Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Baltimore Basilica


The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or as it is commonly known, the Baltimore Basilica, is one of the top eight Catholic pilgrimage sites in the U.S. for good reason. It was the first Roman Catholic cathedral built in the fledgling United States. Construction began in 1806 and finished in 1821. In 1995, Pope John Paul II visited the basilica, and Mother Theresa followed in 1996.

The Baltimore Basilica is also one of the only churches in the country that is a cathedral, basilica, and a shrine. A cathedral is a church that seats a bishop and usually serves as the central church of the diocese. A basilica is a church that has been awarded the designation by the Pope. A shrine is a place that is particularly sacred due to an event that occurred there or because it houses a sacred artifact, etc. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops designated the Baltimore Basilica a national shrine in 1993, and Pope Pius XI declared it a basilica in 1937.

One feature that immediately jumps out about it is the architecture. Foregoing the traditional gothic style usually seen in cathedrals, Benjamin Henry Latrobe (known as the Father of American Architecture) decided to use the neoclassical “Greek Revival” style that he resurrected in Washington D.C. By doing this, the church broke with its European counterparts, making it a truly American cathedral. However, Thomas Jefferson played a role in the design of the dome, suggesting the use of the twenty-four half visible skylights to utilize natural light inside the basilica. Latrobe would not live to see the basilica’s completion; he died in 1820, one year prior. Interestingly, Latrobe also designed the central tower of the St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans.

Unfortunately, the cathedral is currently being renovated due to some damage incurred during a recent earthquake, and I was not allowed inside the main hall. Not that I would have seen much if I had gone inside, as most of the statues were either temporarily removed or, like the altar, underneath a protective wooden case. But I was not disappointed; the undercroft was what I wanted to see anyway.


Being down in the undercroft chapel gave me the feeling of the early Christians meeting in secret in the Roman catacombs. Cool air came from the stones, the outside world drowned out, and calmness pervaded the atmosphere. It felt primal and captured the essence of raw spirituality.



The sparse decorations and simplicity of the setting only added to this feeling. Sometimes less really is more, as the saying goes. Don’t get me wrong; I’m usually a fan of religious art and firmly believe that a church is lacking without it. In this case, however, it would only have distracted from the natural piousness of this chapel.




Another unique architectural feature of the basilica is their reverse arches. In order to support the weight of the dome, they implemented four reverse arches to help bear the load.



This red hat usually hangs in the cathedral but had to be moved during the renovations. It is called a galero, and they have been worn by cardinals of the Catholic Church since 1245 C.E. In the Second Vatican Council in 1969, a papal decree ended this practice. It is a tradition of the Church to hang the galero of a deceased cardinal above his tomb until it disintegrates into dust. It is said that the cardinal’s soul ascends to heaven when the hat first falls to the ground. For that reason, many modern cardinals choose to privately purchase galeri to be hung above their crypts. This particular galero has long since fallen, but the congregation had become so accustomed to seeing it hang inside the church, that the church decided to replace it with a new hat. The original was placed in a bag inside the cap to disintegrate fully. The original is over one hundred years old.


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