Some other distinctive features of the St. Louis cathedral and its mosaics:
Mosaic by Any Other Name
The earliest examples of mosaic art (roughly 2000 BC) are found in Zoroastrian temples in Iran and consisted of colored pebbles used to create images on walls. The ancient Greeks improved on the art form by creating colored glass, but it was the Romans who gave us the word “mosaic”, which is a derivative of the Latin term for “museum”, a collection of diverse works of art. The “musaicum” was a collection of diverse colored stones or pieces of glass!
The Romans later perfected the art by placing gold leaf behind pieces of translucent glass or sandwiching gold or silver leaf in between two pieces to create a sense of depth in the image and make it shimmer as the light would fall on it at various different angles.
This technique would be key to adopting the art form for religious artwork as it gave the images an ethereal look. The Byzantine (Greek) Christians virtually perfected the art of religious mosaics. This image of Christ from the Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople is just one magnificent example.
By the time of the high Renaissance in the 1500s, mosaic work had been largely eclipsed by fresco and oil painting, but Pope Gregory XIII single-handedly breathed new life into the art form when he decided that the interior of new St. Peter’s Basilica would consist entirely of mosaics.
He had a medieval mosaic of the Apostle Peter by Giotto installed above the main entrance to St. Peter’s to symbolize the continuity of the old basilica with the new.
Since that time, the Vatican has maintained a school of mosaic art, which exists even to the present day both to preserve the many mosaics in the basilica and to train artists in the technique. (They also sell gorgeous mosaic works, which is a huge money-maker for the Vatican, but you didn’t hear that from me.)
If you ever have the blessing of visiting the cathedral of St. Louis, you could be overwhelmed at the totality of all the artwork. So, follow this very simple break down for your mosaic tourism – domes, saints, and scriptures – and you will view the full measure of beauty that streams through these sacred mosaic windows. Oh, and don’t forget to bring binoculars to get the details.
Needless to say, the three domes of the cathedral are filled with magnificent mosaics, and each one is a distinct wonder in itself. Here they are in red, blue, and amber.
Also, don’t miss the saints that sit under the domes and hold them up, as it were. You can spot some great American saints whose images fill the triangular joint areas which connect a lower wall or pillar with a dome above.
The mosaics below literally give us a short history of American sanctity: Mother Cabrini, St. Rose Philippine Duschene (the “local saint” of the Archdiocese of St. Louis), and the North American Martyrs.
And, speaking of saints, you can view the life and acts of the cathedral’s patron saint, King St. Louis IX in the foyer which is dedicated entirely to him.
Finally, don’t miss the biblical scenes that can be found all around the basilica, as typified by the Pentectost and Resurrection mosaics shown above.
On a final note, what you will not find throughout this immensely decorated space, though, is a unified artistic style for all the mosaics. They were created by numerous teams of artisans over a 76-year period, so you will see a diversity of styles and genres, which, in my opinion, adds to the truly unique character of this majestic house of God.
To cap off our discussion of mosaics, let’s end where we started, with St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. St. Peter’s has greater size, grandeur, and authority than perhaps any other church on earth, and it even has its own school of mosaic art.
Yet… let’s admit that even the great St. Peter’s must bow to America’s St. Louis Cathedral Basilica in the splendor of its mosaic beauty!
[Note: This article is a reproduction of the Sacred Windows Email Newsletter of 7/23/23, so it does not end with the regular Soul Work section. Please visit our Newsletter Archives.]
Photo Credits: Images via Wikimedia Commons: (King St Louis) Francisco Pacheco, Public domain; (Hagia Sophia) Dianelos Georgoudis, CC BY-SA 3.0; (Saints) Andrew Balet, CC BY-SA 2.5; (Pentecost and Easter) Pete unseth, CC BY-SA 4.0; (Domes Red and Blue) Farragutful, CC BY-SA 4.0; (Dome Amber) Tiger Craven, CC BY-SA 4.0; (Moses) TheWB, CC BY-SA 3.0; (Aisle) QuartierLatin1968, CC BY-SA 3.0; (Cathedral Exterior) A.reyestena, CC BY-SA 4.0. Also, side aisle scenes from Tripadvisor; Tiffany angel, public domain.