A Religious Experience - St. Louis Edition

Although the purpose of my "A Religious Experience" series has been to shed light on the architectural gems to be found among Chicago's houses of worship, I wanted to write a post about my visit to the Cathedral Basilica in St. Louis; after all, it is my favorite church in the United States. I plan on visiting more local churches as soon as I can work out the logistical details, but until then, you can get your ecclesiastic architecture fix while reading about St. Louis:

Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis
4431 Lindell Boulevard
St. Louis, Missouri

The Cathedral Basilica represents a critical story in the development of my interest in domestic churches. I first became aware of it when I was at Wash U., when one of my friends at the time, Drew, attended a string of organ concerts there. At the time, I was a bit of an architecture snob and believed that the only churches worth seeing were the ancient, medieval, and Gothic churches of Europe, but over time, he wore me down and convinced me to give this local landmark a shot, and I was glad I did. After being thoroughly wowed by what I saw there, I began to wonder what other hidden gems were to be found on this side of the pond, right under my nose.

Like the great churches of Europe, the Cathedral Basilica was built over a long period of time. It opened for services in 1914, seven years after the start of construction, when only the superstructure was completed and no interior ornamentation was present. The church was not consecrated until 1926, in conjunction with the centennial of the formation of the St. Louis Archdiocese, but work on the mosaics adorning the walls and ceilings was not finished until 1988. Initially, the budget for the building stood at one million dollars, an unfathomable sum in those days, which is roughly equivalent to $24 million in today's dollars. Of course, given the length of the project and the intricacy of the final mosaics, the Cathedral ended up costing far more than even that.

The Archdiocese held a design contest for plans for the new Cathedral, and their selection committee ultimately chose a Byzantine design from the local St. Louis firm of Barnett, Haynes, and Barnett. You can definitely see the resemblance to the copycat version the firm created for St. Clement Church in Chicago.

Outside the cathedral is this unique statue dedicated to the idea of racial harmony in the deeply divided city of St. Louis. The angel's wings are created from wind-chimes, which causes the audience to interact with the sculpture in more than just a visual manner. It was donated by a member of the Schlafly family, a prestigious local family with ties to the beer industry.

The "New Cathedral," as it was known at the time of its construction, was designed to accommodate St. Louis' burgeoning Catholic population, which had  far outgrown the much smaller original cathedral located downtown, near the riverfront. The Old Cathedral was built in a colonial American style, and was considerably more austere than its replacement. The mosaics in the principle dome of the church feature images from the New and Old Testaments, and were designed by famous liturgical artist Jan Henryk de Rosen when he was in the United States seeking asylum from the Communist government of Poland during the Cold War. The smaller dome over the alter depicts significant events from the history of the St. Louis Archdiocese. The mosaic work in the nave was completed by largely local firms.

Tiffany Studios was responsible for the mosaics in the side chapels and sanctuary walls. Here, you can see the ceiling of the All Saints Chapel, which bears a stylistic similarity to the geometric design on the ceiling completed by Tiffany for the Marshall Field Building in Chicago.

You can also see some similarities between this Tiffany mosaic in the ambulatory and the work they did in the former Chicago Public Library, now the Chicago Cultural Center

Even though I had been to the church before, I was excited this time to see the Mosaic Museum, located in the crypt. Although I thought I knew a lot about the mosaic process, even I learned a lot from their informative displays. For instance, I was under the mistaken impression that the tesserae, or tiles, were painstakingly applied to the walls and ceilings one at a time. In reality, however, the artists create a reverse image of the desired finished product, and temporarily adhere the tiles face down to it. Then, they apply the cement to the drawing's final destination, press the design onto the surface, and allow it to dry. Then the temporary backing is peeled off, leaving the tiles in place to be grouted later. In this manner, the mosaics are completed in chunks.

I was also interested to know that the large swaths of gold tesserae are more complicated than meets the eye. They are actually composed of several different shades and textures of gold leaf-covered glass, as the imperfections and differences cause the light to reflect off the individual tiles differently. This creates the glittering effect that we think of when we imagine glass mosaics.

The baldacchino, or canopy over the altar, is designed to mimic the shape and appearance of the church's exterior dome.
The narthex of the church is decorated with gold mosaics featuring scenes from the life of King Louis IX of France, the saint to whom the Cathedral is dedicated, and the namesake of the city of St. Louis. 

Though the size of the St. Louis Archdiocese is shrinking as a result of decreasing church attendance nationwide, and the flight of many parishioners to the increasingly distant suburbs of the city, it was granted Basilica status by the Vatican in 1997. Pope John Paul II visited there during his 1999 visit to the United States, and many artifacts from that visit can be found in the museum located beneath the church.

Still, even if its congregation is shrinking, it was good to see the church looking every bit as splendid as I remembered it. Plus, I was glad to share such a thing of beauty with the man I love. My only regret is that we didn't get to spend more time there, as we arrived about five minutes before mass was about to start and we were quickly shooed away by a priest. Hopefully, Justin and I will be back someday so he can get a better look at the building, and get a better appreciation of the beauty I've been raving about for so long.

No comments:

Post a Comment