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The Crossing and the Lantern

Ground Plan [1891] Interior View

Figure 7. "Interior View" from Heins and La Farge, "Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York: Competitive Design," The Churchman, May 30, 1891, 872.

In their published "Competive Design" article, Heins and La Farge enumerate seven features that are essential to their design. One of these is: "A cross plan. . . . A large space at the crossing as wide as the nave and aisles together. . . . A central lantern over the crossing, thoroughly lighting the interior and dominating the exterior.”[1]

The crossing is large, they go on to explain, "to devote the greatest possible space to the sittings. . . . The congregation is thus massed around the chancel and pulpit immediately under the central lantern and in the wide nave and transepts."[2]  In their more formal and theoretical Description of the Design for the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine (also published in 1891), they explain the aim of this crossing plan as follows: "so that the greatest possible number" of people "may be properly so placed as to see and hear."[3]

Their crossing, dome, and  lantern plan is carefully coordinated so that all design elements reinforce one another functionally and symbolically.  The place of hearing is also the greatest source of light within the cathedral: for the "the central  lantern rising above the crossing, admits a flood of tempered light into every part."[4] Their lighting scheme, described in greatest detail in Description of the Design, relies on an alternation between opalescent windows (designed to provide light, and used only in key locations such as the lantern) and deeply colored stained glass windows (designed to provide symbolic decoration and limited light, and used more generally throughout).[5]

While the lantern or tower over the crossing would be a dominant feature of the church's exterior, the decorated dome inside of the lantern would be a dominant feature of the interior (fig. 7). Heins and La Farge planned for the dome to be decorated with representations of images drawn from the Book of Revelation,[6] traditionally understood to be authored by Saint John the Divine.

Heins and La Farge cite two key models for their large central crossing space: on the one hand, the Byzantine domed church of Hagia Sophia; on the other, the Gothic Ely Cathedral, with its unusually large octagonal crossing. La Farge emphasizes the continuity between these apparently disparate models, quoting architectural historian James Fergusson regarding the Ely Cathedral crossing as follows: "This octagon is in reality the only true Gothic dome in existence." (389).[7]

As things have turned out, in the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine today, the unfinished crossing space is, ironically, the dimmest place in the cathedral. The dark shallow dome that covers it was originally intended as temporary. It remains a remarkable feat of engineering, but provides little foretaste of the high decorated dome with light-giving  windows about its base that was originally planned (fig. 7).










[2] Ibid.

[3] Heins and La Farge, Description of the Design for the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine (Philadelphia: Globe, 1891), 7. “Twenty-five copies only of this book” were printed. See verso of title page.

[4] Heins and La Farge, "Competitive Design," 871.

[5] Heins and La Farge, Description, 9-10.

[6] Heins and La Farge, "Competitive Design," 876.