The Church and the Basilica
Two weeks ago we attended 10:30 a.m. services at St. John's Episcopal Church, which happens to be on Lafayette Square in Washington. It's an elegant church inside and out, originally designed in the 1810s by Benjamin Latrobe, Surveyor of the Public Buildings of the United States and the architect who oversaw the restoration of the U.S. Capitol after it burned, among many other projects.
It's also a church steeped in presidential history, counting a number of sitting presidents since James Madison as members. It's been customary since the time of Madison for each president, whatever his denomination, to visit at least once during his term. According to the National Park Service's "A National Registry of Historic Places Travel Itinerary," that even includes William Henry Harrison. Maybe he was heard to be blowing his nose and coughing more than usual during a service in March 1841. There was a presidential visit as recently as this July.
Pew 54 is called the "President's Pew." When the service was over, I went to look for it. Not only is it so marked with a small brass plaque, the kneeling cushions at Pew 54 and a good many other pews in front of it -- there are no built-in kneelers -- have the presidential seal as part of their design, along with the name of an individual president. I suppose they're all represented, from Madison to Obama.
On our last full day in Washington, we rode the Metro to the Catholic University of America and crossed the campus to reach the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. It was either there or the National Cathedral, and the basilica won out because we could reach it without the extra bus ride that reaching the cathedral would have entailed. So the National Cathedral remains a sight to see, should I ever return to Washington.
The basilica is enormous. That isn't really the measure of a church, but it's striking all the same, even if you've read about it beforehand. At about 76,400 square feet, the basilica is the largest Catholic church in the United States. A cursory look at Wiki's "List of Largest Church Buildings in the World" puts it at 21st in the world and third in the United States, after the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York and the National Cathedral, both of which are Episcopalian. Other sources say it's the 10th largest church in the world. Another way to describe it is about half the size of the interior space of St. Peter's in Rome.
Done in a blend of Byzantine and Romanesque styles, and without structural steel, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is also mind-bogglingly intricate, with dozens and dozens of chapels and side chapels and a few oratories on the main level and down in the crypt level too, many completed with funds from Catholic congregations around the world, such as Mary, Queen of Ireland; Our Lady of Guadalupe; Our Lady of Czestochowa; Our Lady of China; Our Lady of La Salettel; Our Lady of Siluva; Our Lady of La Vang; Our Lady of Bistrica; Our Lady of Lourdes; Our Mother of Africa, and more. Other chapels take their inspiration from the many and varied titles of Mary, such as Our Mother of Good Counsel, Mary Queen of Missions, Our Lady of Hope, Mother of Perpetual Help, Mary, Help of Christians, and more. All the various chapels are ornate, but so is pretty much every surface, nook and cranny of the basilica.
Vaulting overhead are large mosaics. Only one dome remains unfinished in this regard, and I understand plans are afoot to complete a design for it in some future decade. Among all the building's impressive mosaics, the most striking (fittingly) is the depiction of Jesus in north apse. According to the basilica, it measures 3,600 square feet and contains nearly 3 million tesserae. "Christ in Majesty has an apocalyptic nature," the basilica's web site says, "Jesus' strong youthful face and expression is consonant with the earliest images of Him in the Roman catacombs."
Even Roadside America has a take on this image, calling it "Mortal Combat [sic] Jesus." This is a good image of it -- better than on the basilica web site -- as well as a thoughtful blog posting. Jesus does have an unusually fearsome expression, at least to modern eyes, who are used to more placid views of the Savior. It reminded me of that bumper-sticker religious wisdom, "Jesus is coming, and boy is he pissed."