The Iconography of Independence

With July 4 and Independence Day in the United States in mind, this post features images that honor George Washington and two other American patriots in stained glass and sculpture at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. At first it might seem odd that images of secular figures stand alongside those of saints and clerics in a church. But taking a broader view, it makes sense.  George Washington, for example, has come to symbolize the virtues of courage and humility: courage for leading an ill-equipped army into battle and humility for submitting to the authority of a civilian government when he could have been made a king. These same virtues found a place long ago in the iconography of Europe’s gothic cathedrals.  Allegorical maidens at Chartres Cathedral are paired with attributes that symbolize several virtues associated with an exemplary Christian life. Fortitude holds a shield displaying a lion rampant, symbol of bravery and strength. Humility holds a dove, symbolizing the absence of hubris (photos 1 and 2).

Fortitude (Strength)

1. Fortitude, Chartres Cathedral, France


2. Humility, Chartres Cathedral, France

A National Cathedral   While serving as president in 1791, George Washington appointed Pierre L’Enfant—a French-born architect who was with the Continental Army at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-78 and who later served on Washington’s general staff as a Captain of Engineers—to create a plan for the new nation’s capital city. The plan included a “great church for national purposes.” As the White House and Capitol Building rose along the banks of the Potomac River, however, L’Enfant’s original plan for a “great church” situated nearby fell by the wayside, due mainly to concerns about creating too close a symbolic link between church and state.

The idea for such a church was taken up again in the late 1800’s by a group of civic and spiritually-minded men who set out to build an Episcopal cathedral as a “House of Prayer for All People” on Mount St. Alban, the highest point in the District of Columbia.  The foundation stone for the Washington National Cathedral, as the church came to be known, was set on September 29, 1907. The cathedral was completed 83 years later when a finial stone was set in place high atop the southwest tower (photos 3 and 4) on September 29, 1990. Officially named the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington, the National Cathedral’s construction was financed entirely through donations. Despite its “national” designation, it never received government funding for construction or maintenance. Nonetheless, given its location overlooking the seat of American government, its designers saw fit to incorporate both religious and secular themes in its art.

Washington National Cathedral

3. Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

WNC from South at Sunset

4. Washington National Cathedral at Sunset, Washington, DC

The Washington Bay  An entire bay in the cathedral nave’s southwest corner is dedicated to George Washington. The Washington Bay’s abstract window, Founding of a New Nation (photo 5), honors Washington as a founding father. The colors in its center lancet symbolize the nation’s early growth in the spring-like greenery that rises from splatters of red which bring to mind the blood shed for American independence. At the top of the lancets, pieces of red, white, and blue glass represent the colors of the new nation’s flag. On a sunny day, the bay’s limestone walls glow with the colored light passing through the stained glass (photo 6).

Founding of a New Nation

5. Founding of a New Nation by Robert Pinart (1976), Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC


Washington Bay Colors

6. Washington Bay Colors, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

A statue in the center of the Washington Bay (photo 7) depicts George as he might have looked when entering his parish church on Sunday, with a solemn mien and tricorne hat held respectfully in hand. Inscriptions on the statue’s base proclaim Washington as a “Freemason,” “First Citizen,” and “Churchman.” A circle on the floor in front of the statue contains thirteen stars representing the original colonies and states.

George Washington

7. George Washington Statue, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

Corbel sculpture in the Washington Bay also reminds us that the life of this secular saint had rich domestic and social aspects. One carving depicts Washington’s Mt. Vernon home framed by the lush foliage of a dogwood tree (photo 8), and another portrays the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in nearby Alexandria, Virginia (photo 9). Washington belonged to the local Masonic lodge in Woodbridge, Virginia.

Mt. Vernon

8. Mt. Vernon Corbel, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

Masonic Memorial

9. Masonic Memorial Corbel, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

Courage and Sacrifice   Separate windows in the cathedral’s War Memorial Chapel honor two other American patriots whose stories of courage and sacrifice became inspired legends. Paul Revere and his brave Midnight Ride on April 18, 1775 is memorialized in a panel (photo 10) that shows him waking a concerned member of the colonial militia (a “minuteman” wearing a night cap and holding a musket).  There were no loud cries of, “The British are coming!”  Eyewitnesses wrote that Revere discretely warned militia members that “The Regulars are coming out” to avoid alerting loyalists to the patriots’ plan to mobilize. A small image of Boston’s Old North Church, from whose tower Robert Newman hung two lamps to signal that British troops were moving in boats on the Charles River, appears in the scene to Revere’s left. Compare it to a photo of the  Old North Church’s tower and spire as they appeared in 2012 (photo 11).[As a quick aside, troops of the Gloucestershire Regiment were among the British Regulars, aka “redcoats,” who fought in the Revolutionary War. Some were veterans of the French and Indian War and other campaigns. My daughter and I visited the Regiment Museum in Gloucester, England in 2015 and found its perspective on the American rebellion fascinating.] (See photo 12 and )

Paul Revere Snip

10. Paul Revere in Freedom I Window by Joseph G. Reynolds, Jr. (1953), Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

Tower & Spire

11. Old North Church, Boston, MA

Losing the Americas

12. “Gaining & Losing in the Americas,” Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum, Gloucester, England, UK (click to enlarge)

Another window in the National Cathedral, dedicated to Architects and Sculptors, honors Daniel Chester French who sculpted the Minuteman Statue which stands in Concord, Massachusetts (photo 13). French created the statue in 1874.

Minuteman Snip

13. Minuteman Statue, Architects & Sculptors Window by Albert Birkle, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

Finally, the cathedral’s Sacrifice for Freedom window commemorates Nathan Hale who, at the age of 21, volunteered to go behind enemy lines to gather intelligence while the British were preparing in September 1776 to invade Manhattan. According to one account, a British officer recognized Hale as he sat in a tavern. Shortly thereafter, British troops apprehended Hale near Flushing Meadows, in Queens. Considered a spy and traitor, the British hanged him on September 22, 1776. The stained glass depicts Hale’s capture and execution (photo 14).  Before he died, Nathan Hale uttered words that still resonate with those who believe in securing the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for which the nation stands. John Montresor, a British officer who witnessed the event, said that as Hale faced the hanging tree he calmly and boldly declared, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” As I watch fireworks on July 4th, I’ll say a prayer of thanks for Nathan Hale and his belief in a nation dedicated to the principle of liberty and justice for all. Shine on, Nathan Hale. Shine on.

Nathan Hale Snip

14. Nathan Hale panel in the Sacrifice for Freedom Window by Joseph G. Reynolds, Jr. (1952), Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

Copyright 2016, Michael Klug,, Iowa City, IA