"GOD IS IN the detail," architect Mies van der Rohe declared.
But what he didn't mention is that God's builders -- or at least the ones who have spent the past 83 years constructing the Washington National Cathedral -- often have a sense of humor when it comes to details.
If you're a doubting Thomas, just look carefully at the stonework, wood carving, stained glass, needlework and wrought iron throughout the Gothic-style cathedral, the completion of which is being celebrated this weekend.
Since the cathedral's construction began in 1907, careful thought and craftsmanship have gone into every surface. And in more than a few instances what resulted are decorous puns, various forms of ecclesiastical and secular humor, and all sorts of in-jokes among those involved in the building process. To locate some of the Washington National Cathedral's more interesting and amusing architectural details -- from Snow White (and one of the dwarfs) to a lusty stonecarver whistling at the girls from the next-door National Cathedral School -- use the following touring guide. Just be sure to bring along binoculars and a flashlight (it's okay to do so), since many of the details are located well above eye level or tucked into darkly lit nooks and crannies.
FROM CARTOONS TO CANNONS
Inside the north transept, in the stonework to the upper left of the entrance to the balcony, look for a cat chasing church mice ( A ). A cathedral legend has it that in the unlikely event the carved cat should ever catch one of the mice, the building's walls would crumble and fall.
Snow White is in this same area, although finding her is more difficult. She's at the base of the first pinnacle directly inside the north transept entrance on the outside of the balcony staircase ( A ). Use your binoculars and flashlight, and look for Snow White's tiny head surrounded by the high collar made famous in the Walt Disney movie. On the base of the pinnacle to her left (and easier to see) is the head of one of the seven dwarfs. Can you tell which one?
The ceiling in this part of the cathedral is hand-painted in a bright red, gold and green pattern. Above the north transept entrance, near where the ceiling meets the wall, you'll see what seems to be an out-of-place gold streak or smudge in the pattern. It's no mistake. The ceiling was painted in 1985, when Halley's Comet reappeared. The gold streak was included to commemorate the historic event (A).
To the right of the north transept entrance (as you face it) is the entrance to the slype, also known as the clergy robing room. Clergy affiliated with the cathedral are referred to as canons, so stonecarvers punningly included artillery cannons at the ends of the arch moldings (called label mold terminations) on either side of the door (B). In the Mellon Bay on the south aisle, a memorial to National Gallery founder Andrew W. Mellon, one of the column capitals is carved with a flowing vine bearing a full-grown melon (C). ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL
Animals pop up in all sorts of places in and around the cathedral. High above the north aisle, for instance, is a series of clerestory stained glass windows. The one nearest the north transept entrance (D) is dedicated to physicians; in its colorful lower right-hand corner an old-time doctor in a horse and buggy literally races the stork.
Careful examination of the wrought iron gates of the Children's Chapel (E) reveals the grille pattern to be a veritable zoo of dozens of thumbnail-size bird and animal heads. Inside the child-scale chapel, the needlework kneeling cushions feature pets and various animals from Noah's Ark.
Downstairs on the crypt level (under the main floor), the Bethlehem Chapel's (F) carved wooden communion rail is decorated with a grapevine inhabited by woodland animals. Look carefully, and among other creatures you'll find a squirrel, a bird catching a worm and a frog.
Another frog, this one of black metal, is outdoors at the base of the modern fountain in the center of the garth, or courtyard (G); walk around the fountain until you spot it.
In the cloistered walkway nearby is a carving known as Percy in Purgatory (H). Located on a column capital, it shows a once ferocious cat being nibbled by revengeful mice in the afterlife. In the same vein, another side of the same capital shows a bird tweaking a squirrel's nose.
Back inside, in the crypt-level Resurrection Chapel (I), a bull terrier named Kiddo has a happier time of it. Part of the carving on the tomb of Bishop Harding, the life-size Kiddo lies at his master's feet with his leash on, contentedly awaiting the final resurrection.
Wonder no more what a wolf in sheep's clothing looking like -- there's one carved in wood on the end of the lowest choir stall in the northeast corner of the Great Choir (J). On the choir stall directly opposite (K) is a carving of a lion grasping a serpent in its mouth. Look closely, and you'll see the serpent has a tiny mustache. That's right, the snake about to meet its end is none other than Adolf Hitler.A WALK ON THE WILDER SIDE
Perhaps the most risque architectural detail inside the catheral is on a high carved boss. (Bosses, often on high ceilings, are projecting stones connecting intersecting architectural ribs.) The series of ceiling bosses in the west balcony (open usually only during services) depict the Ten Commandments and, when it came to "Thou shalt not covet," the stonecarvers had a heyday creating a sinner coveting his neighbor's wife (L). It's located second to the east of the center boss, and close examination reveals the back of a very nude woman being ogled by a Peeping Tom from next door. Of course, the fact that you're using binoculars to view the voyeur should give a moment's pause.
Traditionally, the more secular or bawdy carvings are on the outsides of cathedrals, and such is the case at the Washington National Cathedral. Often these are in the form of fanciful gargoyles and grotesques that feature distorted human or animal forms. (A gargoyle is a pierced or tunneled stone projecting from a gutter that carries rain away from walls and foundations. A grotesque serves much the same function, but without the built-in waterspout. Frequently it's designed so that water bounces off its nose and away from the building.)
Among the cathedral's boisterous outdoor carvings that can be seen from the ground are several on the building's north wall. In one, retired master carver Roger Morigi appears as a volatile gargoyle under a storm cloud; he's holding the mallet and chisel of his trade and wearing a sweater with crossed golf clubs (M). To the right and a bit higher up, current master carver Vincent Palumbo is immortalized on a gablet termination (N). (Look up the columnlike buttress directly to right of the security police sign until you find him.) Palumbo's shown hanging off the building whistling at the National Cathedral School girls as they pass by below; it's said to be no accident that the shocked clerical angel to Palumbo's left looks a bit like cathedral dean emeritus Francis B. Sayre Jr.
Some of the stonecarvers' most whimsical outdoor creations are even higher up and aren't visible from the ground. Among these are the so-called hippie gargoyle (bearded and carrying a placard); an angel holding an Oscar, carved after a documentary on the cathedral stonecarvers received the prestigious film award; a gargoyle of a crooked politician (clenching a cigar in his teeth and stuffing money in his pocket); and the yuppie gargoyle (also known as the bureaucrat gargoyle) wearing a business suit and dashing off toward downtown clutching a briefcase.
By putting some of their most humorous touches closer to heaven, the carvers might have thought there was a better chance of giving God a chuckle. But don't feel left out. Visitors to Washington National Cathedral -- feet firmly on the ground, binoculars around their necks and flashlights in hand -- still have plenty of interesting, beautifully crafted architectural details to discover and smile over.
Ellen Ficklen, who grew up near the Washington National Cathedral, last wrote for Weekend about a folk-art watermelon at the National Gallery of Art.