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The first Episcopal services held in Knoxville took place in 1826, thirty-five years after the founding of the pioneer town. The group established an association with the name of St. John early on and was one of the congregations represented at the Primary Convention when the Diocese of Tennessee was organized in 1829 in Nashville. The congregation struggled along for fifteen years before the Episcopal Church obtained a strong foothold in Knoxville. On May 9, 1844, with 25 communicants, St. John’s became the first mission from the eastern part of the state to be admitted to the Diocese of Tennessee. It was the fifth church to be established in the town of Knoxville and the sixth parish admitted to the Diocese.

A lot on the corner of Cumberland Avenue and Crooked Street (now Walnut) was purchased by the new parish. This site was a part of the original plot plan, which was laid out shortly after the founding of Knoxville. When construction was completed on the first Church building in 1846, a red brick Neo-Gothic structure, this site was almost exactly in the middle of the growing town, which had a population of about two thousand at the time. In 1891 it was decided to pull down the original building because a larger facility was needed. The present building was constructed on the same site and was completed the following year. The Chapel and Parish House were added at the north end of the Church in 1914. After a devastating fire in the Church in 1919 in which many of the original stained glass windows were destroyed, the building was promptly restored. In 1963 there was an extensive renovation, which included the removal of the Nave floor for the excavation of the Undercroft. Being the mother church in this part of the state, St. John’s was designated the Cathedral of the newly formed Diocese of East Tennessee in 1986.

The building’s prototype was the Romanesque churches of the 11th and 12th century France and northern Spain. This style is characterized by massive rusticated stone surfaces and expansive rounded arches. Detailing is usually rather plain and simple with very little ornamentation. Although there is some employment of Neo-Gothicdetailing at St. John’s, particularly in the woodwork and the pointed arched windows, the overall feeling of thestructure is unmistakable Neo-Romanesque.

The building is cruciform in layout, i.e., it is shaped like a Latin cross. The body of the cross is called the Nave, the arms are called Transepts, and the head is called the Chancel.The area where these four parts intersect is called the Crossing and the raised portion above this area where the windows are located is called the Crossing Tower.

The Chancel is divided into two parts: The Choir where the singers sit and the Sanctuary where the Altar, surrounded by the Communion Rail, is located. The termination of the Chancel in a semi-circular shape is called an Apse.

Ecclesiastically speaking, the Altar is always considered to be located in the east end of the building. This is thought to have become custom because the early Christians always oriented their churches so that they would be saying their prayers facing Jerusalem. It is also symbolic of the correlation between the rising of the sun in the east and the Resurrection of the Son of Righteousness.

The central aisle extends from the entrance of the church in the west end unobstructed through the Nave and Choir, terminating at the Altar in the east end of the building. This is symbolic of the belief that the one and only path from the worldly to the spiritual is through the sacrifice made by Christ. This sacrifice is commemorated with the celebration of Holy Communion at His Altar.

The three steps, which elevate the Choir above the Nave floor, remind worshipers of the virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love as they approach the Rail to make Communion. The three steps that raise the dais on which the Altar is located above the Choir floor reminds us of the Trinity. The two large stands on either side of the Altar hold the Eucharistic Candles that represent the divine and human natures of Christ. When lit, they remind the worshiper of the coming of Our Lord in Holy Communion and that He is “The Light of the World”. The high-backed chair tothe left of the Altar is the Bishop’s Throne. Because of its Latin name (“cathedra”, meaning “seat”), a church such as St. John’s that is the seat of the Bishop is called a Cathedral.

The mosaic Altarpiece above the Communion Table depicts the Ascension of Christ. The flanking window closestto the Nave on the left side of the Chancel features a cross that represents Christ’s sacrifice by death. The oppositewindow on the right side features a crown that is a symbol of victory over death. The center window on the left side of the Chancel shows Justicia, the female personification of Justice, one of the four cardinal virtues. She is holding scales in her left hand and a sword in her right hand. In Christian art scales represent judgment and a sword indicates death by martyrdom. The opposite window on the right side contains another of the four cardinal virtues, Fortitudo. She is wearing a helmet and has a lion seated at her feet as symbols of the bravery she personifies. In Christian art a helmet is emblematic of a victorious warrior. The lion reminds us that Christ was called the Lion of Judah. It is not known why these allegorical figures were employed in this Christian setting or why only two of the four cardinal virtues are represented. It is possible that the intent was to carry on the theme of the first two windows; i.e., humanity’s salvation by way of Christ’s sacrifice and victory over death. The figures on either side of the Altar each have a nimbus (halo) which tells us they are saints. The quill, scroll and book they hold indicate that they are writers. The figure on the left represents St. John, the patron of this Cathedral. The figure on the right is his brother, St. James the Greater (other times referred to as St. James Major) who is depicted with his emblem, three scallop shells attached to a pilgrim’s staff.

The foliate forms that decorate the dome (actually a semi-dome in this case) are called arabesques and are symbolic of Christ and his Church (“I am the vine and you are its branches”). 

