion of ecclesiastical beauty over Washington. Further, the beauty of every detail was of utmost importance: the walls, for example, were designed to curve at precisely 6 degrees, so that the eye can appreciate the details of the wall, and not just vanish down the length of the building. 


Interior of the cathedral


Certainly, Bodley’s plans - and Satterlee’s vision - manifested as a titan of ecclesiastical architecture. The sixth largest cathedral in the world would have a tower that boasted the highest point in Washington; the west end window alone would contain 1500 pieces of glass; the organ was to have 10650 pipes. Satterlee and Bodley meticulously corresponded on nearly every detail, as they would ensure that the huge project would exceed the expectations of the Gothic doubters. 

Tragically, though, the three major figures at the heart of Washington National Cathedral’s design - Bodley, Vaughan, and Bishop Satterlee - died long before its completion in 1990. Philip Hubert Frohman took over the helm of the project in 1919, casting his own interpretation and ideas over the original plan. The stone, for example, was originally intended to be a red brick, but the deaths of Bodley and Satterlee meant Vaughan had to give in to the Diocese’s wishes for white limestone. The decades it took to finish building the cathedral in its entirety meant that numerous changes and developments would be made by various figures, but Bodley’s plans and ideals would always be the guiding principle for the successive architects. 

Bodley's plan for the new cathedral

Bodley himself only lived to see this laying of the foundation stone; dying in 1907, he could not yet see the cathedral in any of its glory - not even Bethlehem Chapel would be open to the public until 1912.

Incidentally, this foundation stone - sourced from a sheep field near Bethlehem - was inscribed with the cathedral’s founding statement: “The world was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” This stone was to represent the heart of this new diocese. Perhaps Bodley can be considered a foundation stone for the cathedral in his own way: laying the ground for Vaughan, and later Frohman, to build upon his vision. 


Black & White image of the foundation stone


Now, Bodley’s initial and detailed conceptualisation retains its grandeur in the cathedral - but with modern inflections to reflect Washington National Cathedral’s position as an institution steeped in rich history but ever moving forward to the future. The beautiful stained glass windows, for example, were integral to Bodley’s initial design; he desired that the light entered the church in an ‘especial and striking manner’ - something that continues strongly today as the cathedral continues to develop and adapt, even in the face of storm damage and national crises.

Stunning installations, such as the ‘Space Window’, are remarkably special and striking in their own right. Installed in 1974, it contains the only moon rock on display in the US, picked from the moon’s surface by Buzz Aldrin during the Apollo 11 mission (seen in the Red Planet glass). Donations such as this show just how special Washington National Cathedral is. The cathedral, in the decades since the foundation stone was laid, has been at the heart of the U.S.: it was the last place Martin Luther King Jr. preached before his death, and all state funerals have been held there. 

Washington National Cathedral's 'Space Window'

Bodley once said of cathedrals that ‘Theirs is a teaching voice, as well as a perpetual song of praise. Who can say how many have been, consciously or unconsciously, taught by it?’ Washington National Cathedral, indeed, has been a ‘perpetual song of praise’ for many - for its stunning beauty, its national significance, and its support for the diocese. In this way, it would be fitting to say that Bodley established a ‘teaching voice’ wholeheartedly, by initiating the cathedral’s foundations.

Bodley’s attention to detail, and thoroughly magnificent ingenuity, has made Bodley a timeless figure in ecclesiastical design - in both church architecture and church wear. Bodley remains integral to Watts & Co.; even today, some of our most popular fabrics were designed by Bodley, which continue to be used in bespoke vestments. Like the Washington National Cathedral, some of the colours may change from the original, but the finished product is undeniably Bodley’s.



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