524 Park Avenue at East 60th Street
Madison Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church: 1881
City Sunday School Society, later the 61st Street Church: 1863
Architect: Ralph Adams Cram
I had never really heard of Christ Church until I saw it listed as a site for this year’s Open House New York (OHNY) weekend. I’m sure I had walked past it before and noted its impressive exterior. But I had no idea what awaited me inside, and its open doors during OHNY seemed the perfect opportunity to check it out.
What greeted me — in addition to two very friendly OHNY volunteers — were the most dazzling mosaics I’ve seen in any house of worship in New York City. Approximately 7 million tesserae, colorful tiles each about ¾ inch (1.9 cm) square, adorn Christ Church’s walls, vaults, arches, and other interior spaces.
The cornerstone of Christ Church was laid on 15 November 1931, and the first worship services were held there less than two years later, in 1933. However, the financial struggles of the Great Depression followed by the material shortages of World War II delayed completion of the church’s interior, including its ornate mosaics, until 1949.
Overall, Christ Church’s architecture is a blend of Romanesque and Byzantine. These styles, which originated with Christian churches built before the Great Schism, were chosen under the direction the Rev. Dr. Ralph W. Sockman, the pastor who presided over the construction of the church, and Ralph Adams Cram, the principal architect. A brochure I picked up at the church explained the architecture’s significance: “The catholic (i.e. universal) nature of Christ Church takes flesh and bone in the Romanesque architecture of our worship space, a style which recalls the period when the church was marked by communion, before the divisions between East and West, Catholic and Protestant. A sacred space that evoked the era of universal, united Christianity seems to have been the intention” of the pastor and architect.
The focal point of the main sanctuary is the choir screen, or reredos. At Christ Church, the altar is in front of the screen, though in Eastern Orthodox churches — whose artistic influence is clearly seen in the design here — the screen, called an iconostasis, separates lay congregants in the nave from the altar in the apse. In some Orthodox traditions only the priest may pass the screen; in others, lay people may pass using the side doors, but only the priest can use the center doors. (I had the opportunity to go through the side doors of an iconostasis at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Transfiguration of Our Lord in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, back in February 2018.)
At the center of the reredos is one of the most historically significant artifacts in the church. According to that brochure, the center doors here, off the ground above the altar, “originated in a Russian Orthodox church, circa 1660. Through accidents of history they found their way into the private collection of czar Nicholas II before being purchased by Christ Church member Juliet Thompson and donated to the church in the mid-1930s.”
On the north side of the main sanctuary is a chapel. Though smaller, it is just as rich in decoration, materials, and symbolism as the larger space.
It is separated from the main sanctuary by an arcade. At the west end of the arcade, in the choir passageway, an icon of Christ looks over a baptismal font of solid stone. The icon, though a fairly recent work, is in the style of icons found in much older Eastern Orthodox churches. The brochure explains, “Jesus wears robes in the style of Byzantine emperors, with the red, an earth color, evoking his humanity, while blue, the heavenly color, symbolizes his divinity. The ornate embroidery of the garment suggests a style characteristic of 16th century Russia. The text Jesus holds in his hands is Matthew 11:28–30. … Notice how Jesus’ fingers, held in the position of blessing, form the Greek I C X C abbreviation [for Jesus Christ].”
A barrel vault arches over the arcade. A blue and gold mosaic in the vault evokes a starry sky, “symbolizing a ‘gossamer veil’ between the heavenly and earthly realms.” Which, it seems, is a fitting description of this entire jewelbox of a church tucked in among the skyscrapers and luxury apartment blocks of Park Avenue, where Midtown meets Lenox Hill in Manhattan.