All photos by Victoria Emily Jones or Eric James Jones, © ArtandTheology.org
Soaring 150 feet into the air against a Rocky Mountain backdrop, the United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel in Colorado Springs is a National Historic Landmark and one of Colorado’s most-visited manmade attractions. It was designed by Walter Netsch Jr. of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the architectural firm responsible for the planning and design of the entire academy, and is a recipient of the American Institute of Architects’ Twenty-Five-Year Award. Construction of the Cadet Chapel began in 1959 and was completed in 1962. It was dedicated in 1963.
The Cadet Chapel was designed to house three distinct worship spaces—Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish—on two levels, with a large “All-Faiths Room” on a third (bottom) level available to members of other faiths. In 2007 a Buddhist Chapel (the Vast Refuge Dharma Hall) was added, and more recently a Muslim prayer room, and outside there is a Falcon Circle for the Earth-Centered Spirituality community (pagans, Druids, Wiccans, etc.), dedicated in 2011. Because of the building’s sound-proofing and separate entrances, different services can be held simultaneously without interfering with one another.
I visited the Cadet Chapel last year shortly before it closed in September for a major renovation and restoration project needed to address water damage. It is scheduled to reopen again in fall 2023.
The most striking feature of the exterior is its seventeen spires, made to resemble jet fighter wings. I must admit: though it is an impressive structure, and I’m fully aware it is a military chapel, the evocation of warplanes for a worship space is a little unsettling. But the design choice does give the building great height—it points to the heavens as do the great medieval Gothic cathedrals of Europe, meant to turn the eye upward toward God.
The steel frame of the chapel comprises one hundred identical tetrahedrons, each weighing five tons and enclosed with aluminum panels. The surfaces of the outer panels are striated so that they reflect light differently throughout the day, depending on the sun’s position.
The chapel is situated on a terrace that overlooks part of the campus as well as beautiful mountain vistas.
The front façade faces south—an atypical orientation for churches, which are traditionally built on a west–east axis, but a choice made, I’m assuming, to best utilize the sunlight for the interior decoration (see next section).
To reach the main entrance you have to ascend a wide granite stairway that leads up one story to an uncovered front porch. Walk inside, and you’re in the narthex (lobby) of the Protestant Chapel.
The Protestant Chapel is by far the largest worship space within the Cadet Chapel, taking up the whole main floor—a choice made based on the religious demographics of enrolled cadets at the time of the building’s construction in the early sixties. (An article published shortly after the chapel’s dedication reported that 68% of cadets listed themselves as Protestant, 29% Catholic, and 2% Jewish, with a few listing other faiths or agnosticism.)
Though the exterior of the Cadet Chapel is, as I experienced it, somewhat cold, sterile, severe, the interior is incredibly warm and genial. Its vertical lift is spectacular. Stained glass strip windows provide ribbons of color between the tetrahedrons and progress from darker to lighter as they reach the altar, with some of the nearly 25,000 dalles (small, thick glass slabs) being deliberately chipped to produce jewel-like facets. The play of colored light across vault, floor, and pews was my favorite part of this space.
The pews, which seat 1,200 in addition to the 120-seat choir loft, are carved from American walnut wood and African mahogany. The ends are made to resemble World War I propellers—one of several aerodynamic forms to be found in the chapel.
Now we come to the chancel—that is, the space around the altar. Behind the marble altar is a curvilinear mosaic reredos by Lumen Martin Winter, made of semiprecious stones from Colorado and pietra santra marble from Italy. Needlepoint kneelers made by officers’ wives lie on the floor along the altar rail (I know, they seem like quaint relics today, but they do give a homey touch).
The focal point of the chancel is the aluminum cross suspended above it, which is forty-six feet tall and twelve feet wide. Its crossbar resembles a pair of sailplane wings.
On the wall to the left of the main entrance, if you’re facing toward the altar, hangs a wood panel by marqueteur Paul Louis Spindler, showing the three wise men bringing gifts to baby Jesus.
Paul is the son of Charles Spindler, who founded a marquetry workshop in 1893 in Saint-Léonard near the medieval village of Boersch in the Alsace region of France. For over a century the internationally renowned workshop has been family-run: after Charles, Paul took over, and it is currently directed by Paul’s son Jean-Charles. It’s based in a former Benedictine abbey at the foot of Mont Sainte-Odile.
Setting the biblical narrative in the Alsatian piedmont, Paul Louis Spindler’s Adoration of the Magi was gifted to the Cadet Chapel by the Protestant Chaplain Fund of the Toul-Rosières Air Base in France, which was used by American fighter and bomber aircraft during World War II.
