Basilica restoration sheds light on original vision

Even a brilliant autumn day can't compete with the glorious natural light that illuminates the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary just days before its rededication.

After a two-year, $32 million restoration, the light again flows through the basilica's skylights and sparkling, translucent window panes. The interior space is a soaring masterpiece of pendentives, domes and barrel vaults, but the light -- pure and elemental -- calls to mind the simplicity of a country church or Quaker meetinghouse.


It is consummately American light, the kind rarely, if ever, found in Europe's famed cathedrals, where stained-glass windows and richly ornamented interiors tend to create a mysterious aura of darkness.

Two hundred years after the cornerstone for the cathedral was laid, the light that has been liberated from layers of paint and stained glass again animates the vision shared by John Carroll, the country's first bishop, and Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the architect of the cathedral.


Throughout the space, neoclassical grandeur blends with American pragmatism. Latrobe designed the neat grids of plaster rosettes that decorate the ceiling to absorb sound in the cavernous cathedral. Against the basilica's breathtaking domed ceiling, they call to mind the ornamental, yet orderly sensibility of an American quilt. With their pronounced stigmas and sunbeamlike petals, the rosettes, despite their pastel hues, may also remind Marylanders of black-eyed Susans.

The depiction of an integrated heaven with black and white angels in new paintings of the Assumption of Mary and the Ascension of Jesus adorning two saucer domes show that over the centuries, cathedrals may be continuous works in progress that reflect social advancement within the church.

The angels and other current changes, including enhanced accessibility, keep with the cathedral's ideological underpinnings. Carroll sought to build a house of worship that celebrated religious freedom in the young country, whose cause he had championed before the American Revolution. Latrobe, architect of the U.S. Capitol, pictured a sacred space designed along the same neoclassical lines of that august structure. Set on a hill overlooking Baltimore harbor, the cathedral was to be a light-filled symbol of both the right to worship freely and the country that protected that right.

Over the centuries, though, the light disappeared. The walls were painted dark gray, light marble flooring was replaced with dark green marble, 24 wooden skylights ringing the central dome were blackened, dark wood pews were installed and dozens of paintings and architectural elements added over the years were buried under layers of plaster.

Now that the light has returned, and the walls are once again their original colors of pale yellow, blue and rose, it's possible to imagine the promise offered by the cathedral to its earliest parishioners. A white wood dove, representing the Holy Spirit, hovered far above the sanctuary, as it does today.

On this fall day, Erlinda Lachica performs William Walton's majestic Coronation March on the 1821 pipe organ for members of the media as they tour the renovated basilica. The sanctuary is alive with spiritual joy and a sense of purpose.

"Before, it was so dark," says Lachica, the basilica's organist since 1969. "It's nice to have the sun come in."