Week 22: Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle

Cathedral mission: We, the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle, Mother Church of the Archdiocese of Washington, are a diverse and multi-cultural parish in our nation’s capital under the care of our Archbishop.

Although the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle is an active, functioning house of worship, audiences can also experience the building as a museum visit. Visitors can choose a guided tour or, as I did, elect to follow the brochure for a self-guided tour.

The cathedral is a beautiful building, and the brochure describes the imagery and significance of the art that surrounds the visitor on every wall and ceiling. These works of art depict stories from the Catholic faith, of course, but there are also references to local figures as well as national and world events that took place locally.

Interior of Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle

Interior of Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle

There were several stops on the tour that reminded me of other DC-area Weekly Museum Visits sites:

Chapel of Saint Francis of Assisi and Chapel of Saint Anthony of Padua. The first of these chapels is named for Saint Francis; the other is named for Saint Anthony, but this one offers several Saint Francis-related images in view. These mosaics show Francis preaching to humans as well as fish, birds, and a wolf. While looking at these chapels, I was reminded of the Franciscan Monastery (Weekly Museum Visits Part 3, Week 9) in DC.

Pope John Paul II Bust. John Paul II visited the Cathedral in 1979 and celebrated Mass; in 2008, Pope Benedict blessed a stone, as the stone’s engraving states. This stone is right next to a bust of Pope John Paul II. Together, these objects show a local connection to papal history, and they remind me of what was then called the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center (Weekly Museum Visits Part 2, Week 18).

Sanctuary. “An inlaid marble plaque in front of the sanctuary gates commemorates President John F. Kennedy’s funeral Mass.” After this Mass, Kennedy was interred at Arlington National Cemetery (Weekly Museum Visits Part 1, Week 24), where a flame burns eternally in his memory.

Squirrel! “A small squirrel in the lower right of the lunette refers to Monsignor [Thomas Sim] Lee, whose family coat-of-arms included this symbol of steadfastness and hope.” This squirrel coat-of-arms, along with many squirrel figurines, can be seen at Lee-Fendall House (Weekly Museum Visits Part 3, Week 14). The Lee family was something of a dynasty in Maryland and Virginia, giving history personages such as Robert E. Lee and Henry “Light Horse Henry” Lee.

Our Lady’s Chapel. This chapel, devoted to the biblical Mary, is reminiscent of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (Weekly Museum Visits Part 2, Week 19). Both contain replicas of the Pieta, Michelangelo’s famously moving statue of Mary and the dying Jesus.

St. Matthew' Cathedral dome

St. Matthew’s Cathedral dome

Dome.  A small number of other Weekly Museum Visit sites have gorgeous domed ceilings, including the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and the Franciscan Monastery, mentioned above. A historic house of worship from a different religion, Sixth and I Historic Synagogue (Weekly Museum Visits Part 1, Week 26) is another example. The synagogue’s dome is the same striking blue-and-gold as the cathedral’s.

Local history is also evoked in the mural over the main entrance. As the website states, “In this lunette above the Cathedral doors are many important historical personages of the Catholic Church in the Americas, in particular, Baltimore and Washington.” These local figures include Elizabeth Ann Seton, Archbishop John Carroll, Monsignor Lee, and Archbishop Michael J. Curley.


April’s blog theme is Local History.



About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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