The genesis of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC – if that is the right word to use here – is 1847 when Pope Pius IX named the Virgin Mary as patroness of the United States, under her title of Immaculate Conception. In 1910 Bishop Shahan, who at the time was rector of Catholic University, suggested building a shrine to honor Mary, a suggestion enthusiastically taken up by Pope Pius X a few years later. Today the shrine – which is the largest church in North America – along with neighboring Catholic University and the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, forms the largest concentration of Catholic institutions in the world after the Vatican itself.
At a meeting in January 1919 to select the architect, the committee decided on Boston architect, Charles Maginnis, and the design ultimately chosen was traditional Romanesque-Byzantine. The Romanesque features substantial walls, piers, groin vaults and ambulatories, while the four domes and the Great or Trinity Dome in the center, compose the Byzantine element.
Another feature of Byzantine sacred architecture is mosaic work and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is the repository of the largest collection of contemporary ecclesiastical art in the world, largely in the form of mosaics, sculpture and stained glass windows.
The Trinity Dome dedicated in December 2017, is anchored at the north end by the shrine’s namesake Mary in the role of Immaculate Conception and opposite by the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Between them are various saints, popes, and cardinals including St. Kateri, the country’s first female Native American saint, St. Teresa of Calcutta, Pope John Paul II and the somewhat controversial Junipero Serra, who was canonized by Pope Francis when he visited Washington DC in 2015. (Controversial because Father Serra, a Franciscan, was the original founder of California’s 21 missions which were built from San Diego to Sonoma, to proselytize and baptize the state’s Indian native tribes. To treat conditions in the late 1700s and early 1800s using the accepted social and cultural mores of today is of limited value, but it is undoubtedly true that the evangelizing mission devastated native culture and in many cases the treatment meted out to recalcitrant Indians was brutal. Not all priests were stern disciplinarians, but for most Indians it was an unhappy experience.) On the four pendentives are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the role of evangelists.
The first of the five mosaic domes leading to the sanctuary is the Incarnation Dome which was dedicated in 2007 and features the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Wedding Feast at Cana (Jesus’s first miracle) and the Transfiguration. The second is the Redemption Dome dedicated in 2006 which also presents four events; the Temptation in the Desert, the Crucifixion, the Descent into Hell and Resurrection. After the Trinity Dome comes the Sanctification Dome dedicated in 1968, which portrays the Descent of the Holy Spirit. The fifth dome is the Glorification of the Lamb which was dedicated in 1966. Groups of Elders in white form a Greek cross inside of which is the Apocalyptic lamb with seven horns and seven eyes.
In the sanctuary is the giant mosaic Christ in Majesty. I don’t quite know how to say this, but the style reminds me of propaganda poster art and in particular Soviet poster art of the late 1920s, or the period of Italian Fascist art in the 1930s. I am no expert of either art or religion – and perhaps I am overly influenced by all the red – but look at the faces of the angels below and tell me they do not belong to that period? Also Christ has steely blue eyes and a designer stubble……
I am not alone it seems, the mosaic arouses a great deal of opinion and has already garnered the moniker of ‘Scary Jesus’. Charitably, I believe the idea is to portray Christ in the role of both judgement and redemption and it is apparently a Byzantine tradition to portray him as such, to frighten sinners into mending their misbegotten ways, no doubt. I suppose we are in Washington DC after all, where just down the street under another dome are some other sinners. Perhaps they should get a collective invite to view Scary Jesus? To remind them of what awaits? Just a thought.
After the foundation stone was laid September 23, 1920, the crypt, including the crypt church, was completed in 1931 but the Great Depression and World War II brought construction to a halt and work did not begin again in earnest until 1953. The shrine was finally completed and dedicated on November 20, 1959 and in 1990 Pope John Paul II awarded the shrine the status of minor basilica.
The shrine incorporates Marian images and chapels devoted to Mary from every corner of the globe, including China, India, Philippines, Malta, Hungary,Cuba, Slovakia, Lebanon, Germany and Lithuania. We particularly liked the ceiling cross in Our Lady of Siluva chapel which referenced places we visited on our trip to Lithuania last year, including Trakai and Pažaislis, though we did not visit the actual church in Siluva itself, one of Lithuania’s great pilgrimage sites.
Pilgrimages require sustenance and we later headed for Primrose, a nearby French style restaurant in Brookland, where we started off with A Make America Mexico Again, a tequila-based cocktail – because, well, how could you not – before feasting on cucumber gazpacho, mushroom ragout, moules frites and Cheshire pork tenderloin, washed down by a fine French burgundy. Rejoice!