Artist Robert Beck considers a big church with a long history and active present.
By Robert Beck
The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine is a building at odds with itself. Any post-Middle-Ages or Renaissance structure rests uncomfortably among its Manhattan neighbors. A 15th-century church in a 15th-century town is one thing, but New York was never that. The church doesn’t exhibit the robust, golden-age enthusiasm of those built in the Greek Revival style. Gothic has shadows under its eyes.
Saint John’s has endured a complicated road. The world’s sixth-largest church withstood Romanesque, Byzantine, and Gothic iterations in its design evolution. Original plans had it facing a different direction. There were towers, no towers, and towers again. Spires and no spires. And, of course, money and no money.
It’s an astonishing building. A testament to belief, skill, and hard work. Those eight granite columns that support the choir roof, 54 feet high and 6 feet in diameter, were quarried in Maine, barged to New York, hauled uphill to the site, and erected in place with wooden derricks . . . in 1903. After 130 years, the church is about 2/3 done.
The interior takes your breath away. It’s one of the city’s most important and beautiful spaces, capable of accommodating more than 8,000 people and used for many inter- and non-denominational events. The exterior includes sculpted biblical-themed scenes with contemporary touches. One chilling tableau on the Portal of Paradise entry depicts Armageddon, with the Twin Towers, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Statue of Liberty all being catastrophically destroyed at the End of Days. You get an unusual mix of impressions on a really grand scale.
I didn’t want to do a painting of the cathedral; I wanted to paint its presence. I decided that the view East on 111th toward the western façade had the right amount of mass and looming. A vendor on the corner added color and scale to the monochromatic scene and offered his own type of sustenance to the narrative. In between customers, he walked over and watched me.
The square format gives the image a solid and imposing feeling. Sunlight slowly swept across the sidewalk, up the steps, and began to rake St. John’s facade as I worked. A plein air painter must decide: are you painting what was there when you arrived or working toward what you think will be there at the end? I chose to remember the initial impact.
When I was done, I packed up my kit and walked up to Amsterdam to see if I could find a cab on 110th. I passed the vendor; he smiled, nodded, and handed me an orange.
Robert is losing his Upper West Side art studio. Can you help him find another? “The Upper West Side is my place,” he says. His needs are modest, if a bit unusual. Read about it here. You can reach Robert at https://robertbeck.net/