Tag: dome

The Cross in the Dome

The careful arrangement of the symbols in the twenty-four windows of our church’s Guastavino dome generally goes unnoticed.

Imagine a cross, drawn through the centre of our dome. One line would connect the Keys in the dome window on the St. Joseph side of the church, with the Triple Crown on the St. Mary side. The other would go from the Descending Dove window in front of the altar, across the dome to its opposite, the Ascending Dove. The two lines would cross in the  triangle-in-a-trefoil window in the middle.

The meaning of the first part of the cross is easy to understand. The Keys are the emblem of Saint Peter, based on Matthew 16: “And I will give to thee the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven...” and the Tiara, or Triple Crown, across from it, is a symbol of the Pope. (The 1940 Anniversary Book explains that “the first circlet symbolizes the Pope’s universal episcopate, the second his supremacy of jurisdiction, and the third his temporal power”).

The other part gets complicated.

The dove pointing down, designed to be seen by people in the pews,  represents God’s presence and favour. The 1940 Anniversary Book reports that as “a symbol of the Holy Spirit it is specially connected with Baptism…

Across from it, the dove in flight was designed to be viewed by the priest and, in 1911, was thought to be “indicative of the graces which lift man up to God through the priesthood.” By 1940, it was re-interpreted as “the Ascension of Christ, or the entrance of Saints into glory.” But Henry Dagit’s original 1908 plan  suggested that half of the dome panels would relate to the  Old Testament, and half to the New, so it could also have a third meaning – recalling the story of Noah in the Old Testament, who looked for a sign of God’s presence, in the form of a dove at the window.

Imagine an invisible line through the dome, connecting prayers offered up in the sacrifice of the Mass, to the grace of the Holy Spirit descending on the parishioners. Now visualize a cross linking  Biblical promises of the Old Testament and New; intersected by the line of authority from Saint Peter to the Pope; with the “Eye of God”  at the centre of everything. That’s a neat description of Catholicism. (And the mystery remains: who imagined and put together all of the careful symbolism in our church: Henry Dagit; one of Dagit’s designers; or Reverend Crane himself?)_mg_2409

 

 

 

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Byzantine Revival

Is our church modeled after Hagia Sophia, an ancient church-turned-mosque-turned-museum in Turkey?

The claim has been repeated a number of times in recent years, but a look at the two buildings, side by side, does not show an extraordinary resemblance.

When Architect Henry Dagit wrote about our church under construction in 1908, he described his building as “Romanesque with Byzantine details.” That was also its representation in newspaper reports about the new church; in the 1911 Dedication booklet; and in the 1911 Short History of St. Francis de Sales Church. Reverend (later Bishop) Crane, who commissioned our church, envisioned a building “in which the soul would be lifted up to exaltation; an edifice in which the liturgy would be carried out in all its mystical beauty; a church rich with storied windows...” with no mention of Istanbul or Constantinople.

Art historian Richard Stemp provides a clue to the mystery, when he discusses the fifth century innovation of Hagia Sophia: “so great was the impact of a central dome that almost all Eastern churches were modeled on it thereafter.” Hagia Sophia provided an early and famous example of a Byzantine dome — although Stemp reports that “the surviving works at Ravenna (5th and 6th century Italy) have become, by default, the best representations of the splendour of the Byzantine court.”

Byzantine influence spread from Constantinople across the Mediterranean. Architectural historian Roger Moss, writing about Historic Sacred Places of Philadelphia,  suggests that our church actually  traces “its architectural genealogy to medieval Byzantine-Romanesque churches of Southern France.” He notes that French architects in the late 1800s looked back at those earlier churches and “embraced the Byzantine-Romanesque style as an alternative to the Gothic style” which was considered too “Protestant.” Romanesque design featured a rectangular building with rounded arches and vaults, rather than Gothic pointed arches and steeples. The Byzantine-style dome completed the thought.

