Church Hopping LIVE: St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal ChurchArts, Church Hopping, Columns, Visual Arts — By Stephanie Nikolopoulos on July 28, 2011 at 3:00 am
Have you ever stopped to really look around your own city? Have you ever considered the history behind the buildings you pass every day? Has a church’s beauty ever stopped you in your tracks?
This past Saturday, with the support of our very own Burnside Writers Collective, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, and City Grace Church, I launched the very first ever Church Hopping LIVE event! For the past three years, I’ve had such a wonderful time exploring churches that I wanted others to get to experience that moment when the architecture and the lighting and maybe even the smell of incense in a church sweep you up and you feel the presence of Holiness. Registration for the live event was open to anyone who was interested in attending, which meant I got to meet a lot of really cool people I want to now be friends with.
I was already fortunate enough to be friends with artists Maria Fee and Brian Fee. Maria is the coordinator of the writers and visual arts groups in the Arts Ministry at Redeemer’s Center for Faith & Work, and helped organize Church Hopping as a Culture Club event. Brian is an arts educator as well as an artist, and was our guest speaker for the event. Brian has led many church architecture tours and is incredibly knowledgeable about art history, so it was a huge honor to have him give us a presentation and then lead the tours.
The event kicked off with bagels and coffee (we’re so New York) at the Redeemer offices, and then Brian showed us a PowerPoint presentation. Full of quips–take for instance, God’s approval of cruciform-plan churches: “I like that church: it’s shaped like the cross I wear on my neck”–Brian’s talk was engaging and broad enough that someone who knew nothing about architecture could enjoy it and yet detailed enough that we walked away feeling like we learned a lot. He also may or may not have disenchanted our view of American architecture, be it a house in Queens or a neo-classical church (“The Greeks would look at these and be pretty much disgusted”), as he explained that so many of the buildings we hold in high-esteem are in fact a mish-mash of styles.
After the presentation and a little getting-to-know-everyone time, it was off to the first of two churches: St. Bart’s!
Our time at St. Bart’s couldn’t have been planned better. We arrived when the choir was practicing for the next day’s church service, and it was just us and the choir. As we stood, gazing up in wonder at the domed ceiling, beautiful music rose up all around us. Incredible!
Church: St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church
Location: 325 Park Avenue (between 50th Street and 51st Street), New York, NY
Architect: Bertram Goodhue, with Mayers, Murray and Philips
Architectural style: Romanesque and Byzantine
History: St. Bart’s keeps moving further uptown. The church community first met in a small church on Great Jones Street and Lafayette Place in the East Village area in 1835, before moving up to East 44th Street and Madison Avenue. That second church was built by James Renwick, who also designed St. Patrick’s Cathedral (the second church we’d be attending on our tour), between 1872 and 1876.
The current St. Bart’s is close by on Park Avenue, between 50th and 51st Streets. It was designed by Bertram Goodhue, between 1916 and 1917.
Exterior design: The second St. Bart’s, on Madison Ave., had a stunning triple French Romanesque portal, inspired by a commune called Saint-Gilles-du-Gard in southern France. This particular portal was not part of Goodhue’s original plans, but rather was the work of Stanford White in 1902–1903. It was so beloved that the parishioners wanted it to come along to the present location, and so Goodhue amended his architectural design to include it. The three portals are obviously symbolic of the Trinity, but they’re also functional.
The main body of the church was just about completed when Goodhue suddenly passed away in 1924. His office associates, Mayer, Murray and Philips, inserted the dome. Goodhue had planned for a spire but they inserted the dome with a tile-patterned exterior and a polychrome Hispano-Moresque interior.
Interior design: St. Bart’s has a large, unified barrel-vaulted interior. The barrel vaults give the church a dark, heavy feeling and they move your eyes eastward, toward the apse (the gold-colored semi-circular recess). Fitting with the fact that there are no side aisles, the transept is stunted. (Most traditional churches are laid out in the shape of a cross and the transept is the arms part of the cross that separates the nave from the sanctuary.)
Despite these Romanesque features, St. Bart’s also incorporates Byzantine elements. One of the side rooms was complete with an Eastern Orthodox icon, not because the church is ecumenical, but because it’s in keeping with the Byzantine design aesthetic.
One of the features of note is the baptismal font, which was created by neoclassicist Bertel Thorvaldsen, the world-famous Danish-Icelandic sculptor who is the only non-Italian artist to have a work at St. Peter’s Basilica. The baptismal fount is made out of marble.
As with many wealthy churches (let’s just say the Vanderbilts had a hand in supporting the 42nd Street St. Bart’s), St. Bart’s features numerous stained-glass windows and 24-karat gold mosaics. They were made by New Yorker Hildreth Meiere, whose studies began at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Manhattanville. She served as a draftswoman for the US Navy during World War I. She was the first woman appointed to the New York Art Commission and the first woman to receive the Fine Arts Medal of the American Institute of Architects. Goodhue considered Meiere part of his collective and they worked together not only on St. Bart’s, but also the Nebraska State Capitol.
Contemporary art: The art and architecture of St. Bart’s continues to grow with new contemporary works. These works include Nail This, a 3″ x 3″ digital high-resolution chrome in LED Stylmark Optima State-of-the-Art Ligtbox, which is located in the narthex and was given as a gift to the church.
There is also The Gift or Christmas Christ, an interactive icon created by Roz Dimon, Director of Communication Arts at St. Bart’s.
More recently, in 2010, St. Bart’s Choirmaster Bill Trafka and digital artist Clay Debevoise created Psalm 19: Hymn to the Choirmaster, an interactive Psalm.
Find out more about St. Bart’s music, visual arts, architecture, theatre, and film initiatives here.
Pop culture: The famous wedding scene in both versions (the Dudley Moore and the Russell Brand films) of Arthur takes place at St. Bart’s. Meanwhile, in the Angelina Jolie action film Salt, the assassination attempt on the Russian president attending the funeral of the US vice president takes place here as well.
Thanks to everyone who came out for Church Hopping! There are still a few spots open for the August Church Hopping event up in the Bronx. Details here. In the meantime, check back soon for the recap of our adventures at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Update! July 30, 2011: Here are some beautiful photos of St. Bart’s that Brian Fee took.