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A Detour of Epic Proportions



Wandering through Philadelphia one day looking for interesting images, I found myself beside a church I had often heard about but had never entered.  On a whim, I went in.


Located at the corner of 18th and Arch Streets, at the eastern end of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul is the largest cathedral in Pennsylvania.  The most distinctive and recognizable exterior feature is, of course, its iconic bronze dome.  The somewhat lackluster brownstone exterior is given life by the four massive Corinthian columns and four bronze statues, recessed into niches, of the facade, as well as the imposing bronze main entrance doors.  Mother Theresa and Pope John Paul II are among those who have visited Philadelphia’s Cathedral.  And it was here that the city played host to the 41st International Eucharistic Congress, in August of 1976.3, 5


Construction of the cathedral began in 1846, but took until 1864 to be completed. Modeled after the Lombard Church of Saint Charles (San Carlo al Corso) in Rome, it is, like so many cathedrals in Europe, built in the cruciform fashion.  Napoleon LeBrun, a Philadelphia native, was the first architect engaged for the project. In the early part of his career, LeBrun worked in the office of Thomas Walter, builder of the Capital Dome in Washington, D.C.  LeBrun went on to design the Philadelphia Academy of Music and was the architect selected to rebuild St. Augustine Parish church (located at 4th and North Lawrence Streets) after it was destroyed in the Nativist riots of 1844. 1

Stepping through the inner doors was a bit overwhelming.   The word “awesome” is so over-used these days that to utter it almost screams a staggering lack of vocabulary.  But the interior of this Cathedral is, in fact, awesome, or, to avoid the cliché, awe-inspiring. The immense scale and vaulted ceiling immediately convey a sense of both power and reverence, regardless of your spiritual perspective.


In the image of the nave (central aisle) looking toward the choir loft (above), the barrel vault of the ceiling is echoed in both the upper windows and the arches separating the nave from the side aisles.  These elements, along with the fluted columns, pull the eye upward.

In the photograph below, taken from beneath one of the side aisle arches, the repetitive shapes of the ceiling, apse and arches are further echoed in the altar baldachin and the domes.  Here, too, the dark wood of the pews tends to add something of a counter-weight to the soaring arches and domes.


The windows in the Cathedral are placed high, with none at street level originally. This was a conscious design element used as a protection against the threat of anti-Catholic “know-nothing,” or Nativist, riots that disrupted the city in the years just prior to the start of construction.4  (Lower windows, however, were added in some areas during the renovation of 1957. 2 )  

You can see the effect of these high-placed windows in the black and white image (below). I had just come from behind one of the columns of the side aisle, and I was struck by the beauty of the light highlighting the transept arch.  I thought rendering it in black and white would show it best.


Photographically, there were numerous challenges in creating images of the interior.  First and foremost was the lighting differential between the upper areas of natural light and the lower level, with its incandescent lighting.  Secondly, this was not a planned shoot, I did not have any lighting equipment, which would have allowed me to balance the light more efficiently.  Also, since this was my first look at the interior, I didn’t have the advantage of a “pre-shoot walk through” as I usually do. Ultimately, however, it worked to my advantage, since I also did not bring with me any preconceived ideas of what I wanted to do.  The timing, though, was generally good, with the exception of the shot of the nave looking toward the choir loft. (I would have chosen to make that particular image earlier in the morning to minimize the glare coming through the upper stained glass window and the door.)

I shot with available light, at an ISO setting of 100 and an aperture of f22, creating the necessity for long exposures – as much as 8 to 16 seconds.  For the most part, I used a 28mm shift lens for perspective control.

The image below, which includes a portion of the Great Dome situated above the crossing (the intersection of the nave and the transept), is a high-dynamic range, or HDR, image.  Use of the HDR technique allowed me to gain more precise control of the more subtle shadow to highlight transitions needed here, which shows the confluence of the major arch elements of the Cathedral – nave, transept, and the Great Dome.


I know I have only scratched the surface of the beauty and complexity of this Cathedral.  Given the luxury, I could have spent several days photographing there, and the historic and architectural discussion – to do it justice – would take far more room than I have here.  But I hope I have conveyed at least some of the majesty of this structure, and its history, in this short space.

What began as a short, abrupt detour turned into a rewarding creative challenge. I gained a new perspective on – and a renewed appreciation of – this type of architecture. The constraints of the design, particularly the restricted placement of the windows, forced me to alter my approach to achieve the results I wanted.  The images here, I hope, are proof that a whim-driven detour can sometimes provide an unexpectedly enriching experience.

For more information, and there is plenty, on the Cathedral Basilica in Philadelphia, go to the website http://www.cathedralphila.org or visit the website of the Parkway Museums District at http://www.parkwaymuseumsdistrict.org.

1-3           http://www.cathedralphila.org
5               http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,914539,00.html