Saturday, December 24, 2011

Cathedral Basilica of St Louis

Merry Christmas! I thought it would be fun to post this on Christmas, but I'm posting a little early in case you happen to be Catholic and want to check out the Cathedral for mass tonight or tomorrow. I didn't know until I started researching this that there are Cathedrals, and then there are Cathedral Basilicas, and that ours did not become a Basilica until Pope John Paul II's visit in 1997. In the Catholic sense (it also has an architectural meaning), Basilica means it's an important church that has had special rites performed by the Pope. Click on over to the Facebook page and see a picture of the Pope Chair from his 1997 visit!

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I'm going to be using a lot of closeups to talk about the mosaic process, so I suggest checking out the virtual tour (particularly the Baldacchino, but there is a slideshow for each area I mention) on the Cathedral's website to see the full scale of the building. The mosaics cover 83,000 square feet, one of the largest collections of mosaic art in the world, and a real challenge to photograph on those domed ceilings.

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Above and below are views of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. Construction of the Cathedral Basilica (or as many St Louisans refer to it, the New Cathedral), began in 1907 under the leadership of Archbishop John Glennon. Installation of the mosaics began in 1912 and was not completed until 1988!

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Much of the manufacture and installation work was performed by the Ravenna Mosaic Company of St Louis, which was a joint venture of the German mosaic designer Puhl-Wagner and the St Louis glass artist Emil Frei. Ravenna Mosaic is most well known for the Cathedral Basilica, but you can also see their work at Share Emeth Temple in University City, Our Lady of the Snows Shrine in Belleville, IL, the Soldiers Memorial in Downtown St Louis, and the 7UP building in North County (St Louis). The history of the company is quite fascinating, and you can read more about it on St Louis University's website, The Ravenna Mosaic Company: A Retrospective.

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Above and below are images from the Blessed Virgin's Chapel. This and the All Souls Chapel were designed and installed by Tiffany Studios. These mosaics are done in the Italian style, as opposed to the Byzantine style of the rest of the Cathedral.

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Above and below, the All Saints Chapel, also designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany.

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In the basement is a mosaic museum that details the building of the Cathedral and the process of designing and installing mosaics. It begins with sketches and watercolors of the design, and sometimes a scale model. The artist then does a medium scale "cartoon" for the fabricator to work off of.

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Each individual tile of a mosaic is called a tesserae. It took 41.5 million tesserae to create the mosaics of the Cathedral Basilica, in over 7,000 shades of color. The mosaic fabricator selects each piece individually, sometimes using a mallet and chisel to get the shape exactly right.

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The mosaics are mounted on paper, face down and backwards, and intricate drawings detail the exact placement of each sheet for the installers. It looks kind of like paint-by-number, if no color was used twice and the numbers went into the hundreds. As you may already know, I work in the flooring industry and am familiar with face-mounted mosaic tile, but this absolutely blew my mind. I've never encountered a tile job that approaches even a fraction of the scope here.

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I like this one above because you can really get a feel for what they mean when they say there are 7,000 colors of tesserae. Look how many shades of gold are in that one mosaic.

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The All Souls Chapel (above) doesn't have a ton of mosaic work, but is worth mentioning because it's positioned over the basement crypt of Cardinal Glennon, Cardinal Ritter, Cardinal Carberry, and Archbishop May. The style is Viennese Reconstruction and uses black marble to symbolize death and white marble to symbolize resurrection. The hats of the Cardinals hang in this chapel above their burial places.

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One last item of note is that the Cathedral Basilica has a bronze replica of Michelangelo's Pieta on display for a limited time. It is located at the bottom of the stairs leading to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. This is one of twelve bronzes cast by Fernando Marinell from a mold of the original marble statue, and one of two currently on display in North America.

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The Cathedral Basilica is located at 4431 Maryland. Admission to the Mosaic Museum is by donation. Mass times, tour times, and operating hours can be found on the website. If you do not schedule an official tour, I recommend calling ahead to make sure there is not a wedding that day.

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