The Cathedral of St. Peter is a church that I have visited since my childhood. Located in Scranton, Pennsylvania where my mom’s family is from, the Cathedral has been a site where my relatives and I gather to celebrate, reflect, and mourn the death of loved ones. No matter the context of my visit, I was always awed by its grandeur which greatly contrasts the simplicity of the modern communal church I attend regularly in Maryland. It is easy to locate the cause of my awe now: the opulent structure, decoration, and ornamentation of the Cathedral of St. Peter uplifts any worshipper who enters into the space from the mundanity of everyday life into a transcendental encounter of God.
Just in gazing upon the Cathedral from the outside, anyone could identify it as a sacred building. Its symmetry gives the viewer a sense of wholeness and balance, while the Romanesque sign and pillars that frame the doorway give the building a stateliness that distinguishes it greatly from surrounding buildings. In this way, those who enter the Cathedral are ready to immerse themselves “…into a spiritual process: one of procession and return, or of proclamation and response, or of gathering in community and returning to the world outside” (Kieckhefer 21). The interior structure of the church implies the former of these three processes. The sacramental nature of the Cathedral is made manifest in the grandiose arches which curve across the ceiling inviting the worshipper’s eye symbolically upwards towards heaven, as well as the long pathway that extends down the center of the nave. This pathway is playful in the sense that its magnificent length invites the worshipper forward, deeper into the church. It is where the celebration of mass begins and ends, and where the variety of celebrations can be witnessed: I can picture to this day priests walking down this pathway in somber funerary attire, or in celebration of Easter. Both the ceiling structure and pathway highlight the altar, “…the most potent visible reminder of the sacrificial foundation of eucharist that was of basic importance to the earliest generation of Christians” (Kieckhefer 67). Thus, the structure of the Cathedral immediately calls worshippers to turn their minds from worldly concerns and desires, and contemplate the significance of Christ’s sacrifice and our dependence upon it for eternal life.
The structural elements of the Cathedral are only enhanced by decoration. The ceiling arches that contribute to the distinctive shape of the Cathedral are not left bare, but enhanced by golden accents and fluting. The wall space connecting the arches to the sides of the Cathedral features circular and teardrop shaped holes which add interest to the ceiling structure and draw the eye upwards. In essence, these decorations “…[reveal] more about the nature of structure in a way that is beautiful…” by bringing out the graceful curve of the arches and drawing attention to the utter vastness of the space that speaks to the ever present and eternal nature of God. Similarly, the columns which define the nave space are structural elements enriched by decoration. These columns are not plain, but beautifully fluted and adorned with golden Corinthian capitals. In supporting the weight of the church, the columns reveal a fundamental tenant of Christianity: as McNamera puts it, “A column…supports the church in a way that symbolizes what friends do: sacrifice for others out of love” (130). Through opulent decoration, love is glorified and instilled into a structure that would otherwise have an ambiguous meaning. Ultimately, the inclusion of decoration in the Cathedral uplifts otherwise simple architectural elements in a spiritual manner, reflecting the power of liturgy celebrated in such a sacred space to bring worshippers into a better understanding of God.
The ornamentation of the Cathedral is what engaged me most as a child. The symbols within the multitude of Renaissance style paintings located throughout the Church, such as the dove icon directly above the painting in front of the altar and the crosses, were beautifully mysterious to me. Now that I know the significance behind these symbols, I understand that the purpose of ornament is to “…clarify the meaning of a building by enhancing the clarity of its meaning” (McNamera 119). The inclusion of the dove above the altar and its position of centrality indicate the presence of Jesus in the transubstantiation of the Eucharist. The cross motif found throughout the church is a constant reminder of Jesus’ sacrifice and his call to us to bear the cross of others. These ornaments, never found in a higher quantity than they are in a church such as the Cathedral, distinguish and exalt this sacred space in a stark contrast to the buildings we spend most of our time in. It is through veneration of these ornaments that God’s constant presence in our lives becomes more clear, and thus their inclusion in the Cathedral enhances our spiritual experience.
In sum, the rich structure, decoration, and ornamentation of the Cathedral of St. Peter make it a space completely unlike any other that I have encountered. It is not an escape from the materialism and fast pace of life, but rather a place that fosters a deep spiritual reflection with God that is not often given a space or a time in our society.