A guest post by Dr. Jem Sullivan, an appointed member of the International Council for Catechesis in the Vatican’s Dicastery for Evangelization in Rome.
On September 21, the Church celebrates the feast of Saint Matthew, apostle and inspired author of the Gospel that bears his name. An exquisite mosaic in the Basilica’s magnificent Trinity Dome Mosaic invites reflection on the life and mission of Saint Matthew so we may imitate his path of discipleship in Jesus Christ.
The Calling of Saint Matthew
The calling of Matthew unfolds in words that are both simple and profound: “Jesus saw a man named Matthew at his seat in the custom house, and said to him, ‘Follow me’” (Matthew 9:9). In that ordinary place, Jesus invites the tax collector to choose a new path and leave behind a life marked by greed and corruption. He opens to Matthew the possibility of embarking on the adventure of a life of holiness and missionary discipleship. Jesus’ love transforms Matthew’s life from one of weakness and sin to one with a hope and a mission.
Saint Matthew in the Art of the Basilica
The Basilica’s central dome mosaic reveals the central Christian mystery of the Holy Trinity, the foundation of Christian faith. The Trinity Dome Mosaic was made with over 14 million pieces of Venetian glass in over a thousand color variations. Spanning 18,300 square feet of dome surface and weighing 24 tons, it is undoubtedly the “crowning jewel” of the Basilica’s Great Upper Church. The immense mosaic features a sweeping tableau of images of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the Blessed Virgin Mary as the Immaculate Conception, eighteen saints, two archangels, four evangelists, and the words of the Nicene Creed displayed in brilliant mosaic of gold and blue.
Four pendentives at the base of the Trinity Dome depict the four evangelists who wrote the Gospels under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Following traditional iconography, each evangelist is shown with distinct artistic attributes. The four sacred authors appear to hold up the circle, or drum, of the central dome, symbolizing the faith of the Church that rests on their witness to faith. On the pendentive to the left of the main altar we see Saint Matthew dressed in robes of brilliant red and green. He is seated at a writing desk with a quill pen in hand, as he composes the inspired text of his Gospel. Below a low stool on which his feet are planted, Matthew’s name unfolds on a ribbon banner scroll. At the base of the pendentive, an angel, his traditional artistic attribute, holds a sacred text in hand.
Matthew’s haloed head radiates rays of golden light evoking the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that guides the writing of his Gospel. He turns with gentle eyes to the faithful gathered below as if to invite our contemplation of his sacred words written on the scroll: “Go and make disciples!” These words unfold in the rest of the passage from the end of his Gospel: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). Jesus’ command conveyed by Saint Matthew – to make disciples and baptize in the name of the Holy Trinity – links the evangelist to the mystery of the Holy Trinity, just as this pendentive mosaic is linked visually to the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit up above it.
A Legacy of Evangelization
The call to “Go and make disciples” relayed by Saint Matthew echoes down through the centuries in the Church’s mission of evangelization. This serene Basilica mosaic conveys in radiant color and light a visual reminder of our calling, by virtue of Baptism, to “Go and make disciples of all nations.” We take up this call in our daily and loving witness to faith in Jesus Christ who reveals the love of the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit.
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.
About Dr. Jem Sullivan
Dr. Jem Sullivan, Ph.D. is associate professor in the School of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. She is an appointed member of the International Council for Catechesis in the Vatican’s Dicastery for Evangelization in Rome. Over three decades, she has served the Church at the national and diocesan levels, and has taught seminarians, undergraduate and graduate students. Dr. Sullivan is the author of four books including The Beauty of Faith: Christian Art and the Good News and Believe, Celebrate, Live, Pray: A Weekly Retreat with the Catechism. She writes art essays for Magnificat and is a guest commentator for USCCB’s Scripture reflections. Jem has hosted two EWTN television documentaries on the arts and evangelization, and used to serve as a volunteer docent at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., where she led tours of the museum’s masterpiece collections. Jem resides in Maryland with her family and is a parishioner at Saint Mark’s Catholic Church.
You can read more from Dr. Jem Sullivan in her new book, Way of Beauty, now available at The National Shrine Shops.