Cathedrals are well known as places of quiet reflection and reverence for divinity. To encourage these behaviors, architects often use calm, echoless corridors, vaulted ceilings arching toward the heavens, awe-inspiring architecture, and carvings of beloved science fiction characters. That last one isn’t exactly common, but it’s definitely the case at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
The sixth-largest cathedral in the world, this stunning neogothic construction is a functioning place of worship as well as a popular tourist destination. Nearly half a million people enter through its doors each year, many of them just to admire its breathtaking beauty. It’s perhaps fitting, then, that the cathedral offer a bit of tongue-in-cheek eye candy for the dedicated architecture enthusiast — a well-hidden, but very official, carving of Star Wars villain Darth Vader perched high among its many spires.
Unsuspecting onlookers should take heed – this is no optical illusion. During the 1980s an outer portion of the National Cathedral was under construction, and a contest was held for schoolchildren to design a sculpture to be added to the towers being renovated. A child by the name of Christopher Rader drew the Vader sculpture, and it was selected for the third place prize, which included addition in the renovation.
The sculpture, carved by Patrick J. Plunkett, is often referred to as a “gargoyle,” the most famous of creature-inspired architecture, however this is technically incorrect. A gargoyle refers to a sculpture out of which water is drained from the building. The Darth Vader statue does not drain water, and thus is technically a grotesque.
To see the sculpture, binoculars or a high-powered zoom lens are recommended to see the intricacies of the high roof. From the northwest parking lot, near the top of the northwest tower, Darth Vader can be spotted between two massive arches. The bust will be to the upper left of a closer, larger skull-shaped grotesque.
While this addition may seem strikingly irreverent, thousands of curious travelers stop by the cathedral simply to search for this hidden treasure. If one of the primary goals of a cathedral is to attract non-parishioners and appeal to the unconverted, this winking reference to popular culture isn’t a bad first step along that journey.
Know Before You Go
Exit the cathedral through the northwest doors or approach the building from the northwest parking lot. The Vader statue is high up on the northwest tower.