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Artist Spotlight: Bancel LaFarge

This post is the first installment in “Artists of America’s Catholic Church,” a new series highlighting the lives and work of the
talented men and women who have contributed to the sacred art of the Basilica. 

Did you know that the 15 altar mosaics in the Crypt Church were all designed by the same artist? Each honoring a different saint, these glittering gold mosaics were conceived by Bancel LaFarge, a talented muralist and mosaicist known for his mastery of the Byzantine style. In today’s post, we invite you to learn about LaFarge’s life and contributions to the art of the Basilica.

Bancel LaFarge – accessed via: Find a Grave Database.

Bancel LaFarge: An Artist By Birth

The grandson of French immigrants, John Louis Bancel LaFarge was born into an affluent family in Newport, Rhode Island in 1865. He was the third of nine children born to John LaFarge and his wife, Margaret, who was a direct descendant of Benjamin Franklin. Bancel owed much to his father in terms of his artistic inheritance: after sidelining a career in law to pursue art, John LaFarge opened an art studio in New York and won a reputation for his unique mural paintings and stained glass works, which were often religiously themed.

Growing up, Bancel showed great artistic promise and began working with his father at his art studio. In 1898, he married a fellow artist named Mabel Hooper, who had also trained with his father. Two years later, the first of their four sons was born, and in 1903, the couple moved to Paris so Bancel could perfect his painting and drawing skills. As he grew as an artist, Bancel developed a fondness for Byzantine mosaics, as well as a passion for nature, which he imbued in his work.

Bancel LaFarge and the Art of the National Shrine

St. Cecilia chapel closeup
The Saint Cecilia Mosaic is one of the three Crypt Church reredoses produced by Bancel LaFarge.

By the early 1920s, Bancel LaFarge had made a name for himself as a skilled muralist and Byzantine mosaicist. So when the National Shrine sought an artist to design the 15 mosaic reredoses (ornamental walls) for the altars in the Crypt Church, Bancel LaFarge was the obvious choice. Bancel initially set to work designing the five mosaics in the North Apse, which portray St. Anne, St. John the Evangelist, St. Joseph, St. Elizabeth, and the Good Shepherd.

To bring the mosaics to life, Bancel used a variety of historic techniques which reflected the style of the famous mosaics of Palermo, San Marco, and Santa Maria Maggiore. Although he personally completed the mosaics of the Good Shepherd and Saints Cecilia and Agnes in his studio, he had difficulty obtaining the supplies he desired, and partnered with Ravenna Mosaic Inc. to finish the production of the collection. For the remaining 12 mosaics, Bancel created cartoons showing how they should be pieced together, and then sent those drawings to the team at Ravenna Mosaic Inc. to be created in their studio in Berlin. Each work follows the Venetian mosaic type, featuring tiles that are cut from glass and enamel, similar to those used in the early Christian era. Around 60,000 tesserae (tiles) make up each panel, for a total of 1.5 million in the collection. Only two of the mosaics bear his initials, those of Saint Cecilia and Saint Agnes.

John LaFarges initials in mosaic
Bancel LaFarge’s initials can be found in the Saint Cecilia mosaic in the Crypt Church.

Later Life and Death

After completing his work for the National Shrine, Bancel became involved in a variety of independent projects, and worked with his son Thomas on art initiatives funded by President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. He also became an active member of various art societies and associations, including the National Society of Mural Painters and the Connecticut State Commission on Sculpture, and even served as the president of the Liturgical Arts Society for a time. In 1938, Bancel’s health began to decline, and he passed away on August 15 at the age of 72.

Today, Bancel’s breathtaking designs are viewed by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims each year, inspiring the faithful to reflect on the lives of the saints who have gone before us.

To view more of Bancel LaFarge’s artwork at the National Shrine, we invite you to virtually tour the chapels of the Crypt Church!


John La Farge: Biography,” Boston College Libraries

LaFarge, Bancel,” Connecticut State Library

Louis Bancel La Farge,” Monuments Men and Women Foundation

Bancel La Farge, Artist, Is Dead,” The New York Times

Rohling, Geraldine M., PhD, MAEd. The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception: Guide and Tour BookWashington, D.C.: Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, 2018.

Rohling, Geraldine M., PhD, MAEd. Jubilee 2009: A Photographic History of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, D.C.: Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, 2009.

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