Jul 31, 2017

Checking Out The National Shrine

View of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception from the east.

Last Thursday I took a trip for the day up to Washington D.C., a city I love very much. Rather than explore the usual sites, like those on the National Mall, I decided to go and check out some landmarks that are usually overlooked by the typical visitor. This plan took me to Brookland, a rapidly developing neighborhood in northeast D.C. Brookland, served by the Brookland-CUA Metro stop on the Red Line, is a hotspot for Catholic institutions within D.C., so much so that it has earned the nickname "Little Rome." The highlight of these institutions is undoubtedly the Basilica of the National Shrine, the largest Catholic church in not only the United States, but also North America (impressively, it is one of the top ten largest churches in the world).

Brookland is a pretty neat little neighborhood. Home to the Catholic University of America, it seems to be gentrifying pretty quickly. In fact, part of the community believes that the neighborhood is being overdeveloped; this has led to a couple of disputes with developers being brought to court.

The National Shrine, the full name of which is the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, was built between 1920 and 1961. Three popes have visited it since it opened its doors: Pope Francis, Pope Benedict XVI, and Saint John Paul II. Mother Teresa also visited.

The National Shrine consists of 70 chapels that surround the Upper Church and the Crypt Church. These chapels display magnificent mosaics that represent all the people in different regions of the world that call Catholicism their faith. The Crypt Church is absolutely one of the most beautiful rooms I have ever been in. The atmosphere is incredibly peaceful, and it smells amazing in there, let me tell you.

Crypt Church. A must-see.

From the Crypt Church, heading upstairs will take you to the aptly-named Upper Church, which is the real star of the show. At 76,396 square feet, the Upper Church can hold a total of 6,000 people. The basilica design is very apparent here, with a huge nave flanked by chapels leading to the main apse of the church. It's evident that this is a church built for pilgrims, and it takes in about one million a year.

Looking down the nave to the main apse.

The church is built in a neo-Byzantine, neo-Romanesque style. Originally, the plans called for a church in the Gothic style, but the Catholic University of America wanted it neo-Byzantine, and there was a desire for it to not be a direct copy of the great churches of Europe. Additionally, there was the belief that neo-Byzantine/neo-Romanesque would be distinctly American and fit in better with the architecture of the nation's capital (this is probably true, but I'm still a sucker for gothic architecture). Finally, the Washington National Cathedral, located across town in northwest D.C. (ew) is built in the gothic tradition, and the architects felt a need to make a distinction between this new Catholic shrine and the Episcopalian cathedral. The neo-Byzantine elements of the church especially standout; the domes are reminiscent of the Hagia Sophia, and who could miss all of the mosaics? The art has its fair share of neo-Romanesque influences, especially the massive portrait in the apse that looks out into the nave.

Looking up from the nave. A very celestial feel.

If you are ever in D.C., I highly recommend visiting the National Shrine. It's not on the usual list of things to do in the capital, but it's one of the most breathtaking attractions you can visit in the country, and it's a refreshing break from the same old monuments of the National Mall. The National Shrine has a brand of serenity and grandeur all of its own.

Looking at the front of the church.

Pizza... hmmm.... a grand D.C. conspiracy? Is John Podesta involved at all?

Another view looking up from the nave.

Looking at the ceiling from the ambulatory in the Upper Church.

Yet another pic looking up from the nave.

A closer look at the main apse from the nave. The church is currently undergoing renovation. 

The flag of the Vatican! Very cool. Truly "Little Rome."

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