A Heavenly Glimpse
Ascend the carved, stone steps, open the heavy wood doors and enter an antechamber of heaven. This is the experience that awaits visitors to the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis in the city named for the great French monarch. The touch of heaven comes from a panoply of mosaics that grace the walls and dome of the cathedral, which houses the largest collection of such artwork in the Western Hemisphere.
The numbers related to the mosaics astound the mind as much as the images captivate the imagination. With work beginning in 1912, two years before the cathedral building was completed, and ending in 1988, the mosaics comprise more than 41 million glass pieces (called tesserae) covering 83,000 square feet. There are many colors on the decorated walls, but the predominant ones are gold and auburn, which work together to produce a bold and bright yet somehow subdued atmosphere that draws the mind to worship. The work was done by more than a dozen artisans, including prominent glass company, Tiffany Studios, but there are no signs of stylistic disruptions, at least to the uneducated eye. The lower church, or crypt, includes a mosaic museum that documents and explains the 76-year process of production and installation.
Although there are many learned ways to speak about the mosaics, a recent young visitor said it best as he stood beneath the dome and exclaimed, “Wow!”
The “wow” factor is perhaps best expressed in the two large mosaics on either end of the transept. On the one side is a Pentecost scene, with the fire of the Holy Spirit enveloping the disciples in a blast of purity, both frightening and inspiring. On the other side is the risen Jesus standing before Mary Magdalene, who utters a single word, “Rabboni.” The viewer is prompted to kneel with her, but is more likely left speechless before the beauty of the scene.
The cathedral replaced the earlier archdiocesan seat, known now as the Old Cathedral, an 1834 building which stands along the Mississippi River, a short distance from the Gateway Arch. Both have the status of a minor basilica, the New Cathedral gaining the honor in 1997, two years before Pope John Paul II visited it in his pastoral trip to St. Louis.
Knights of Columbus turned out in large numbers at the New Cathedral July 29 for the Sunday Vigil Mass. Attending as part of their pre-convention schedule, members of the Order’s Board of Directors and their wives, including Supreme Knight Carl Anderson and his wife, Dorian, were among the worshippers. Supreme Chaplain Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore was the main celebrant and homilist.
Referring to the Gospel reading in which Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven as a treasure that a person sells everything to buy, Archbishop Lori said that the Knights of Columbus are called to give themselves totally in service for God and neighbor. The Order’s founder, Venerable Father Michael McGivney, left his Knights a simple guide to help them answer this call through the principles of charity, unity and fraternity, the archbishop said. As Knights embrace and live out these principles, they draw closer to the treasure of the kingdom, he added.
Archbishop Lori’s bidding could not have had a better backdrop: with its stunning mosaic pieces, the New Cathedral seemed to give Knights a glorious glimpse of that heavenly treasure.