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Le Chiese delle Cittá: The Basilica of the Sacred Heart

August 31, AD 2011 7 Comments

Last week, I started a series on Awesome Churches from Around the World. In reality, they will most likely only be from America and Europe, but I hope you will forgive me. The first Church in the series, it could be argued, was not a Church at at all because it was Anglican. I disagree, but that is somewhat irrelevant.

This week, we have one of my favorite (and least favorite) Churches in America. Over the weekend, I visited my beloved Campus before shipping off to Rome. Many adventures were had, of course, and right before I left, I found an opportunity to take some delightful pictures of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the campus of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. You may not have heard of this place, but if not, you probably live under a rock. Also, ND-bashing shall be dealt with severely. (This is my Home, after all that we’re talking about, no matter how flawed.)

Awesome Gothic Tabernacle...notice the Lamb near the top?

Anyway, back to the glory and beauty of the Basilica. It really is kind of neat having a Basilica less than five minutes from where you live (and to sing in the choir there). It has, of course, gone through a few renovations and the progress of its development is chronicled on the walls of the Campus Ministry building. However, my analysis and rave review of it concerns its current incarnation.

As I stated in a comment on my last installment, I consider the Basilica to be more Neogothic than Gothic Revival. The distinction in my mind, in case you missed it was that Neogothic tends to be a popular trend, a work of the parish (usually immigrant) to remind them of their Cathedrals and parish churches back in Europe. Gothic Revival was an architectural movement that stemmed from a desire to bring back some aspect of the “Gothic” ideals: Catholicism, Medieval Culture, National Pride, Structural Expression etc. I said last week that the National Cathedral was more Gothic Revival because of the purity of its Gothic-ness. It is easy to see, however that it could be said to be Neogothic.

Arcade...Clerestory? Where's the Triforium?

The Basilica of the Sacred Heart, on the other hand, is (almost) unequivocally Neogothic. Gone is the tripartite division of Arcade, Triforium and Clerestory. Instead, there is a tall arcade and a clerestory level that is mostly obscured by the roof, the pitch of which rises from the top of the arcade level. This of course is one of my main criticisms of the Basilica: its clerestory is not a clerestory in a truly Gothic sense. Rather, the Basilica has windows which bring to mind the clerestories of Europe without letting in the light that the clerestory was designed to accommodate.

Also, instead of the stone of the National Cathedral, the Basilica is made of wood and plaster on the interior. Now, it doesn’t look bad, in fact, many a tourist/pilgrim has commented on its beauty and I would not disagree. The structure is simply amazing. The advantage, of course, in plaster is that the opportunity arises for paintings. The Basilica has plenty and they are all quite striking. More on them later.

Lady Chapel with Bernini Altar

The Basilica, as is traditional, is divided into Nave, Sanctuary, Transepts and Choir (with the added bonus of Lady Chapel). The Lady Chapel was added on later and is perhaps my favorite place in the Basilica. The chapel has an altar which is Baroque in style and is called the “Bernini Altar” after the great Baroque architect. I don’t know if anyone knows for sure whether he himself designed it or if it was a copy of his style, but there you have it. Above the altar is a statue of the Blessed Mother given to the University by Empress Eugenie. It is possibly my favorite statue of the Virgin. One reason is that she is crowned as Queen, an image I rather like. The acoustics in the Lady Chapel are amazing as I noticed this weekend listening to the Basilica Schola singing a 16th century mostly homophonic motet. The blend of notes reached up to the vaulted plaster ceiling painted with an image of the Cross, our Only Hope (the motto of the Holy Cross Fathers, who run Notre Dame) and a multitude of saints in worship. The scene opens the viewer to heaven as the clouds part to reveal and open sky blazing with light.

Ave, Crux, Spes Unica!

Which brings me to the paintings. Paintings in this manner are most often associated with the Baroque period. Because the Basilica is so full of them, I would even go so far to say that the church is a composite Baroque-Gothic (the ceiling of the Sanctuary and Nave is painted blue and gold with angels and evangelists. If that’s not Baroque, I don’t know what is). At the end of each side aisle is a large painting of a scene from the history of the Church and on the top of the walls in the transepts are paintings from the life of Christ. My personal preference is less paintings, gold and Baroque in general and more glass and light and Gothic. And so on to the stained-glass windows.

The stained glass windows are arranged according to quartets of saints in the nave. On the right side are the female saints and on the left are male saints. In the lemon-shaped panels at the top are scenes from the Bible. In the right transept, there is a large window depicting Pentecost. This faces toward the east and symbolizes beginnings and birth.

The Dormition of Mary

The western transept depicts the Dormition of Mary, symbolising endings and death. All in all, the iconographic program is amazing and well worth studying (I did this once for my architecture class, so…)

Just as with the National Cathedral, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart could possibly fall under both categories, Gothic Revival and Neogothic, but what with its plaster, propensity for paintings, Bernini Altar, gold capitals on the columns, etc., I would tend to place it firmly in the Neogothic. In form, it approaches the grandeur of the Gothic cathedrals, but in its execution approaches more the 19th century Baroque-Gothic sensibility. Which makes sense. That’s when it was built.


As for next week, I am open to suggestions as to styles of churches. If there is a specific style you would like to see, let me know. In the coming weeks, it will mostly be Baroque (being in Rome), but Milwaukee has its fair share of all sorts of styles. I have plenty to choose from. Until next week, ciao and come again.

About the Author:

is a 20 year old architecture student at the University of Notre Dame. His architectural preference is the Gothic and also listens to anonymous 12th Century polyphony. However his listening habits are not merely medieval. He also enjoys Baroque music, 60s Rock and Christian Punk Pop. He is also an avid reader and a part-time philosopher. He is an idealist and also occasionally gives into his monarchist tendencies. He reflects on life at and blathers on about important irrelevancies at