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Le Chiese delle Cittá: The Basilica Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

December 9, AD 2011 2 Comments

Today, I would like to feature a guest post from a friend studying in Washington D.C.  She is a student of architecture as well and was somewhat coerced into writing this by yours truly. The reason is because she has a church dedicated to the Immaculate Conception in her back yard and I don’t. (NB: Technical Difficulties brought this to you a couple days late.)


A prime example of Byzantine influence.

As a student at the Catholic University of America, I spend a considerable amount of time around the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. In fact, everything on campus revolves around the basilica beyond the physical magnitude of the building. Dedicated to Our Lady under the title of the Immaculate Conception, the patroness of the Americas (as declared by Pope Pius IX in 1847), the Shrine stands as the tallest building in Washington D.C. It features a Neo-Byzantine/Romanesque style and houses countless mosaics and side altars within its wide limestone and granite walls.

Before I describe too many of its architectural features, the Shrine has a rich history that deserves to be addressed. Perhaps it is only appropriate to begin on December 8, 1854. On that date, Pope Pius IX issued Ineffabilis Deus which defined the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. While she had already been named Patroness of the Americas, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was issued ex cathedra in 1854. Later, in 1913, Pope St. Pius X approved the plans for the basilica and donated money for its construction.

The 329 foot campanile was a gift from the Knights of Columbus.

The cornerstone of the Shrine, however, was not laid until 1920 and the basilica in its entirety was not completed until 1961. This was mostly due to setbacks in construction during the Great Depression and World War II. Since its completion, numerous popes (most recently Bl. John Paul II and Benedict XVI) and countless pilgrims and religious figures, such as Mother Teresa, have come to the Shrine to pray and seek the intercession of the Blessed Virgin.

Dome, round arches, heavy stone walls.

The exterior of the Shrine displays much of the Neo-Romanesque style aforementioned. The stone walls are thick and symmetrical and rounded with arches. Interesting enough, with a little research I discovered that the original design for the Shrine consisted of 14th Century French Gothic. That idea obviously was never decided upon and instead the Romanesque/Byzantine composite was chosen as a more “original” alternative. As far as uniqueness goes, certainly one thing I find of note is the use of text carved within the stone both inside and outside the basilica.

One example of the many saints surrounding the exterior.

Stone reliefs of saints surround the structure accompanied by various biblical quotes and prayers.

The main Crypt Church is modeled after the early Christian catacombs and, of course, contains more mosaics.

In the lower Crypt church the capitals of the columns actually have different titles of Mary etched into each one of them. Encompassing every archway and side altar you will be sure to find prayers and symbols carved into the stone. The dome itself, which happens to be more than twice the diameter of the central dome of St. Mark’s in Venice (heads up if you’ve read Nate’s previous posts), is covered with symbols of the Blessed Virgin.

As for the interior, the Upper Church is laid out in really your expected basilica style –vestibule, narthex, nave, transepts, ambulatory, apse, etc. None of the windows in the church are very large, but there are three prominent rose windows and a clerestory.

The baldachin.

Many people seem to have strong opinions about this mosaic, but I would think everyone could agree that it is a powerful image to stand directly underneath.

A stone baldachin stands over the altar with a statue of the Immaculate Conception on top. Carrying the Byzantine influence, mosaics are a huge part of the Shrine and none more outstanding than Christ in Majesty which immediately greets your eyes upon entering the basilica.

The Lourdes Chapel – a personal favorite of yours truly. It says “I am the Immaculate Conception” above the arch and, facing opposite to it, above the door is carved “Salve Regina Mater misericordiae”.

Some of the numerous side altars (these are in the Upper Church).

Because there are no less than 70 chapels within the Shrine, I cannot even begin to touch upon the variety of side altars honoring Our Lady. After all, it is the largest Catholic church not only in the United States but in all of North America. The side altars lining both the Upper Church and the Crypt Church are diverse and steeped in cultural tributes to the Mother of God. This diversity of the side altars reflects the backgrounds of our nation’s immigrants as well as the pilgrims who pour in from all over the globe. These altars span from Our Lady of Guadeloupe to Our Mother of Africa, and Our Lady of Vailankanni to Our Lady of Siluva. In short, 70 chapels means just as many depictions of the Blessed Virgin from just as many countries.

When Pope Benedict XVI visited in 2008, he bestowed “a Golden Rose for Our Mother Mary” on the Shrine in recognition of its significance and honor to Our Lady. The area of D.C. in which the Shrine is seated is referred to as “Little Rome” by some because of its representation of Catholicism in the heart of America’s capital. It is only more so appropriate that this basilica should stand under the title and patronage of the Immaculate Conception, whom we ask the intercession of today on her feast day.

The Upper Church.

Main Entrance

Down the side aisle













The western side of the Shrine. At sunset it glows as the sun melts into the stone.

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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