A laminated paper on the table underneath explains the Spindlers’ creation process: They begin by sketching a picture in pencil on newsprint. Wood veneers are then selected from the workshop’s warehouse with attention to grain and hue. Each veneer is cut by hand to the exact dimensions dictated by the design. The pieces are then pasted to the newsprint with a homemade glue, and then the entire assemblage is glued, picture side down, to a two-centimeter-thick piece of kiln-dried wood. (The result will be a mirror image of the original sketch.) Next the picture is placed in a press for two to six months, depending on size and complexity. Finally, the newsprint is sanded off and a wax finish applied.
Perched in the choir loft above the narthex is a pipe organ designed by Walter Holtkamp of the Holtkamp Organ Co. and built by the M.P. Moller Co. Its 4,334 pipes range in size from thirty-two feet high to pencil-size.
The focal point of the Catholic Chapel, located one level down, is the abstract glass mosaic mural behind the altar, made up of varying shades of blue, turquoise, rose, and gray tesserae. It’s meant to give an impression of the heavens. Superimposed on the mural and depicting the Annunciation are two ten-foot figures carved in Carrara marble: Mary on the left, and the Archangel Gabriel on the right. Between them is a marble dove, symbolic of the Holy Spirit; her wingspan creates a compelling backdrop for the nickel-silver crucifix, as God’s Spirit seems to embrace Jesus on the cross while the light of the Father forms an aureole around them both.
This chapel was closed when I visited, so I could only peek over the barrier and snap a few photos from the vantage point of the entrance.
The side walls are made up of floor-to-ceiling panels of amber glass and are lined with a Stations of the Cross cycle—carved, like the Annunciation figures, from slabs of Carrara marble, with recessed backgrounds of multicolored tesserae.
The mosaic reredos and the Annunciation and Stations of the Cross sculptures were all made by Lumen Martin Winter.
I first heard about the Cadet Chapel when I came across a photo of a painting by Polish-born Israeli artist Shlomo Katz (1937–1992) that was commissioned for the Jewish Chapel. I wanted to see the full set of nine, in situ, so I was disappointed to discover that, like the Catholic Chapel, the Jewish Chapel was closed when I arrived. (A docent told me it was because there had been recurrences of disrespectful tourists in recent times.) I told the docent I was an arts writer and was really hoping to see the Katz paintings, and graciously she escorted me in.
Designed by Ludwig Yehuda Wolpert, the Jewish Chapel is circular in shape, its walls formed by panels of translucent glass separated by stanchions of Israeli cypress. Its perimeter is punctuated by four open doorways, effectually creating four distinct wall segments.
On the main wall—the one the chairs are arranged toward—is the Aron Kodesh (Heb. “Holy Ark”), an ornamental metal chamber by Wolpert shaped like the tablets of the law and housing the Torah scrolls. Hanging to its right is the Ner Tamid (“Eternal Light”), a menorah, which symbolizes God’s abiding presence and providential care (Exod. 25:31–40; 27:20–21). Traditionally this lamp would have used oil for fuel, but today almost all synagogues use electric.
The nine Katz paintings, each based on a narrative, moral command, or proverb from the Hebrew Bible, decorate the other three wall segments, having been divided into three themed groups: Brotherhood, Flight, and Justice. Commissioned by the Falcon Foundation in 1985 and completed and installed in 1986, the paintings are highly stylized, with artistic influences ranging from Persian, Indian, and Turkish miniature painting to the International Gothic style of fifteenth-century France and Italy. Katz worked on plywood so that he could gently curve the painting surface to match the contour of the wall. He applied gold leaf to the plywood, then painted over it in oils. The frames are natural wood.
The first group, to the left of the main wall, is “Brotherhood.”
Ruth and Boaz. This painting portrays the meeting of Ruth and Boaz at Bethlehem during the barley harvest (Ruth 2). The widowed Ruth was sent by her mother-in-law Naomi to go glean the fields—that is, to follow the reapers, gathering the grain that fell on the ground. (Gleaning was an ancient Jewish welfare provision, allowed by law.) There she meets Boaz, a landowner and the key to a secure future for both women. In Katz’s painting Boaz, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and holding a scythe, bends down to greet Ruth, as Naomi looks on with hope from behind a bush. The coupling of Ruth and Boaz led, a few generations later, to the birth of King David. The “brotherhood” in this story is actually a sisterhood, shared between Ruth and Naomi, who are loyally devoted to each other.
Deal Thy Bread to the Hungry. Next is an imagined enactment of Isaiah 58:7, where God describes what true piety looks like: “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” A blind oud player with tattered clothes sits at the doorway of a family’s home. The husband comes out to cover him with a shawl, inviting him inside, while the wife hurries to serve him food. Even their young son comes bearing a lamb, a token of friendship and hospitality.
