Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
The Basilica Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is a symbol of Catholic unity, a singularity in the fractious, chaotic world of man. Sometimes called, “America’s Catholic Church”, this largest Catholic church in the United States was begun in 1920 and finished, for the most part, in 2017. In truth, serviceable buildings, especially churches, are in continuous adaptation and refinement as this requirement or that concern is addressed, as one generation passes to the next, as what was fashionable becomes passé as will soon happen with tedious Diversity chic. In style, the Shrine is part Romanesque, part Byzantine, part modern Classive, simplified in form, organized in reason. The Shrine honors the uniqueness of the Virgin Mary, Queen of Heaven who was graced with freedom from Original Sin.
For a thousand-plus years scholars debated the nature of Mary, Mother of Jesus, before concluding (1843) that Mary was born free of sin. Truly, think it through in every detail. Since 1854, verses, hymns, statuary, pictuary, and churches have glorified the Immaculate Conception, its essence and potentiality. True, feminists consider humble Mother Mary a burden imposed by the patriarchy, a challenge to workaday abortion and workplace privileges; other Progressives are chagrined that their Mary cannot be a goddess of the pagan variety. And then, secular catholics and other pagan christians are certain that the Virgin Mary is traditionalist propaganda of the Western Hierarchy. Yes, a fractious, chaotic world much in need of Catholic singularity.
The Basilica’s 82 Marian chapels are a draw for people of all the world, are composed, it would seem, to flatter each interest of location and conceit, the unique parochial concerns that we each hold dear. Some chapels are fine, some are truly fine, are works of art beautiful in the Classive way, the Christian tradition grown from Greece, matured by the Italian Renaissance, and yet living through our degraded time. Among the Shrine’s best works, the “Immaculate Conception Mosaic”, gift of Pope Pius XI (1923), found at the chancel next to the sanctuary. The mosaic, a close interpretation of Murillo’s painting of the same title (formed of 250,000 tiny stones by the Vatican Mosaic Studio) is painterly, sophisticated, different in character from the many simplistically drawn puzzle-like mosaics of the Basilica.
Highlights of the Basilica’s art include the sunken relief statuary of the South Façade and the freestanding “Mary Immaculate with Angels” by the remarkable Ivan Meštrović. In all, the statuary of the four facades is something of a sculptural hagiography that most will need a written hagiography to interpret … I did. Inside, the five mosaiced domes are powerful, both for scale and graphic impact, each in its own way. My favorite dome, the “Glorification of the Lamb Dome” (above the “Mary Immaculate Altar & Baldachin”) by Ravenna Mosaic (dedicated 1966) is strongly drawn with that unity of conception rarely found in contemporary art. Below, the Crypt Church, with its 15 chapels and Stations of the Cross, is an architectural masterpiece.
The Church’s name should be noticed. “Immaculate Conception” is a title for Mary, the Vatican assigned patroness of our United States (1846). Pope Saint John Paul II designated the Church a basilica (minor, 1990). The word “national” was granted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Shrine” indicates that this Church is a place of pilgrimage, as anyone who has visited will attest. Once when in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception praying Stations of the Cross, overflowing crowds disrupted the processional route and needed management. This day, what seemed like hundreds made pilgrimage to the “Our Lady of Vailankanni Oratory”. If expecting a miracle, as has occurred, I cannot say.
It should be mentioned that both the Romanesque and Byzantine styles are Roman. Romanesque of the Western Roman Empire, centered in Rome; Byzantine of the Eastern Roman Empire, centered in Constantinople. Rome in the West, overrun with immigrants, aliens, and invaders fell to marauding Goths in 455. The Romanesque style is alike classical Roman but thicker for defense, increasingly architecturally inarticulate by decline of libraries and education, simplistic in form as refinements in thought were lost to overwhelming social conformity. Rome of the East continued in unity and strength, was committed to tradition, a hybrid Athenian-Platonic reason cultured with Christianity of the Roman order. East Rome fell to the conquering Muslim in 1453. These days, you will most often recognize the “Byzantine” style in the mosque … Islam adopted the East Roman style for its houses of worship. Byzantine architecture is Greek, classical in geometry, exotic and sensual in its Hellenism; Byzantine architecture is spiritually Christian, bodily Classive.
This fully American ascendent of the Romanesque and Byzantine is reasoned, clean, and ordered in the manner of our Founding Fathers. There is hierarchy but not a dominance of parts; there is unity, but in purpose not by constraint; there is beauty in the whole, harmony in the parts, variety in the singular purpose of creating stability, both actual and perceived. You will notice in American buildings of our great age (from Founding until the anti-American revolutions of last century) a grandeur that is not grandiose, as in the recent prideful follies of American skyscrapers and government towers. Traditional American architecture had a grandeur of purpose, an authentic nobility because designed in fealty to God, crafted to complement God’s creation.
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For a time, these united states were singular, inspired by “…all men are created equal…endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” of the Declaration, unified by “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America” by that singular idea of “from many, one”. These days there are many ones, as in Babylon, the city of Pride that anxiously built its towers to heaven in defiance of God. Babylonians, aggressively sexual, rebellious, individualistic, are in character different from the communitarian American that created this nation and this National Shrine … well, the exterior and early interior of the National Shrine.
You will notice that the interior of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is increasingly a babel of styles and parochial concerns, a work-of-art lacking the singularity of purpose found in traditional America and customary Rome. Once, Romans were unified, confident of purpose; once, Americans were unified, singular in faith. Now, the babel. Notice the babel everywhere that Diversity proudly displays itself. Notice harmony everywhere that Tradition honors its ancestry.
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When last at the Shrine in the masterpiece of the Crypt Church, I prayed the Rosary, devotion to Mary who Catholics venerate because closest to God in Christ. You know the Rosary, the old tradition of praying Ave Maria, a tradition full formed by apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Saint Dominic (1214), founder of the Dominican Order. You have seen the Rosary, 53 prayer-beads strung along a cord, punctuated by 6 larger beads, the whole beginning and ending in the Cross, icon of Christ’s sacrifice and promise of eternal life. You might not know that Dominic, inspired by Mary, defeated the heretics of his time who believed in the notion of two gods, one, the Evil Old Testament god who created matter, and the other the Good New Testament god who created spirit. Well, you can imagine what this philosophy would make of each evil human body, the harms done to the body in mortification and correction, yes, even to suicide and the Cult of Death.
During the night before a morning in 1213, 1,500 soldiers aligned with Dominic prayed the Rosary and made confession, while the 30,000 opposing Albigensian agnostics got drunk in debauch, confident in victory … think Henry V at Agincourt against the French (yes, the Albigensian were mostly French) and you will see the picture. Upon the day, at Saint-Jacques Church, Saint Dominic prayed the Rosary while on the field of battle his vastly outnumbered Catholic soldiers defeated the surrounding, attacking death cult force. The Albigensian soon disappeared from the earth. If Mary interceded, I cannot say. Though I can say, that most often Pride falls hard upon unforgiving rock from the stilted, dizzying height of its tippy-toes, that Death cults die because they do not bring forth life.
The feast day of the Blessed Virgin Mary is December 8, the day in 2017 that the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception was declared finished, though in truth, the work of the Shrine is incomplete and will require the skill and devotion of better, more devout generations.
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Featured image, Basilica Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. credit Ivan Malechka.
For more on the Houses of God, see The Beautiful Home: American Sacred Architecture
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