Our 1911 church, honoring a French saint,  was probably inspired by that late 19th century European architectural movement, but Moss notes that our building is “more than a rare example of the Byzantine Revival style in Philadelphia. It is also one of our three landmark examples of Guastavino tile construction” with distinctive domes and vaults built using interlocking layers of terracotta tiles (The Penn Museum and Girard Bank — Ritz Carlton Hotel are the other two local examples). Rafael Guastavino’s works are prized: Structural Engineer and Guastavino authority John Ochsendorf at MIT opines that the tile domes form “some of the most exceptional masonry structures in history.”

 

 

The Menorah in the Church Window

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It seemed like a simple question: “Why is there a menorah on one of our  dome windows?”

The 1940 St. Francis de Sales Parish Anniversary Book called it “the seven-branched candlestick of the Old Testament Tabernacle, a prophetic emblem of the sevenfold sacramental grace which would issue from the Church of Christ,” but that seemed vague and didn’t explain why the symbol was chosen.

The number seven – emblem of perfection — turns out to have many meanings in Catholicism, but its association with candlesticks is hazy. The 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia noted that seven candles carried by seven acolytes were used at Papal Masses. A Bishop could have seven candles on the altar if he were presiding at home; six if he were visiting outside his diocese. The kinds of candles to be used were strictly regulated (pure beeswax, except in Oceania, where sperm-whale candles were permitted), but little explanation was offered for the significance of the candle number.

Some have suggested that for Christians, a seven-branched candlestick could represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge, Counsel, Fortitude, Piety, Fear of the Lord). It could also invoke a vision of “heavenly worship” from Revelations, in which “Seven flaming torches burned in front of the throne, which are the seven spirits of God”  This is offered as a possible explanation for the Papal candles. Or our candlestick could reference Judaism in the Old Testament.

According to the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia – current when our church was built – the original seven-branched Jewish candlestick was made for the Temple in the time of Moses: “symbolically the menorah represented the creation of the universe in seven days, the center light symbolizing the Sabbath. The seven branches are the seven continents of the earth and the seven heavens, guided by the light of God. The Zohar (Jewish mystical Kabbalah) says: ‘These lamps, like the planets above, receive their light from the sun.’”

The windows in our dome are thematically arranged, in pairs and opposites. The pair for the Menorah (the light of the Old Testament), is the Chalice and Eucharist (“Jesus Christ, the light of the world”), to its right, skip one. Opposite the Menorah, on the other side of the dome,  is the Alpha, the first letter of the Greek alphabet, signifying beginnings; the Omega, the last letter, is across from the Chalice. Thus, Alpha and Omega, a name for God, encompasses Creation and Redemption; Old Testament and New: a catechism in stained glass.

Guastavino Dome

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What do the Penn Museum, Ellis Island Registry Hall, Grant’s Tomb, and SFDS all have in common?

Each one has a Guastavino tile Dome or vault as part of its architecture.

When you look up at the herringbone pattern in our dome, consider that Rafael Guastavino y Moreno, the founder of the R. Guastavino Company, started out working as a tailor, in the family business in Valencia, Spain. Perhaps the work of fastening fabric and linings smoothly together gave him a special affinity for knitting together the tile constructions that would one day become his life’s work!

At age 19, when he was already married. with two children, Guastavino went to Barcelona to study architecture. Seeking a better life for his family, he then moved to America in 1881, settled in Woburn, Massachusetts, and opened a construction business. There, he improved and patented a traditional Catalan technique for using interlocking tiles and thin layers of special mortar to build arches and domes without requiring expensive temporary interior framework and bracing. This construction method was not well known in America, and his business prospered.

Today, Guastavino’s tiles can be found on more than 600 buildings in 36 states. Our 90-foot high, 62-foot diameter dome is unique among them because it has no copper or other roofing above it. The distinctive appearance of the coloured dome has made it an  icon in our neighbourhood – with some of the same issues as other architectural icons, such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s too-aptly named Fallingwater. It turns out that a construction method designed for use in sunny Spain is vulnerable when exposed to our region’s freeze and thaw winters.

