On the Portal of Paradise on the western façade of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan are sculptures of the end of modern New York. The Brooklyn Bridge is breaking in two, a bus plummeting from it into the water while waves rise up over the toppling skyline. People run in a panic below the Stock Exchange, and next to them a scorpion, snake, and other signs of pestilence swarm a skeleton.
Of course, visions of the end of days aren’t uncommon on cathedrals, as they were since the Middle Ages created as a sort of visual rendition of the Bible, meant to be read as you would read the scripture, but showing the city surrounding the cathedral being destroyed is unusual, and unsettling. Since that swaying skyline also includes the World Trade Center, the sculptures have of course attracted the attention of conspiracy theorists, but the column bases featuring the scene, located on the south side of the portal below eight foot sculptures of Biblical figures, are rather a response to the cathedral’s namesake, John the Apostle.
St. John is usually attributed as the author of the Book of Revelation, and when British artist Simon Verity carved the Gothic-influenced sculptures between 1988 to 1997, he added St. John the Divine himself standing atop the four horsemen of the apocalypse, with contemporary takes on the themes to either side. He even used members of the neighborhood as models, another step to making the sculptures not just Biblical, but immediately relevant to those who would pass through the towering doors. Prior to that, since its construction first started in 1892, the tympanum and its surrounding columns on the portal were all blank. The Episcopalian cathedral, considered the world’s fourth largest Christian church, is actually still under construction, with its sculpture not yet complete, and the Portal of Paradise is only one of many contemporary touches on and within the church (there’s also a beautiful triptych by Keith Haring in one chapel). Yet what is there now is definitely one of the more curiously harrowing spectacles hiding in plain sight.
The Cathedral of St. John the Divine is located at 1047 Amsterdam Avenue in Morningside Heights, Manhattan.
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