Faith begins and ends in the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Christians are baptized “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Yet for many, the doctrine of the Trinity is abstract and remote from everyday life. But a new masterpiece of sacred art depicting the Holy Trinity brings this central mystery of the Christian faith to new life.
Adorning the central dome of the Great Upper Church of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., the Trinity Dome Mosaic is the “crowning jewel” of the nation’s pre-eminent Marian shrine. This splendid work of sacred art invites pilgrims to encounter anew the beauty of the Christian faith and life through extraordinary mosaic depictions of the Holy Trinity, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Creed, a procession of angels and saints and the Four Evangelists.
One of the largest mosaic installations in the world, the Trinity Dome Mosaic features 14 million pieces of Venetian glass. In more than 1,000 color variations, the entire mosaic covers 18,300 square feet of the dome surface and weighs some 24 tons.
A Century in the Making
The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception has been a work in progress since the laying of its foundation stone by Cardinal James Gibbons on Sept. 23, 1920. A dedicatory plaque at the entrance of the Great Upper Church notes that after almost 50 years of construction, interrupted by the Great Depression and World War II, the dedication and blessing of the National Shrine took place Nov. 20, 1959.
Some five decades later, the Trinity Dome Mosaic will be dedicated on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, the patronal feast day of the National Shrine and the United States, with Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington and chairman of the National Shrine’s board of trustees, as principal celebrant of the Mass and dedication. Pope Francis announced that Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, will represent the Holy Father as his special envoy to the dedication. Under the direction of Msgr. Walter Rossi, rector of the basilica, the Trinity Dome Mosaic brings to completion the original architectural and iconographic plans determined nearly a century ago. This masterpiece of sacred art inspires the faithful to entrust themselves to the Blessed Mother of God, as the basilica dedicated to her Immaculate Conception approaches its 100th anniversary in the year 2020.
Love for the Mother of God
The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception holds a special place in the history and life of American Catholicism. Dedicated to the patroness of the United States, the Blessed Virgin Mary under her title of the “Immaculate Conception,” this place of worship, pilgrimage and reconciliation is the largest Catholic church in the United States and North America. It is considered one of the 10 largest churches in the world; and like many grand basilicas around the world, the interior of the National Shrine is a succession of five spectacular domes leading to the magnificent Christ in Majesty mosaic in the half dome of the apse of the Church.
As the church of all the nation’s bishops, this basilica holds pride of place in the hearts and in the imagination of American Catholics by whose generosity and devotion it was built and continues to exist today. A nationwide Mother’s Day 2017 collection to support the completion of the Trinity Dome was only one of two national collections in the shrine’s 100-year history. The generous outpouring of support from the nation’s faithful expressed their deep devotion and love of Catholics for the Mother of God. Their generosity makes it now possible for all pilgrims to experience the majesty and beauty of the Trinity Dome Mosaic as it tells the story of salvation history and invites all to respond in faith to the divine plan of love.
Mosaics Tell the Story of Salvation
“Sacred art is true and beautiful,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “when its form corresponds to its particular vocation: evoking and glorifying, in faith and adoration, the transcendent mystery of God — the surpassing invisible beauty of truth and love visible in Christ” (2502). The Trinity Dome Mosaic is an outstanding example of the vocation of sacred art that evokes and glorifies God’s transcendent mystery.
Four pendentives at the base of the mosaic depict the Four Evangelists, Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, each with their individual artistic attributes. The evangelists hold up the circle, or drum, of the central dome, as the Gospels they wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit are summarized in the words of the Creed we profess each Sunday. And so, the faithful see around the drum base of the central dome the words of the Nicene Creed, in brilliant mosaic of gold and deep blue. Pilgrims see the faith they profess each Sunday in the words of the Creed now radiating in mosaic above them and into their hearts, minds and lives.
As one’s gaze moves upward, one sees the larger-than-life resplendent figures of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. The love of the Trinity of divine Persons is evoked in their expressions and gestures, inviting all to participate in the community of the divine family. Across from the Holy Trinity is the Blessed Mother of God in her Immaculate Conception, arms outstretched with her maternal gaze of love and protection over all who look to her. And around the circle of the Trinity Dome, in a procession of angels and saints, are holy men and women whose faith invites and guides our journey of faith and love of God.
Join the Pilgrimage of Faith
In this special place of worship and devotion, affectionately known as “Mary’s House,” the Mother of God guides countless pilgrims to her divine Son Jesus, who leads us to the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit. Notable pilgrims to the National Shrine include St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis and St. Teresa of Calcutta. Now, it’s our turn to join in this pilgrimage of love and devotion to the Mother of God.
To make a pilgrimage to this magnificent basilica is to walk with the Blessed Mother of God, who guides us to the beauty of faith in Jesus, the Word made flesh, our Redeemer and friend. The Trinity Dome Mosaic invites all pilgrims to experience the central mystery of Christian faith in a work of “genuine sacred art that draws us to adoration, to prayer and to the love of God, Creator and Savior, the Holy One and Sanctifier” (2502).
Jem Sullivan, wife and mother, author and educator, serves as
secretary for education in the Archdiocese of Washington.