Saturday, July 5, 2014


Not having grown up Catholic, I remain amazed by many of the Catholic cathedrals, basilicas, and other churches that I have had the opportunity to photograph.  Their grandeur and ornateness speak, if nothing else, to the Catholic religion's great wealth.  The Cathedral of St. Paul, located, fittingly, in St. Paul, Minnesota, is certainly no exception.

Since Geri and I travel to the Twin Cities regularly to visit her dad, I have wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to photograph the cathedral's interior.  Twice in recent months I attempted to photograph the interior but was unable because of ongoing events in the cathedral, one time a wedding another a mass baptism.  But on this last visit I succeeded, spending an hour or so photographing the interior.

The cathedral building was completed just under 100 years ago, in 1915, though work continued on the interior for nearly another 50 years.  Nothing is forever, however, and one thing I noticed on our visit was that the interior is undergoing significant repair work, which shows up in many of the shots that I took.  Otherwise, the cathedral appeared to be in excellent overall repair.  And of course its opulence is stunning.

With a seating capacity of 3000, the building is massive, far larger than any church I am familiar with in the Milwaukee area.  Moreover, unlike with many other large churches, it presents unobstructed views of the altar from everywhere on the main floor.  As with so many religious and governmental buildings, it includes a central dome that rises 175 feet above the floor of the nave.

Now for the usual excuses.  First, a reminder that the interior walls were undergoing repair work that detracts a bit from some of the shots.  Second, the interior was extremely dark.  The architecture included numerous stained glass windows, and they were beautiful and large, but of course the stained glass served to reduce the actual amount of natural illumination of the interior.  And the incandescent lighting is adequate for most practical purposes, such as finding oneself to a seat, but not for photography.  As a result, I found myself ramping up the ISO setting, which led to a good deal of digital noise in many of the shots.  As usual, too, the color of the light in the interior was a difficult combination of daylight (modified, of course, by the stained glass) and incandescent lighting, which was modest in intensity, unless, of course, the camera was pointed right at a light source, a problem in its own right.  I wound up using an Auto setting in post processing to achieve a white balance that was close to my recollection of the interior colors.  Finally, I simply don't have a legitimate wide-angle lens to capture the massive space that the cathedral created.  So I had to content myself with narrower shots in the hope that the viewer can put the pieces together.

Generally, when a building includes a central dome, I make an effort to capture the dome with a straight-up shot.  I didn't think that was going to work at St. Paul's because of the way the lighting was structured, so I took some oblique shots instead.  Here are a few of those.

The interior was much darker than the impression given by these photos.  They only look reasonably light because of their relatively long exposures and high ISOs, as well as because of the work I did in post processing.

Keep in mind that the top of the interior dome is some 175 feet above the floor of the nave.  Note too the white plaster repair work visible in the dome.  I have generally prided myself in not having a particular fear of heights, but I could not imagine working on the ceiling of this dome without a great deal of scaffolding support.

The cathedral boasted three very large rose windows, one at either end of the transept and one at the back of the church, as viewed from the sanctuary.  Below are two shots of one of the transept windows, the first taken in the architectural context and the second taken just of the window.

This last photo worked by underexposing slightly and then darkening the walls further in post processing.

At the back of the church as viewed from the sanctuary (the front as viewed from the exterior) is a third rose window, this one some 28 feet in diameter.  It is situated on the second level behind one of the cathedral's two pipe organs.

The cathedral featured numerous other stained glass windows, including this large semicircular one.

The cathedral included all manner of statuary and other wall and sculptural artwork and I simply didn't have time to shoot more than a few items.  Four massive columns are used to support the ceiling and dome and inset in the columns are 12-foot statues of the four gospel writers.  Here is one of St. Matthew, as it turns out.

And below is a much smaller medallion, one of several depicting Christ's ordeal.  This was perhaps 6-8 inches in diameter and made of brass set into the wall.

As with other Catholic churches, the ceiling of the apse was especially interesting.  First, is a shot of the interface between the circular base of the dome and the top of the apse ceiling.

What appears to be the painting of a bird at the base of the image (the top of the parabolic ceiling of the apse) is an avian depiction of the Holy Spirit.

Following is another shot of a support arch that features a glimpse of the apse ceiling as well.

And finally, here is a direct shot of the Holy Spirit painting in the apse ceiling.  This detail illustrates well, I think, the amazing amount of work that went into the interior facade of this cathedral.

Although the apse ceiling was stunning, so were the ceilings of two small side chapels on either side of and toward the rear of the nave.  Not only were they ornate but they were also very different from one another.  Here are a few shots of the one on the right as one faces the sanctuary, beginning with the entrance to the chapel.

I was able to position the camera on an array of prayer kneelers pointing at the ceiling to get the following shots.

And below are shots of the ceiling of the complementary chapel on the other side of the nave.

Finally, here is a novelty shot showing a bit of the statuary on the cathedral's exterior.  This is a very grainy appearing shot, in part because the stone exterior was very grainy and in part because the scene was nearly shadowless.  I kind of like it, though.

Some people who photograph church interiors are reticent to use a tripod, feeling it might be deemed disrespectful.  I don't feel that way, particularly if I have asked permission in advance and if there are no or few worshippers in the church at the time.  Considering how very dark the Cathedral of St. Paul was, I regretted not having my tripod along.  Perhaps on a future visit.


1 comment:

  1. What beauty and detail you are able to bring out in your photos. Each time I see a series of pictures, I am more amazed