Unlike the pulpits in most Anglican churches that are located to the left side, the pulpit here is located on the right.This was done by the founders of St. John’s, many of whom were of Scottish extraction, to the custom in theChurch of Scotland of locating the pulpit on the opposite side from that which is custom in the Church of England. The figure in the center niche of the pulpit is a representation of Jesus and is surrounded by the authors of the four

Gospels with their symbols that were alluded to in both Ezekiel and Revelation. On the right side of the Christ figure is St. Luke whose emblem is an ox. This is because in his Gospel he emphasizes the priesthood of Christ and the ox is a symbol of sacrifice. Next to this figure is St. Matthew with his symbol, a winged man. This is in reference to his detailed account of the Incarnation that emphasized Christ’s human nature. On the left side of thecentral figure is St. Mark whose attribute is a lion, presumably because his Gospel emphasizes the royal dignity of Christ, the Lion of Judah. Next to this figure is St. John with his emblem, an eagle. Because of its ability to soar at great heights, the eagle has come to be a symbol of highest inspiration. Like the eagle, in his Gospel St. John soared upward in his contemplation of the divine nature of the Savior. Notice the resemblance between this figure and the one of St. John in the stained glass widow in the Chancel.

St. John’s Cathedral is fortunate to have several artifacts that came from the original 1846 structure. One of these is the outstanding carved walnut Eagle Lectern on the left side of the Chancel. In Exodus 19:4 in reference to their Deliverance from Egypt, God reminds the Israelites that He bore them on eagles’ wings and brought them unto Himself. Similarly, the hearing of The Word read from the Eagle Lectern, transports us “on eagles’ wings” and “brings us unto God”. Another artifact that has come to us from the earlier edifice is the marble Font at the west end of the Nave at the beginning of the Central Aisle.

It is also documented that the three Lancet Windows above the trompette en chamade in the North Transept (left) were originally located above the Altar of the 1846 structure. The center window depicts Christ bestowing the Benediction. The dove above His head represents the Holy Spirit. The lamb below his feet is the Agnus Dei (the Lamb of God). The banner the Lamb holds is a symbol of victory and reminds us that Christ was the sacrificiallamb and overcame death. The window to the left contains the superimposed monogram “HIS”, the first three letters of the name “Jesus” in the Greek alphabet transliterated into Latin. The window on the right contains thesuperimposed Greek letters Alpha and Omega.

The center window on the right side of the door is a representation of King David playing his harp. The helmet he wears reminds us that he was a victorious warrior. In the smaller window to the right is another depiction of the Crown and Cross, in combination this time, and a representation of a Phoenix rising from its flames, an ancient Egyptian symbol representing rebirth which came into usage in The Church from the Coptic Christians. The smaller window to the left displays the emblem of Freemasonry, in honor of the man to whom it is dedicated, and an anchor that is symbolic of Hope.

The three windows to the left of the door depict an Easter theme representing Christ risen from the tomb with Roman soldiers on guard at each side. Notice the Easter lily at the bottom of the center window.

The lower portion of the large window in the South Transept (right) depicts six angels who remind us of the divine attributes of God: power, majesty, wisdom, love, mercy, and justice. They are holding a banner bearing the words of the Gloria Patri. Because of its similarity to a flower, the circular window above is called a Rose Window. It is made of pearl glass (also called art glass). This window was given as a memorial by the great-great granddaughters of Knoxville’s founder, James White.

The three windows in the South Aisle (right) comprise a Christmas grouping depicting the Nativity in the center, The Adoration of the Magi on the right and The Visitation of the Shepherds on the left.

The group of windows on the North Aisle (left) depict important events in Christ’s adult life (from left to right):The Baptism, Jesus Teaching, and The Last Supper.

At the west end of the Nave is a stained glass window. The bottom portrays the Witnessing of the Ascension by the apostles, which is appropriate considering the Altarpiece opposite. Each of the seven petals of its Rose Window above incorporates a representation of one of the seven Holy Sacraments of the Church.

Beginning at the front of the South Transept (right), continuing clockwise around the nave and terminating at the front of the North Transept (left) are depictions of Our Lord’s Passion, referred to as Stations of the Cross. Theseicons may be used by individual worshipers for private devotions and are used by the congregation as a whole in Lent, especially during Holy Week. Devotionals, which can be used to aid those who wish to Walk the Way of the Cross, may be requested at the Office. The twelve stations are:

  1. Jesus is condemned to death

  2. Jesus takes up His cross

  3. Jesus fails the first time

  4. The Cross is laid on Simon of Cyrene

  5. St. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus

  6. Jesus fails a second time

  7. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem

  8. Jesus is stripped of His garments

  9. Jesus is nailed to the cross

  10. Jesus dies on the cross

  11. Jesus is placed in the arms of His mother

  12. Jesus is laid in the tomb

The Chapel can be accessed from the hall in the Parish House immediately behind the Cathedral. It was constructed in 1914 and is often referred to as “St. Mary’s Chapel” because of depictions of the Mother of Jesus inthe paintings and most of the windows. The large stained glass window to the left in the rear of the Chapel remindsus of Christ’s admonition to the Disciples to “suffer the little children to come unto me”. The companion windowto the right depicts The Nativity. Between the two windows on the console is a bisque ceramic cross, which was crafted by the well-known local artist, Jim Gray. The five windows along the outside wall of the Chapel portray (from left to right) The Annunciation, the Presentation in the Temple, The Adoration of the Magi, The Flight intoEgypt, and The Teaching of the Elders. The painting on this same wall is a copy of the central portion of Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna”. On the opposite wall, the “tondo” (a painting in the round) is a reproduction of another of Raphael’s works, “The Madonna of the Chair”. The painting toward the front is a facsimile of “The Conception” by the Spanish artist Murillo. The Altar, Reredos (the screen behind the altar), and Credence Tables are Neo-Gothic in their detailing. Note the fine carvings of the “Lamb of God” on the front of the altar as well as the two angels surmounting the reredos.

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