The Guastavino firm was consulted about leaks in the 1920s and again in 1938. In the 1950s, the dome was topped with a layer of concrete and shiny ceramic “subway tiles” which held up for fifty years; today, the heavy, deteriorated tiles are gone, and the concrete shell is sealed and painted (and scheduled soon to be re-painted under warranty!) to match the original tile pattern – without the water-seeping gaps – for the next century.

Church Animals

On a Sunday near the feast of St. Francis of Assisi every year, neighbourhood pets of all faiths are welcomed to our parish (with their humans) for the Blessing of the Animals. But have you ever noticed how many animals are in our church already, incorporated in the decorations?!

Our church has a flock of Holy Spirit doves in its artwork: look for a dove in the mosaic lunette above the Mary Altar and another in the Trinity window behind the altarpiece. The dome windows feature descending and ascending doves (“the Holy Spirit among us” and “the graces that lift (humans) up to God through the religious life”). Yet another can be found representing the Annunciation in the first long window on the St. Joseph side.

Perched on the pulpit, halfway up the wall on the Mary side of the church, is a sculpted eagle representing Saint John – the author of the Gospel that begins “In the beginning, was the Word…” The eagle image is repeated on one of the pillars supporting the dome, along with the symbols for the other three Gospel writers: winged ox (Luke), winged lion (Mark), and the more human looking angel, representing Matthew.

Fish appear on one of the windows in the dome. ICTHUS, Latin for fish,  is also an acronym for the Greek phrase “Jesus Christ Son of God Savior.” Three fishes represent the Holy Trinity. A pelican is shown in another dome window. The pelican was said to pierce its breast with its beak, to feed its young from its own blood when other food was unavailable, and represents the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Yet another dome window features the phoenix: a mythological bird said to burst into flames and regenerate — a symbol of the Resurrection.

The window in the stairway to the choir loft in the back of the church shows the Lamb of God reclining on a book with seven seals — an image from the Book of Revelations, referencing the Second Coming!

At the tops of several of the columns in the church, you can just about identify carved limestone creatures that appear to be two-headed birds. The two-headed eagle was an emblem of Byzantium – fitting the design style of the church.

Live animals should feel at home here! This year’s Blessing of the Animals is Sunday, September 25 at 12:00 Noon.

Sacred Landscape

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Driving from the airport, down 47th Street, you know you’re home when you can see the dome of St. Francis de Sales — but how often do you really think about what it means?

Our church’s colorful tile dome has been a notable architectural feature in our neighborhood since the early nineteen hundreds. One of a group of structures by Rafael Guastavino, renowned for his unique patented building technique, it adds a note of distinction to the skyline, linking us with iconic buildings such as the Penn Museum, Ellis Island Registry Hall, Carnegie Hall, the Supreme Court building, and the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian, among others. Our cross-topped dome is unique among them because it  is not hidden under an exterior roof: look up Rafael Guastavino on Wikipedia, and you’ll see a picture of our church.

Why is our church important? Architectural historian Jon Cannon notes that “in most cultures throughout history the greatest buildings have been religious ones,” and “the modern world owes much more than it realizes to the ancient architectures of faith.”  Churches are more than architectural achievements, though. Each building represents a unique cultural chronicle. It also contains the local story of  all the generations that have lived in the surrounding neighborhood.

Religious architecture has a  deeper significance, too. Canon notes that religious monuments around the world “help to further a relationship between man and the divine…” Art Historian Richard Stemp observes that “highly visible towers, steeples and domes”  serve to “remind the faithful not only where they should go to worship, but also that they should go to worship.” At our 1911 dedication ceremony, the homilist  described  our church as a “beacon to all who pass by in this troubled world.” These are many different ways of saying that sacred  buildings in the landscape inspire, connect, and center us.

What happens when the links are broken? When people in Christchurch, New Zealand, struggled to decide whether to rebuild the iconic Anglican cathedral in the middle of town after the 2011 earthquakes, their former Deputy Prime Minister, Jim Anderton remarked “I have seen what happens when you don’t look after heritage. You lose more than just buildings, you lose a city’s soul.” Imagine our skyline with a drugstore or shopping plaza or tall apartment block built on once sacred ground. Let’s not take it for granted!