The Facade of the Cathedral
We are now facing the cathedral’s facade, built in 1891. It is punctuated by five entryways of stone, topped with three square towers, each topped with curved roofs. The square tower and curved roofs are reminiscent of the harmonious union of Yin and Yang. The number three is an Eastern symbol of the three elements: Sky – Earth – Man. This is an organic link that weaves the universe. He number three speaks also to the mystery of the Christian Trinity.
Looking at the entire cathedral facade, we see a combination of Asian and Gothic architecture. While the curved roof is majestic, the Phat Diem Cathedral does not shoot to the heights, but it spatially expands in Asian way. The Western architecture tends to stand out of the nature, while the Eastern one tries to be in harmony with the surrounding natural landscape.
On the facade, one can see the majestic arches delicately carved in stone that are like open curtains, inviting us to enter the cathedral. Above each of these five porches are three high-reliefs that recount the fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary. From left to right: The Joyful Mysteries, the Sorrowful Mysteries relating the Passion of Christ, and the Glorious Mysteries, with the final being the Coronation of Our Lady in the Kingdom of Heaven. There is a remarkable lotus that is intertwined with roses and angels carved in the Asian tradition. We can also see that the Bible characters have facial features of the Vietnamese people, oval and smooth, and the saints are dressed in Vietnamese brocade robes. And finally, Pontius Pilate wears the hat of the court mandarins with the angel playing Vietnamese musical instruments.
The inside walls of the cathedral are carved with six angels holding basins of holy water. Above the head of each angel is a Latin phrase taken from the Scriptures: “Knock, and it will be opened to you; First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
Phat Diem Cathedral
We are here inside Phat Diem cathedral, built in 1891. According to historical records, the actual construction took only three months, while preparation of the foundation and all necessary preliminary work took place over a decade. This work may be considered as a combination of Western and Eastern architecture.
The European architecture inspired the entry of the Cathedral and the Cathedral nave which rises upward. Upon entering the building, we must remain still for a while to allow our eyes to become adjusted to the dim interior. The Eastern architectural style, inspired by the traditional tenets of ancient temples, helps to create an atmosphere of silence, appropriate to meditation and prayer. The Vietnamese influence is manifested in the structure through the columns, ties, altars, and by the careful perfection of the carvings and clean lines. The nave of the Cathedral is punctuated longitudinally into nine bays with six rows of wooden ironwood columns. There are a total of fifty-two columns supporting the four roofs. The sixteen large columns of the nave are 8 ½ feet around, 11 feet tall, and weigh seven tons each. It is interesting to note that the more the volume of the space rises, the more the spacing between the columns is reduced.
The Cathedral is supported by nine crossbeams that have been skillfully carved. These carvings become more detailed and symbolic the closer one gets to the altar. Each of these bays can weigh up to 25 tons. Imagine that over one hundred years ago these materials were transported from distant regions of Vietnam to Phat Diem with rudimentary tools. The frame of the Cathedral was handled only by the strength of men and water buffalos. In the inside of the Cathedral we are immediately attracted to two central rows of pillars that lead to the Choir.
We then come to the Sanctuary of the Cathedral. This space is decorated by a set of finely sculpted wooden panels, lacquered and gilded with gold. A French journalist remarked that: “Rarely have I seen a place as beautiful, as grand as the cathedral choir.” At the top, the arch of the interior vault is a painting depicting Our Lady of the Rosary giving the Rosary to St. Dominic. Above, seven open windows with stained glass in the center portray Jesus Christ the King surrounded by the six Vietnamese martyrs. Here one can see a bishop, a priest, a mandarin, a soldier, a village chief, and a peasant.
Just below the painting is the statue of Our Lady on her throne in glory carrying the child Jesus, surrounded by paintings of saints. Here is the original altar, a monolith eight feet long, carved on three sides. In front of it stands the new high altar, also a solid piece of stone, resting on two stone columns carved in the shape of bamboo. This altar was erected in October of 1990 for the celebration of the centennial of the Cathedral.