“Mankind was never so happily inspired as when it made a cathedral,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson. His observation finds magnificent illustration in Our Lady Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Cathedral in Toledo, Ohio.
Its beauty is sublime, its design unique. In all the world, this is the only cathedral built in Plateresque, a romantic style that arose after the Gothic period. it derived directly from the 16th-century Spanish silversmiths (plateros), whose work was characterized by ornamental elaboration. In this cathedral, plateresque embellishments combine with Romanesque and Saracen architecture for a one-of-a-kind masterpiece.
Its cornerstone was laid in 1926 — exactly 700 years after the cathedral in sister city Toledo, Spain — Queen of the Most Holy Rosary was built in the manner of 13th century medieval edifices. There's not a sliver of steel used; everything is solid masonry, from Massachusetts granite to Indiana silver limestone. While the Plateresque elements mainly highlight the interior, there are strong hints on the exterior too — chiefly the imperial Spanish tile roof with Plateresque patterns of blue, green, purple, red, orange, and chartreuse. Soaring skyward past this rainbow of colors are twin towers named Peter and Paul. The towers' bells were cast in England. On the grand facade before them, a statue of Our Lady, more than 6 feet tall and carved of a single block of limestone, stands above the main portal. Statues, biblical scenes, and canopy in high detail surround her, beginning with her parents and the Annunciation.
Symbolism abounds. The intricate cornice, for example, circles the exterior with 50 bas-relief panels depicting the history of the Church, starting with Jesus handing Peter the keys, and leading to the completion of Rosary Cathedral.
Through the huge cypress door, the vestibule switches from stone to wood to feature-carved New Testament scenes of the Holy Family that mirror those in the rear nave. A step into the nave immediately awes you with the enormous space and massive sanctuary — vast, yet visually delicate and graceful. Warmth comes from walls and piers of tinted Joan of Arc sandstone, quarried at the saint's birthplace. If the artistry weren't in such perfect balance, the sight might be overwhelming. A harmonizing factor, more noticeable in close-up, comes in the Plateresque stylistic details.
For one, the grooved tracery of arches blends softly into the huge piers; lines effortlessly fade together. For another, Plateresque's extreme use of gold filigree highlights much artwork, and even finds its way on woodwork and marble. Marble itself, in 35 varieties from around the world, adds further arrays of colors, as do murals and mosaics.
A monumental fresco by Viennese artist Felix Lieftuchter begins above the Rose Window and stretches the entire Spanish vaulted ceiling into the apse. It opens with Creatio Mundi, as angels hold medallions illustrating creation. Across the nave are Old Testament prophets, kings, and sibyls highlighted with gold.
The story continues into the sanctuary where the Crucifixion scene is joined by the sacrifices of Melchizedek and Abraham. These striking frescoes are done in the Keim manner, meant to brighten with age.
Between this ceiling and the carved marble main altar, a large crucifix fashioned from European walnut appears to float. The polychromed Corpus is hand-carved from 250-year-old Black Forest oak.
Also elaborately carved are medieval choir stalls circling the apse. Their pin-grained oak has Plateresque gold flourishes, as do the gold illuminated frames of the Stations of the Cross, where carved thorns and passion flowers form a motif.
The former baptistery is now the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. Like the sanctuary, it is intricately inlaid with tessellated marble. The elaborate tabernacle at the center of the octagonal chapel symbolizes Mary as the Tower of David and replicates the dome of the cathedral in Spain. Last year during his visit, the mayor of sister-city Toledo in Spain at once recognized the replica as the sight he sees daily from his office window. Another Spanish connection is a remarkable copy of El Greco's Descent of the Holy Spirit. From ceiling frescoes above the tabernacle, the four evange-lists keep watch.
The chapel's perfect aluminum and bronze gates form a garden of Marian roses and fleur-de-lis. When they were displayed at the Smithsonian, experts pronounced them the best examples of handwrought aluminum in the world.
Displayed with them was the equally amazing baptistery hood of hand-formed aluminum embossed with symbols and topped with an image of John the Baptist. Though weighing 130 pounds, it can be raised easily with one hand. With only hand tools, Natale Rossi wrought this superb, jewellike masterpiece in the cathedral basement from one solid block. This hood covers a marble baptistery, carved in the form of a Spanish fountain.
In the apse, 83 feet above, Lieftuchter's mural ends with the 15th mystery of the rosary, the Crowning of Mary, Queen of Heaven. Angels, saints, and the Church Triumphant, Militant, and Suffering, surround her in a breathtaking scene.
Beginning at the St. Joseph Altar, you can pray the rosary visually, as a group does monthly. Each mystery is elaborately illustrated the length of both wide side aisles in seven domes of each formed by piers and arches. These rosary murals correlate Old Testament events with New Testament scenes. The Annunciation, for example, is paired with Tobias; the Crucifixion is joined by Moses with arms held aloft for battle victory.
When Jan de Rosen, who did the mosaics in the papal chapel at Castel Gandolfo painted these murals, he used parishioners' faces, mostly school-children's, for models. One red-haired young lady inspired the Annunciation's archangel, Gabriel.
The rosary progresses past murals of the Battles of Lepanto in 1571 and Temesvar in 1716, victories credited to the power of the rosary, prayed devoutly. The 14th mystery appears before the Blessed Virgin Mary Chapel. The statue here and at the St. Joseph Altar are Trani marble from Florido — the quarry used by Michelangelo for his Pieta. This statue of Mary, Queen of Peace with the Child Jesus, is affectionately called the Smiling Madonna for unmistakable reasons.
The chapel's Venetian mosaics, done as 12th-century frescoes, depict the Annunciation and, in a triptych, Our Lord as King, with Mary and Joseph at his sides. There's a resplendent Nativity mosaic in the St. Joseph Chapel.
Tabernacles and candlesticks for both these altars are stunning vitreous enamel melted on bronze. Two years in the making, they're the largest pieces of cloisonné in the world.
Exquisite surprises such as these are everywhere. The 14 windows, 26-feet tall, have superb Gothic tracery and scenes created from authentic Norman slab glass and English antique cathedral glass imported from York, England, and made exactly as during the Middle Ages. The mammoth Rose Window done in the same manner is a wheel of episodes from Mary's life. It's called the “Children's Rose Window” because boys and girls donated $25,000 in pennies they saved for it.
Below the window is a 24-foot Byzantine iconlike painting of the Dormition of Mary. Saints and angels surround her, while Jesus stands close, holding a small child symbolizing her soul. Renowned liturgical artist Lieftuchter considered this painting the high point of his body of work and of his life.
So much more carving that turns wood and stone into lace, so much stained glass, scenes of Holy Family life, sculpted Church heroes, intricate marble inlay and gold filigree fill this cathedral to praise and glorify God and honor Mary. The cathedral's spiritual and artistic wealth certainly enriches eyes, hearts, and souls — and Toledo's Old West End district.
Guided tours, available regularly, illuminate details of the cathedral's sublime beauty of Our Lady Queen of the Most Holy Rosary.
For more information and a video, call 419-244-9575, or write the cathedral at 2535 Collingwood Ave., P.O. Box 20100, Toledo, Ohio 43610.
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.