Explore Washington, DC's Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, with its over 80 chapels and oratories as well as countless works of art.
The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its groundbreaking, and what better way to celebrate than to visit the largest Catholic church in North America? Of course, the current restrictions of the world pandemic will make a pilgrimage difficult, but thankfully, the National Shrine’s website is fully equipped with an extensive virtual tour, which allows visitors to explore the Great Upper Church, the Sanctuary, the Crypt Church and the Memorial Hall.
Located on the grounds of the Catholic University of America, the National Shrine is unique in its architecture. The style of the structure is considered to be Romanesque-Byzantine, which pays homage to two of the earliest Christian cultures. From the Roman style, the basilica draws its thick stone walls, tympana sculptures, and looming archways; while the use of marble and enormous, elaborate mosaic artworks is taken from the Byzantine style.
According to its website, the National Shrine contains 93,845 square feet of mosaicartwork. Awe-inspiring mosaics decorate each and every one of the more than 80 chapels and oratories, as well as the many massive domes overhead, which have strained the neck of many a well-meaning visitor who has spent an afternoon staring upwards.
In the Great Upper Church, there are five distinctive domes: the Incarnation Dome, the Redemption Dome, the Trinity Dome, the Sanctification Dome, and the Glorification Dome, which form a timeline of the New Testament. There are so many sights in the Great Upper Church that it took two separate tours to cover it all. From the first, called the “Great Upper Church,” the many domes can be seen, as well as many of their ornamented chapels and oratories found on the sides of the nave.
The second Great Upper Church tour takes visitors behind the altar to the Sanctuary, where there are more chapels, one of which is dedicated to the Blessed Sacrament. It is in the Sanctuary that visitors can view the Christ in Majesty mosaic, which dominates the northern apse. The mosaic piece measures 34 feet from hand to hand, with 4,000 shades of color utilized to create the work. When the National Shrine was dedicated in 1959 this was the only ornamentation present in the building. In the east and west apses can be seen 3,570 square feet of mosaics of Joseph and Mary.
While exploring the Great Upper Church, we suggest that you visit the National Shrine website and light a candle virtually. The candles won’t light before your eyes in the virtual tour, but it is a fun way to immerse yourself in the virtual tour and make it feel more like you’re actually in the Basilica. Prayer intentions can be offered via the same link.
Once you’ve worn out your virtual legs in the Great Upper Church, the tour continues below to the Crypt Church. Many Catholic University of America alumni actually prefer to attend Mass in the Crypt Church, because it offers a more intimate atmosphere than the high-ceilinged Great Upper Church. The Crypt Church contains more gorgeous mosaics, as well as chapels and oratories. Also viewable is the fine pipe organ, which works perfectly with the lower, sloping ceiling of the Crypt Church to give the music unique and wonderful reverberations. Be sure to check out the video below during your Crypt Church tour, which will bring you just a little bit closer to an in-person tour.
Outside the Crypt Church, the National Shrine’s final stop on the tour is Memorial Hall, where 14,400 slabs of marble engraved with the names of the Shrine’s benefactors can be seen. Also found in Memorial Hall are several wonderfully carved life-size sculptures of saints, including the Blessed Mother, St. Teresa of Calcutta, St. Kateri Tekakwitha, and a whole lot more.