Basilica of St. Adalbert: Sacramental Beauty

Sketch by one of my previous high school students now studying church architecture in graduate school at the Catholic University of America.

“…church as a form of sacrament standing both within and outside of time…”

~attributed to John Ruskin

As part of the cityscape in Grand Rapids, MI, the Basilica of St. Adalbert beckons to those near in far to celebrate life’s sacred mysteries with in. Angels and stained glass windows abound in this spectacular Romanesque Minor Basilica. The cornerstone was originally laid in 1881 founded by Polish immigrants. The church has undergone major renovations to become the magnificent basilica that it is today. In December of 1979, Pope John Paul II declared the church the rank of Minor Basilica.

Angelic imagery in the stained            glass of the highest dome.

Within the highest of the three domes of the Basilica is a circular stained glass window. In the center of the stained glass is an image of Jesus surrounded by a dominion of angelic figures. One can begin to reflect on the myriad of imagery, yet “…having representations in churches whether narrative or iconic, is neither for narrative or iconic….(they) are placed so high that they serve neither of these purposes very effectively. They are there, rather,… as reminders of the religious culture from which they derive” (Loc 2203). The choir loft contains a floral shaped window visible from the front of the church above  the three sets of doors.  When gazing on the beautiful floral stained glass window whether from within the church or from without, one doesn’t necessarily need to know which of the images represent which of the twelve apostles. One may speculate on the imagery of the figure in the middle sitting at an organ, but is it really necessary to know exact details?  According to Kieckhefer,   “one need not consult a guide book to determine which angel is represented on a window” (Loc 2203). Within this context the images are simply religious cultural reminders pointing to a basic known principle, but not necessarily of a particular context.

Floral window with 12 petals          representative of the 12 apostles.

Most interestingly I have visited the Basilica on and off for over twenty five years. There was a point in time where I worked for the parish as the Director of Ministries in a joint venture with two other parishes in a  collaborative effort. I regularly frequented the Basilica. I was always drawn to its beauty, yet I had never considered the meaning of the myriad of sacred symbols. “It is all well and good to saturate a church with sacred symbols, but how do they function for a community that has not been told their meanings...?” (Loc 2127). Perhaps it is that I had simply never wondered. As one enters through the doors to the Basilica, one immediately feels God’s entry within gaining a spiritual experience. Indeed the symbols do call one to deeper reflection. Once one’s eyes are open to see, the  meaning is apparent everywhere. Similarly as does Ruskin who “saw buildings as having a kind of poetic metaphorical value

View from the choir loft.

(Loc 2186), I see the Basilica of St. Adalbert as boldly proclaiming the Trinity. From the three beautiful copper domes, the three altars, and the three copper sets of doors in the entryway, the imagery resounds of the Godhead. Kieckhefer states that the “Trinity was symbolized by the nave and the two aisles…and by the nave, choir, and sanctuary” (Loc 2166). The Basilica contains all of that symbolism and more. Within the longitudinal floor plan, the cruciform is evident by the main aisle leading directly to the altar with the aisle  separation from the nave as the cross beam. The Basilica is not only beautiful within, but has spectacular beauty on the exterior at night. “The whole church is a type of heaven” (Loc 2160).  The dome is lit up and can be observed from the city’s skyline. One can see the four angels surrounding the dome symbolizing the four gospels. The angels are playing trumpets as if calling out to the world, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward all” (Luke 2:14).

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