Every year, the National Shrine welcomes thousands of pilgrims from across the globe through its doors. With calm gardens, glittering mosaics, and serene chapels, the Basilica’s grounds offer a variety of places to pray, reflect, and grow closer to our Heavenly Father. If you’re planning on visiting this summer, don’t miss these five things to see at America’s Catholic Church.
1. The Immaculate Conception Baldachin
Step into the Sanctuary of the Great Upper Church, and your eyes are immediately drawn to the Immaculate Conception Baldachin. At over 46 ft. tall, it lends a strong Roman character to the sanctuary, with four Spanish marble columns supporting the dome, crowned with a 7 ft. tall statue of Mary Immaculate. Ornamenting the interior of the dome is a mosaic sunburst, and in the center is a bronze sculpture of a dove representing the Holy Spirit.
2. The Triumph of the Lamb Dome
Reflect on Christ’s kingship as you stand beneath the stunning Triumph of the Lamb Dome. Spanning 3,340 square ft., the Triumph of the Lamb mosaic is the culmination of the five domes in the Great Upper Church, depicting Christ’s victorious second coming. Also known as the Glorification Dome, this dome was dedicated in the year 1966. It is centered around an apocalyptic theme, featuring the lamb with seven horns and seven eyes at the center and an open scroll at its feet. Twenty-four elders dressed in white and wearing gold crowns form the image of a Greek cross. They are separated by four living creatures: a lion, an eagle, an ox, and a man. Each of the four pendentives depicts an angel holding a quarter of the earth, illustrating the Kingship of Christ.
3. The Our Lady of La Vang Chapel
Our Lady of La Vang is a Vietnamese Marian tradition which originated in the 18th century. In the Chapel of Our Lady of La Vang on the Lower Level of the Basilica, a glass mosaic depicts the faithful of La Vang as they encountered Mary. Across the chapel, a twin mosaic is a copy of the painting “The Martyrs of Vietnam.” Overhead stretches a dark blue ceiling dotted with 24 stars to represent the night sky, and at the front of the chapel stands a statue of Our Lady carved in a unique multi-marble style by Italian artist Giancarlo Buratti. During a time of fierce persecution of the Roman Catholic Church, the faithful fled to the remote jungle region of La Vang. Though under duress, they would gather each night to pray the rosary under a large tree. Tradition holds that on one of those nights, Mary appeared to them with the infant Jesus to encourage and heal them from illness. To this day, Catholics look to Our Lady of La Vang for hope and strength during times of trial and persecution.
4. The Miraculous Medal Chapel
One of the most popular Marian devotions in the world, the Miraculous Medal is worn by countless of the faithful as a symbol of protection and safeguarding. The devotion of the Miraculous Medal is honored in a shimmering blue and gold chapel in the Great Upper Church. The center reredos depicts Mary as she appeared to Catherine Labouré and as she appears on the Miraculous Medal. To the left of the image, Catherine is portrayed as a novice with her guardian angel, kneeling in awe of the Blessed Mother. On the right, Catherine is dressed as a professed Daughter of Charity and has two children at her side. Etched in marble under the image is the phrase, “Come to the foot of the altar,” – Mary’s words to Catherine. The gold mosaic ceiling depicts different signs and wonders of God, with a circular stained-glass window in the center.
5. Mary’s Garden
Resting on a three-quarter acre site along the northwest grounds, Mary’s Garden provides a breathtaking outdoor setting for reflection and renewal. The circular form of the garden symbolizes the eternal and features a walkway leading to the Magnificat Fountain. Incised into its red granite border are two lines from Mary’s song of praise, “My being proclaims the greatness of the Lord. My spirit finds joy in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46-47). A reflecting pool with a life-size statue called “Mary, Protector of the Faith” sits at the far end of the terrace, and benches and prayer niches dotted along the outer walkway offer secluded places to meditate.
Rohling, Geraldine M., PhD, MAEd. The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception: Guide and Tour Book. Washington, D.C.: Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, 2018.