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Basilica Insider: The Making of America’s Catholic Church

The making of the National Shrine spanned nearly a century, from the placing of the foundation stone in 1920 to the completion of the Trinity Dome, its “crowning jewel” in 2017. Now, as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Shrine’s first public Mass this April, we invite you to take an inside look at the different artistic and architectural processes used to bring America’s Catholic Church to life. In these highlights from our Basilica Insider series, you can read posts including artist interviews, exclusive photo and video content, and more!

Universal Call to HolinessThe Making of The Universal Call to Holiness

One of the largest relief sculptures in the world, The Universal Call to Holiness offers an awe-inspiring visualization of a profound spiritual reality: that the call to holiness extends to all peoples of faith in all times and places. Weighing over 37 tons and spanning 780 square feet, the relief portrays people of all ethnicities, ages, rank, and status being drawn to the Holy Spirit. Learn more about how this sculpture was created and see behind-the scenes video of the different stages of the process, from an overview of George Carr’s initial sketches to the lifting of the 9,000-lb pound sculpture pieces into the Basilica with a crane!

The Crypt Church Then and NowThe National Shrine: Then and Now

The process of building America’s Catholic Church gets a photo history in this post – take a look back at the construction process of the National Shrine and the completed spaces today, from the Crypt Church where the first public Mass was celebrated in 1924, to the Great Upper Church where the Universal Call to Holiness was added in 1999.

Artist assembling Trinity DomeThe Making of the Trinity Dome

Called the “crowning jewel” of the Basilica, the Trinity Dome is the largest and final dome mosaic to be completed at the National Shrine, comprised of 14 million individual tesserae spanning 18,299 square feet. Follow the journey of its path to completion, from the early design and reverse-method tile process in Northern Italy, to the Basilica, where thirteen floors of scaffolding were used to install the 24 tons of mosaic on the dome!

Mary Stratton with architects The Art of Mary Stratton in America’s Catholic Church

The name Mary Chase Stratton may not be familiar to most American Catholics, but her indelible mark on sacred art can be seen all over America’s Catholic Church. Interspersed throughout the Crypt Church, her signature tiling and glazing techniques bring the depictions of saints and scriptural figures to life in a way unlike any other architectural art. Mary Chase Perry Stratton was best known for her development of iridescent glazes, which won her national acclaim in the art of pottery and architectural installations. Learn more about the unique Pewabic ceramic tile technique she created and where you can find her art in the Basilica.

Construction on Crypt Church, Catalan Vaulting Catalan Vaulting in America’s Catholic Church

Did you know the Basilica’s Crypt Church was constructed with a unique building technique called Catalan Vaulting? Pioneered by Spanish-born architect Rafael Guastavino Sr., this technique achieved a remarkable strength through the use of his secret mortar and layers of staggered tiles. In the Basilica, thanks to Guastavino’s technique, the great arch in the ceiling of the Crypt Church has a weight-bearing capacity of almost one million pounds! Learn more about the history of Catalan vaulting and where you can see it in the National Shrine.

Knights Tower CarillonThe Knights Tower Carillon

The Knights Tower is one of the tallest buildings in the District of Columbia, rising to the staggering height of 329 feet. In 1963, the Knights blessed the Basilica with another gift: their very own carillon. On July 14, 1963, Archbishop O’Boyle consecrated the bells that were to be added to the Knights Tower, and on July 23, the carillon was successfully installed. Learn more about the vision behind this herald of America’s Catholic Church and how it was made a reality.

Crypt ChurchThe Altar Mosaics of the Crypt Church

Considered the heart of the Basilica, the Crypt Church contains fifteen reredoses (ornamental walls) in the Byzantine mosaic style. These shimmering mosaics were designed by artist John Louis Bancel LaFarge and were a major part of the seven-year-long process to complete the Crypt Church. Learn more about how LaFarge used historic techniques to reflect the style of the famous mosaics of Palermo, San Marco, and Santa Maria Maggiore.

Great Dome of the Basilica The Great Dome

The Great Dome is one of the two visual hallmarks of the National Shrine. Covered in glistening polychrome tiles, it is not only visually stunning, but a physical representation of spiritual truths. It features Marian symbols, each within a six-pointed Star of David, which represents the royal House of David, the Judaic lineage of Mary. Spanning a diameter of 108 ft., the dome stretches 237 ft. from the terrace to the top of the cross. Learn more about the significance of the symbols incorporated in this magnificent element of the Basilica’s architecture.

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