A weekday afternoon visit to Washington’s St Nicholas Cathedral

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The empty Cathedral was peaceful and quiet, and I keenly felt the presence of God and so many holy saints. In addition to its magnificent and historic iconography, the Cathedral houses the relics of many saints, including St John of Kronstadt, St Elizabeth the New Martyr, St Herman, apostle to Alaska, St Innocent, metropolitan of Moscow and apostle to Alaska, St Tikhon, and St Daniel of Moscow.

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The choir gallery overlooking the nave, with beautiful frescoed icons of the Russian New Martyrs on the left and right as well as many of the North American saints. Above the choir gallery is a magnificent fresco of Christ’s Resurrection.

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Symbolizing the triumphant restoration of Orthodoxy in Russian life, the fresco of Moscow’s rebuilt Christ the Savior Cathedral – initially demolished under Stalin’s orders in 1931- crowns the beautiful choir gallery.

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The northern wall of the Cathedral is devoted to frescoes recalling the life and deeds of St Nicholas the Wonderworker, fourth century bishop of Myra and inspiration for the popular folk legend Santa Claus/ Father Christmas.

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Gazing up at the image of Christ as Ruler of the Universe (Christos Pantokrator) as sunlight illuminates the inside of the Cathedral dome. The four writers of the Gospels are depicted on the pendentives supporting the dome. Higher up, closer to Christ, are depicted cherubim and seraphim and other angelic powers of heaven. The red fire symbolizes the Holy Spirit descending to and filling the earth.

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Worshipers light candles in memory of their departed loved ones before this beautiful wooden crucifix of the crucified Christ with His Blessed Mother the Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary and His Beloved Disciple, the apostle John the Theologian, standing by Him. The skull below the cross reflects Christ’s saving triumph over Death, the enemy of His Kingdom and life eternal.

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Along with most of the interior fresco work, after the fall of the Soviet Union expert Russian iconographers completed the beautiful iconostasis (icon stand) which separates the altar area from the main part of the Cathedral. This evokes the Temple at Jerusalem which had a ‘holy of holies’ in which the Tabernacle was kept.

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Crowning the iconostasis is the three-bar Orthodox cross of St Andrew the First Called, a legendary apostle to the Slavs, which is also called the cross of St Olga, Christian princess of Kiev and grandmother to St Prince Vladimir.

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Approaching the central stand before the iconostasis, worshipers first venerate the principal icon of the holy person or God, bowing before the divine presence in the altar where the Eucharist is offered as the mystical transformation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of our Lord.

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The elaborate chandelier, lit at various points of the divine offices, symbolizes the eternal presence of God’s grace in His Church, the radiance of the Kingdom of Heaven, and the abiding light of the Holy Spirit.

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Above the Beautiful Entrance (curtained central doors) of the iconostasis is the Resurrected Christ offering a benediction in His right hand and the Gospel with His left. To His right, as always, is His most blessed Mother the Theotokos (God-bearer) the Virgin Mary, and to His left is the prophet St John the Baptist, also called John the Forerunner.

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In 1988 the bell tower was erected as a gift from the Moscow Patriarchate to the Cathedral commemorating the one thousandth anniversary of the conversion of St. Prince Vladimir of Kiev and his people to Eastern Christianity.

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Russian and American architects designed the Cathedral to evoke a twelfth century church in Vladimir, an ancient Russian city on the Klyazma River some 200 km (120 miles) east of Moscow.

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One thought on “A weekday afternoon visit to Washington’s St Nicholas Cathedral

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