This weekend I’m in St. Louis with my mom. It’s a modest trip with a few ideas researched in advance, and we have adventuresome spirits. I titled the preliminary itinerary, “Thelma and Louise” and for a hot second I considered renting a convertible.
Mom and I are good travelers. We can get everything we need into one bag, aren’t afraid to wear the same outfit more than once, and are unashamed to be tourists. Everything in a new city, no matter how mundane, is interesting to us. The buildings, the street signs, the sidewalk cafes, the grocery store. Then there are the landmarks that brought us here: Wash U, Union Station, and a Frank Lloyd Wright house. We keep seeing the Arch as we drive to another destination (we wave), and are delighted to stumble upon something we didn’t plan.
The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis is a tremendous building but the outside didn’t prepare us for what we’d see once we went through the door. The floor plan is fairly standard with a cross shape, colonnades running parallel to the main aisle, and domed ceilings over the altar, the apse, and the transepts (I have the advantage of a brochure from the cathedral to refresh my memory of all of this architectural terminology). Our eyes adjust to the low lighting inside. We admire the the marble floor and soaring columns, and as we look up, we see glittering mosaics covering every inch of the ceilings, and parts of the walls.
Most churches I’ve visited have stained glass windows and painted walls and ceilings. While mosaics may be used in a small way, I’ve never seen a church like this. The mosaics are made of small tiles, but the large scale of the images is stunning. Scenes with Jesus and Mary; angels and apostles; figures from St. Louis history. A couple of the installations fooled us by looking like fabric – a woven rug hung like a tapestry, and a lovely green drapery. There are curlicues, cherubs, deer, birds, vines and flowers. We have to sit and rest our necks while we continue to gawk.
I learned that some parts of the mosaics are done in the Italian style, some in the Byzantine tradition; there are 83,000 square feet of mosaic art created by twenty artists and installed over 75 years. Some of the mosaics were designed and installed by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Absolutely amazing. My personal favorite is the red ceiling in one of the side sections. The glistening color is somehow the last thing I’d expect to see in a cathedral.
Tomorrow we’ll continue our adventure and may even get to the Arch. In the land of Anheuser Busch and Cardinals baseball, who knew we’d find such a dazzling surprise.