Riverside Church stands as a landmark in the Upper West Side. Its soaring height, intricate decorations, and colorful windows declare its artistic magnificence to the whole city, but a close encounter with the space offers a meaningful, religious impression upon the visitor. Riverside Church’s exterior and interior architecture fosters a comprehensive spiritual experience that fulfills the church’s function to inspire a connection with God. Exploring the relationships between structure, personal encounter, and religion will reveal the interactions between space, sensation, and intentional symbolism in the church.
The impression of the church’s exterior is dominated by its single bell tower, which commands the neighborhood at 392 feet. The tower serves a functional purpose, housing over 20 floors for church programming. But its perceptual impact achieves arguably more influential goals of symbolism and illusion to communicate God’s glory, the church’s authority, and a call to elevate the soul. Located on the Hudson, the church tower soars as a high peak on the river’s skyline. With its great height, the tower proclaims the church’s superior importance to the surrounding natural and urban landscape. This architectural feat indicates extraordinary human accomplishment, but the visitor’s inability to fully discern the top of the tower when standing before the church yields a sense of awe and lowly humility. One feels small in comparison. The repetition of pointed arches and narrowing vertical columns draws the eye upward. The small size of the flying buttresses, which serve no real structural purpose, create the illusion of an even taller structure. The building’s limestone exterior reflects sunlight, creating a white glow that blends into the clouds above. With this engagement of nature and material, the church’s bell tower seems to cross into an upper heavenly realm. The exterior architectural design urges visual ascension, symbolizing Riverside Church’s role in elevating the faithful spirit.
The main entrance to Riverside Church is distinctive in its placement at the base of the tower with its elaborate decoration. This west-facing entrance features concentric Gothic arches that frame the large, metal doors. This composition forms a dramatic portal, as if the visitor transitions from one world to another. The pointed arches surrounding the doors increase in width and height, further shrinking one’s perception of human size in relation to the massive building. The symmetrical entryway and pointed arch draw attention to the tympanum centered above the doors. Throned in the middle of the tympanum is the seated Christ, who, if He were to stand up, would exceed the tympanum’s frame in height. The Christ image’s proportion to the structure conveys His authority over the entryway and, subsequently, the whole church. The collaboration between architecture and artistic decoration in the main entrance serve the church’s purpose in delineating the structure as the house of God, a space for men to interact with the Divine.
An examination of Riverside Church’s interior, specifically the nave, reveals much architectural and experiential continuity from its exterior structure. The strong impact of height continues inside the church, emphasized by repetitive structural and illusionary elements. Upon entering the nave, one stands directly below a wooden overhanging balcony. After a few steps forward, the above balcony ends and, suddenly, the soaring height of the ribbed vault ceiling becomes visible. One is struck by the immensity of the open, undivided space. This transition enhances sensitivity to the nave’s dramatic vertical span. Gothic arches are a consistent motif in both the exterior and interior architecture. Pointed arches and compound piers line each aisle and wall, which, similar to the experience outside the church, direct one’s sight upward. The illusion achieved by narrowing vertical structures is also prevalent in the nave. Above each large, foundational arch are four smaller arches that span the same width as one big arch. Functionally, these shorter, thinner arches create a second level for seating, but the perceived illusion contributes to the church’s symbolic intentions. The narrowing pattern of the structures produces the impression that each arch is even higher and farther away than it really is. The eye translates the arches’ repetition and shrinking size to indicate greater vertical distance, thus creating a forced perspective. Riverside Church’s awe-inspiring height symbolizes the institution’s capability to unite Heaven and man, both by yielding God’s grace on earth and by lifting the human spirit through faithful inspiration.
The interaction between light and material inside the nave differs greatly from the exterior experience. While the limestone radiates sunlight and camouflages into bright clouds outside, the interior lighting is much more varied, with moments of extreme darkness contrasting with areas of luminous color. Arches along the sides of the nave foster a pattern of dark shadows. Hanging lamps, centered above the pew rows, offer abrupt spheres of light, emphasizing the shadows with direct contrast and shining distinct beams of illumination onto the walls and pillars. The ribbed vault ceiling also displays such polarity. Shadows nestle in each ceiling arch, and every vault’s center point features a small, circular window. The sky’s white light pierces through the dullness of the vault. This forms a dotted line of light across the ceiling that mimics the center aisle in its thrust toward the chancel. Such eerie polarity in light and darkness marks the church as separate from nature, articulating the architecture’s intention to highlight God’s emanation from Heaven and His intimidating power. The nave’s phenomenal acoustics add to this experiential effect. Every step and every whisper echoes throughout the huge room. This sensation, in conjunction with the stark changes in light and darkness, hushes the visitor into an awed silence. The acoustics highlight the individual’s capability to disturb the space’s tranquility, but the dramatic interactions of sunlight, shadow, and structure impress the obligation for humbled, respectful silence before the all-powerful Divine.
The dark shadows resulting from the architectural structures frame the many stained glass windows. This contrast accentuates the windows’ lustrous shades of blue, red, and green. The lowest windows display colorful geometrical patterns that mimic structural elements in the church, like pointed diamonds that echo the shape of arches. The window panels themselves are in the Gothic arch form, augmenting the relationship between the nave’s decoration and structure. The sets of stained glass windows above the second floor balcony feature full-bodied representations of Christian figures, glowing with vibrant sunlight. While sitting in the pews, one can hardly make out these figures’ faces due to the stained glass windows’ towering height. It is as if these holy, elevated personalities enter the earthly realm through the church, but their unreachable loftiness is maintained by their great height above men. Their position above the congregation represents the role of these saints to mediate between the congregation and God.
The organization of the open, undivided nave produces a propulsive force toward the chancel. Three aisles divide four symmetrical pew rows, directing the eye straight down the main aisle to the elaborately decorated chancel. The arrangement of wooden pews on the chancel is also symmetrical, with a golden cross as the center focal point. Stone stairs and a surrounding railing delineate the chancel as a separate, higher realm to differentiate the elite from the average churchgoer. The walls around the chancel shape a semicircle. As the only side of the nave without a second level balcony, these walls are uninterrupted in their vertical reach. The viewer feels totally encircled and enveloped by the chancel’s lofty, round form. There is a stone chancel screen with detailed carvings that mingle architectural decorations with representations of important people in religion, philosophy, and science. This screen features thin, tall figures and narrowing vertical beams with pointed tips, guiding one’s sight upward. The symmetrical chancel screen grows in height toward the chancel’s middle arch and accents the cross’s centrality. This screen blocks visibility of the stained glass windows behind it. But the screen’s middle panel leaves an arch-shaped opening behind the golden cross, so the vivid stained glass highlights the cross’s radiance. The collaboration between light, artistic decoration, and interior architecture articulates an intentional religious message. The space creates a hierarchy of structure, art, and symbolism through its patterns, lighting, and visual thrusts. Even though the cross is not the largest symbol in the nave, these elements join forces to convey its dominance. The cross, as the pinnacle focal point of the entire nave, marks the church as Christ’s domain.
The exterior and interior appearances of Riverside Church foster both the senses of humility and of redemptive achievability. The visitor feels small and trivial in the face of such holy power, but the church simultaneously empowers its visitors by exhibiting the attainability of a connection with God. Through the intentional unification of architectural design and spiritual encounter, Riverside Church harmonizes the function and experience of space.
By Lucille Marshall
Written for Masterpieces of Western Art with Professor Caroline Mangone at Columbia University.