- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 23, 2001

Down a narrow stairway, the artisans are carefully add-ing gold and purple swirls to illuminated manuscripts. Other craftsmen are fashioning gargoyles, some scary and some gentle.

This is a typical morning at the Washington National Cathedral's Medieval Workshop, where the crafts may be medieval, but the crowd is strictly 21st century. The workshop, which is open to the public every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., is a chance for children to get a hands-on experience in the techniques that were involved in building the great cathedrals of the world.

Hands-on is the key here. When the medieval cathedrals of Europe were built, they were constructed stone-by-stone, with carvers creating the gargoyles and arches. Although the National Cathedral was built in the 20th century (beginning in 1907 and ending in 1990), it was constructed with the same handmade qualities.

"The medieval workshop really is a way to help people of all ages to gain an appreciation for the skills needed to build something like this," says Margie Ward, manager of the workshop.

The workshop is held in a basement room of the cathedral, giving visitors a feel for what it might have been like for the artists who worked behind cathedrals' stone walls 500 years ago.

Visitors to the workshop can try their talents at a variety of craft stations. One of the most popular is the central table, where participants can turn a ball of clay into a gargoyle. Pictures and models of some of the cathedral's scariest statues are provided for inspiration.

But not every gargoyle has to be menacing. Jessica Worm, 6, of Olney, pinched and sculpted her clay into a small kitten on a log. Still, she says, she didn't find the cathedral's gargoyles frightening.

"It is not too scary," says Jessica. "I've been to Notre Dame, too."

At another table, the gothic craft of making brass rubbings has been scaled down to postcard-size projects. Before photography, this was a way to bring likenesses of religious artifacts into a medieval home.

Blacksmithing is another time-honored craft and a popular table here. Since the workshop is popular with young children, though the cathedral requests participants be at least 5 there is no white-hot iron. But children still have fun banging pieces of copper into shapes with a hammer and chisel.

Another area popular with those who like to hammer is the stone carving station, where participants can don an apron and goggles and use carving tools to chip away at a piece of limestone the way a sculptor would.

"It is incredible when you think how hard stone carvers had to work to build something like this," says Wally Kaine, a Leesburg, Va., man who brought his nephew, Max Liffers, for a cathedral tour and workshop visit.

At the illumination station, the precise craft of illuminating manuscripts is taught. Visitors can use a variety of stencils and markers to turn a bookmark into a work of art.

Many workshop visitors round out their day with the cathedral's gargoyle tour, which is offered on weekends and evenings from April until October. Participants can view a slide show explaining the stories behind many of the cathedral's gargoyles, then take a tour to view them with binoculars. The tour costs $5 per person.

One Saturday each month, the cathedral holds Family Saturday, where children ages 4 to 8 are invited to hear a story, explore the cathedral and make a treasure to take home. Reservations are required. The family program costs $6 per child with an adult companion.

This Saturday, the cathedral will hold an open house from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Besides the medieval workshop, there also will be live music, puppet shows, stone-carving demonstrations, games and an antique carousel.

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