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Spiritual Themes in the Architecture of America’s Catholic Church

Did you know that the different parts of the National Shrine are each centered around a different theme? From the sweeping arc of prophecy and fulfillment traced in the Crypt Church to the story of Divine Redemption as told in the Great Upper Church, the fundamentals of the faith are honored in harmony throughout the halls of America’s Catholic Church.

In today’s post, we invite you to learn about the themes unifying the artistic designs throughout different areas of the Basilica.

The Story of Christ in the Five Domes and The Christ in Majesty Mosaic

Great Upper Church SanctuaryIn the Great Upper Church, the five domes form a coherent timeline centered on the story of Christ, culminating with the Christ in Majesty mosaic in the North Apse.

First, the Incarnation Dome depicts the moment at which Christ entered this world and was made manifest. The Redemption Dome depicts the story of how Christ redeemed us through his death and resurrection. The Trinity Dome encompasses the great mystery of our faith, the Most Holy Trinity, with the Blessed Virgin Mary, angels and saints, encircled by the Nicene Creed. The Sanctification Dome portrays the Descent of the Holy Spirit, when the apostles were given the grace and courage to go out and preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth. The Glorification Dome depicts the prophecies of the end times and the Triumph of the Lamb. This dome naturally leads to Christ in Majesty, the mosaic of Christ in all his glory as He will appear at the end of our world. You can learn more about each of the five domes in this post.

The West Apse of the Crypt Church: The ProphecyWest Apse - Crypt Church

The theme of the West Apse is “the Prophecy.” In the apsidal chapel lunette windows, this theme is reflected with portrayals of the prophets who relate to the glorification of the Blessed Mother in the birth of Jesus: Isaiah and Micah; Jeremiah and Ezekiel; Moses and Aaron; Gideon and Simeon; Elias and John the Baptist. In the rondels of this apse, you can find depictions of Old Testament prophetesses Deborah and Miriam, as well as Ruth, who was part of the lineage of Jesus.

In the chapels of this apse, the theme of “the Prophecy” is also honored with mosaics of women saints who were martyred for their faith. Saints Anastasia, Perpetua and FelicityCecilia, Agatha, and Agnes all suffered severely at the hands of their persecutors but remained steadfast in their faith. You can learn more about these saints of the west apse and virtually explore where they are featured in this post.

The East Apse of the Crypt Church: The FulfillmentThe St. Catherine Chapel at the Basilica (center)

The theme East Apse is “the Fulfillment,” following the growth of the early Church through the labors, trials, and martyrdom of great saints. In the apsidal chapel lunette windows, the saints portrayed include: Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria; John Chrysostom and Irenaeus of Lyons; Augustine and Gregory “the Great”; Jerome and Ambrose; Patrick and Columba of Iona. In the rondels of the east apse, the theme is reflected with portrayals of Peter, Salve Regina, and Paul.

In the chapel mosaics of this apse, the saints depicted include: Brigid of Ireland, Margaret of Antioch, Catherine of Alexandria, Susanna of the “Eternal City,” and Lucy. Each of these spirited women showed great faithfulness in their spiritual devotion — whether excelling in spiritual philosophy like St. Catherine or founding a monastery system like St. Brigid. You can learn more about the saints of the east apse and virtually explore where they are featured in this post.

The North Apse of the Crypt Church: The PromiseNorth Apse - Crypt Church

The theme of the North Apse of the Crypt Church is “the Promise.” In the lunette apsidal chapel windows of this apse, the theme is expressed in portrayals of evangelists, apostles, and disciples: Matthew and Mark, Luke and John; Peter and Paul; James the Lesser and Stephen; Andrew and Philip.

The chapels of the North Apse express the theme of “the Promise” by featuring significant individuals from the events surrounding Jesus’ life and birth, including: St. Anne, whom tradition holds to be the mother of Mary; St. John the Evangelist, the writer of the fourth Gospel known as the disciple “whom Jesus loved” ; St. Joseph, the husband of Mary, St. Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin; and finally, at the center, the mosaic of Christ the Good Shepherd. St. Anne, St. Mary, and St. Elizabeth are also portrayed in mosaic rondels in the ceiling of this apse. You can learn more about the saints portrayed in the North Apse in this post.

Source:

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.

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