After my post on the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception last week, I was contacted by Dr. Geraldine Rohling, the Shrine’s archivist and curator. She had a little more information to add to the conversation about Gothic vs. Byzantine architectural style.
The original intention of the Shrine’s founder, Bishop Thomas Shahan, was for the church to be Gothic, French Gothic to be precise. There was even a model that toured the country to draw interest in the Shrine project. But then the concept for the church was changed to Romanesque Byzantine. According to Dr. Rohling, that wasn’t only because Gothic would have been too similar to the National Cathedral being built across town, but for more personal reasons as well:
One of the most influential people in the change from Gothic to Romanesque-Byzantine was John J. Cardinal Glennon (1862-1946), Archbishop of St. Louis, member of the CUA Board of Trustees and a close, personal friend of Shahan: “While the Gothic … appears … to lift the people to God, the Roman style or the Byzantine … endeavors to bring God down to earth … [God] lives with us.”
Archbishop Glennon had been responsible for the building of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, a stunning Romanesque Byzantine church, with obvious similarities to the Shrine:
Bishop Shahan’s friendship with Archbishop Glennon coincided with his desire to have the church stand apart from the National Cathedral across town, making the choice of a Romanesque Byzantine design a logical one.
One final note – Dr. Rohling says that when she spoke with the grandson of the architect chosen to design the Shrine, Charles Maginnis, he said his grandfather was not very enthusiastic about a Romanesque-Byzantine structure. He preferred Gothic, but learned to like Byzantine. I think that’s true for many of us.