palm sunday service at the cathedral

I’m going to start off by saying that I am by no means a devout Christian … heck, I ain’t even baptized. But I like going to church and I like the ritual/history of it all. For those reasons I usually end up attending Catholic mass, but today for Palm Sunday I went to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights, which is an Episcopalian church – a beautiful one at that.

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I’ve been inside the cathedral before for their exhibits, but this was my first time attending service there. I’ve been to Protestant youth groups, but never a full on church service other than Catholic mass. This was similar enough, but thankfully they handed out little booklets with all the hymns and prayers so I could follow along.

There was no Latin like I’m accustomed to and there was more singing than I expected, but there was still a whole lot of standing and coughing (from the incense). I was also somewhat surprised to see that there were quite a few people apart from myself who did not partake in Communion. Maybe that’s how it is with Episcopalians or maybe because the congregation is more religiously diverse in New York, but in Texas I always felt SUPER AWKWARD sitting alone while everyone else queued up.

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The cathedral itself is beautiful and historic so it gets a lot of tourists. It was built (or started construction) in 1892 and as cathedral of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, it’s the seat of the bishop. For the service I sat closer to the front where there were real chairs and beyond the threshold of “No Pictures Please” signs, so it wasn’t until service ended and I started leaving did I realize there were a whole bunch of people taking pictures in the back.

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They handed out palm leaves (it is Palm Sunday after all) and after the service and a snack at the Hungarian Pastry Shop across the street, I tied them into crosses. The whole thing was such a relaxing experience; one that I really needed. I realize it is really, really weird for a non-religious person to attend church, but it’s one of those things where churches just make me happy. They’re safe, calming … centering places. And even though I’m super busy with thesis, when I’m this stressed out, two hours of church is more helpful than not. Although I have no idea what I’m going to do with these palm crosses now.

back in h-town: chapel of st. basil

Alrighty, peeps. This is my last Houston post. Mostly because, well … I’m not in Houston anymore! And it’ll probably be a while before I return again to the land of sun and Tex-Mex. This series of “Back in H-Town” posts have all dealt with Houston art museums and architecture associated with them in the downtown area. So I’m going to end with one of my “favorite” works of architecture in Houston. Quotations are needed, because there’s so much wrong with this thing, but that in turn makes it fascinating.

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This monstrosity, ladies and gentlemen, is the Chapel of St. Basil. I visited shortly before the new year, so they still had their Christmas decorations up. It is located on the University of St. Thomas (UST) campus – a stone’s throw from the Menil and Rothko Chapel – and was designed by American architect Philip Johnson (also architect of the Rothko Chapel). Johnson designed the university’s Academic Mall, the long two-story arcades on either side of the chapel, way back in the 1950s (on recommendation of the Menils) … but back then he was relatively unknown and his chapel design was rejected … so this chapel wasn’t completed until 1997, after Johnson had become super famous and was really old. In other words, this was one of Johnson’s last buildings, was after his high modernism phase, and came at a time when he was probably having a lark and could do whatever he wanted because people would still worship him.

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Basically there are three elements: the white stucco cube (with the entrance flap), the gold-leafed sphere (actually a semi-sphere dome), and the black granite plane (that doubles as the bell tower), and the intersection of these three perfect forms (cube, sphere, plane) form the chapel. I actually wrote a paper on the chapel in my senior year of college for an architectural criticism course. The entrance sequence, internal layout, natural lighting system, and exterior form are actually quite intriguing. I guess those are things I find similar with the Rothko Chapel, with Johnson playing around with the archetype of a chapel. However, since the Chapel of St. Basil holds services, its program and elements are more typical than the Rothko Chapel, so inside there are pews, religious statuary, an altar, et cetera.

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But … in the picture above, do you see the giant tilted cross? Yeah … there’s a giant tilted cross in the side of the cube that’s only viewable from the prayer garden and the street beyond. The official explanation is that it represents the tilt of Jesus carrying the cross, but it seems heretical and reminiscent of the Russian suprematists. Also given that Philip Johnson was gay and not Catholic, but here he was designing a chapel for a private Catholic university … it makes you wonder if he had a smirk on his face as he sketched and why the university let him run wild. UST’s new logo actually incorporates the chapel in its design and they’ve fully embraced this piece of architecture. And yet … it’s atrocious. But immensely fascinating.