Why Is Darth Vader on the Washington National Cathedral?

If you want to see the symbolic representation of the battle between good and evil, visit Washington, D.C. No, we’re not talking about the political debates on Capitol Hill. The focus of this cosmic conflict is about 5 miles northwest at the Washington National Cathedral.

No, this isn’t going to be a discussion about religion, either. Although the Cathedral is the principal place of worship for the Episcopal Church, we must draw your attention to a decidedly unsacred element of the holy site. If you look carefully at the cathedral’s northwest tower, you will see the haunting face of Darth Vader staring back at you.

Washington National Cathedral

The Cathedral boasts approximately 3,000 grotesques throughout its structure. Of these, only 112 are gargoyles. The simple distinction is that a grotesque deflects rainwater in some fashion; gargoyles, a subcategory of grotesque, do so by allowing water to run through them. Typically designed to look scary, the spiritual purpose of gargoyles is thought to be a reminder of the fate of the unrepentant or to ward off evil spirits. St. Bernard, the 12th-century cleric, disapproved of the practice, writing, “What is the meaning of these unclean monkeys, these savage lions, and monstrous creatures?” Despite his disapproval, the practice of including ornate creatures as part of the drainage system has endured for centuries.

Although commonly referred to as the “Darth Vader gargoyle,” it is technically a grotesque. It was sculpted by Jay Hall Carpenter and carved by Patrick J. Plunkett. A grotesque is designed to deflect rainwater in some manner. A gargoyle is a subcategory of grotesque that is designed to allow water to run through it.

“What is the meaning of these unclean monkeys, these savage lions, and monstrous creatures?”

— St. Bernard, 12th Century

The arch-villain of Star Wars found his way to the Cathedral thanks to a competition in the 1980s. As the northwest tower was nearing completion, a call went out for contestants to offer suggestions for the designs of the grotesques. Christopher Rader submitted a drawing of Luke Skywalker’s nemesis/father/hand-severer/mentor-killer/ultimately-redeemed antagonist. His submission won third prize and a coveted place on the Cathedral.

Darth Vader and a neighboring raccoon grotesque stand watch on the northwest tower of the Washington National Cathedral

Other winning designs included the less-dramatic images of a raccoon, a girl with pigtails and braces, and a man with large teeth and an umbrella. Although we admit, raccoons can be pretty terrifying. And don’t get us started about the fierceness factor of little girls.

For those who are unable to visit the Cathedral in person, this interactive tour of some of the more notable grotesques is available.

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