If you live in the Midwest, love columns and arches, Byzantine architecture, stained glass, and iconic art but happen to be a poor teacher or ordinary working class hero, then you can’t afford to fly to Italy and visit the great cathedrals in Rome, Venice, Florence, and Assissi. A plane ticket to Europe is currently out of your reach no matter what Fox News says about your particular union hoarding all the wealth and destroying America for the good Wall Street people. However, there is a pretty fair replacement cathedral within your budget.
Seeing St. Louis Basilica certainly makes a drive to St. Louis itself worthwhile. However, due to the limitations of my own mind, it was impossible to fully appreciate what I was looking at in a few hours. No, I think that it would be impossible to fully appreciate the intricacies of the Basilica in a week. I tried to focus on the mosaic work since that seemed the most amazing to me. The idea that huge wall and ceiling coverings, which from a distance appear to be scenic paintings, are actually millions upon millions of tiny glass shards arranged and implanted in plaster in the most tedious fashion imaginable is mind-boggling. Their beauty can only be honestly described as breath-taking when you enter the nave of the church. It’s like walking into another plane of existence, one that you have no hope of fully comprehending and can only appreciate as a child might a whole room full of candy. And, when I say tedious it isn’t hyperbole.
The installation of these mosaics began in 1912, but weren’t finished ’til 1988. The work involved dozens of artists over generations, much like the ancient work in Europe. The narthex (lobby) of the church depicts the life of King Louis IX of France, namesake of the city and church, the rear dome includes mosaics of significant archdiocesan events, while the main dome by Jan Henryk de Rosen depicts Biblical scenes from both the Old Testament and New Testament.
In 1999, a 14-foot high, welded stainless steel sculpture by Wiktor Szostalo was installed on the side lawn of the church. The sculpture was a gift from Adelaide Schlafly in memory of her late husband, Daniel Schlafly, a Catholic layman and history professor at St. Louis University who was dedicated to the cause of racial justice and peace. It features a winged angel with African-American features, standing behind three children with Hispanic, Asian and European features, playing a song of peace on their instruments. The statue’s, called The Angel of Harmony, is inscribed with quotations from the New Testament, Pope John Paul II, and Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s worth taking a few pictures on a sunny day.
Inside, don’t forget to check out the huge pipe organ built by the Geo. Kilgen and Son, Inc. in 1915. Originally, the organ had two four manual (keyboard) organ consoles, one in the gallery with the organ, and another console behind the sanctuary. In 1997 the Wicks Organ Company of nearby Highland, Illinois began a restoration project. They added more ranks of pipes, which brought the organ to 96 ranks of pipes. The company also added some digital stops to the organ. A new four manual organ console replaced the old Kilgen console behind the sanctuary, and the second gallery console was refurbished. In 2002 the original organ console had to be replaced, but visitors can still see it in the basement museum.
St. Louis Bascilica is easy to find, located at 4431 Lindell Boulevard and here’s an added bonus. When you’ve had your fill of church art, head up to the Italian neighborhood in the famous district known as “The Hill” and enjoy a fine meal with a good bottle of chianti. The penne alla puttenesca was so good that even an old pagan like me thought about getting baptized.
Juror #3/Jim McGarrah
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