Jacob and the Angel. As he awaits reconciliation with his estranged brother Esau, Jacob encounters the Divine, who comes to him as an angel to wrestle (Gen. 32:22–32). Katz portrays the God-man in an extra-large garment with billowy white folds that hides his bodily form; he said he had in mind the northern lights. Jacob’s wives, children, and servants look on from a hilltop, and two of his sheep lie by in the brush.
The central group of paintings, hanging opposite the Aron Kodesh, is “Flight,” in honor of the US Air Force.
The Way of an Eagle in the Air. First is an illumination of the riddle from Proverbs 30:18–19: “Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a maiden.” Katz said the magical landscape of the painting was inspired by the fable “Of Three and Four” by the Hebrew poet Hayyim Nahman Bialik, itself based on these two verses, which involves Solomon’s daughter, a Jewish princess, being locked in a castle on a desert island. Off to the left is Agur, son of Jakeh and author of Proverbs 30 (see v. 1), writing on his scroll, pondering the unfathomable things before him.
The Vision of Ezekiel. The second painting attempts to depict the bizarre, prophetic vision of what biblical scholar Tim Mackie calls “the God mobile”—God’s moving throne—recorded in Ezekiel 1:4–13. In Katz’s interpretation God appears as a bright red sheet of flame, his face indistinct, surrounded by four mechanical, winged creatures. The artist said he tried to put himself in Ezekiel’s shoes: what might it be like to encounter an extraterrestrial spacecraft, something terrifying and otherworldly? The Bible passage talks about burnished brass and spinning wheels that generate fire and lightning, so Katz took that to imply something robotic.
Chariot of Fire. Next is Elijah’s being taken up by a whirlwind into heaven, as recorded in 2 Kings 2:11. The painting is full of dynamic, balletic movement, as a gray-bearded Elijah bounds into the sky, over the river Jordan and the city of Jericho, trailing a pair of fiery horses with a cloaked rider. Struck with awe, his student Elisha stays behind, gaping, and receives the diaphanous red, miracle-working mantle that spirals off from Elijah’s body.
The final three paintings in the Jewish Chapel are on the theme of “Justice.”
Justice, Justice Shalt Thou Follow. The first in the group illuminates Deuteronomy 16:18–20: “You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” Two judges appear at the city gate, referencing their law books in their settlement of a dispute.
Solomon’s Judgment. King Solomon prayed to God for wisdom and discernment, the ability to judge fairly, and God granted his request (1 Kings 3:9–12). This painting depicts Solomon’s first public exercise of that wisdom (1 Kings 3:16–28). Two women come before him, each claiming to be the mother of a certain baby. They both gave birth on the same day, but one of the babies died in the night, and one woman allegedly stole the living baby to raise as her own. Solomon commands that the baby be cut in two and the halves divided between the women. But as the guard lifts his sword, one woman cries out in horrified relinquishment, saying she wants her child to live and the other woman can have him—thus signaling to Solomon that she is the child’s true mother. Case closed. Jewish tradition states that the queen of Sheba was a witness to this ruling (cf. 1 Kings 10:4), so in the painting she stands beside Solomon. The royal gardens and menagerie are in view.
Slay the Righteous with the Wicked? Next is the story of Abraham’s negotiating with God in Genesis 18 over the fate of Sodom. The setting is Mamre. Abraham has just shared a meal with three mysterious visitors, a theophany historically depicted as angels, when he learns that God is preparing to destroy Sodom for its sin. Abraham intercedes on the city’s behalf, likely out of concern for his nephew Lot who lives there with his family. “What if there are righteous people there? Will you destroy them too?” Abraham asks. God essentially says he will save the righteous few from destruction, and in the next chapter he keeps his promise.
In Katz’s painting Abraham and the three visitors overlook the Valley of the Dead Sea and the fortified cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. A cloud of judgment hovers over the inhabitants who are engaging in wicked acts. At the right under a terebinth tree, Abraham’s wife Sarah emerges from her tent, listening in.
You can learn more about these paintings in the book The Way of an Eagle in the Air: The Paintings of Shlomo Katz at the United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel (Stuart Allen, 1993).
Outside the Jewish Chapel is a square foyer whose walls are purple-stained glass panels alternating with green- and blue-stained accent windows, and whose floor is paved with 1,631 pieces of Jerusalem stone. A display cabinet houses a “Holocaust Torah,” a treasured Torah scroll rescued from the Nazis during World War II, rediscovered in an abandoned warehouse in Poland in 1989, and donated to the Jewish Chapel in 1990.
Lastly, here are two photos that will give you a sense of how the lower (terrace) level is accessed and its perimeter traversed. The Catholic Chapel, Jewish Chapel, and Buddhist Chapel are on this level.