The St. Louis Cathedral: Monumental Display of Mosaics (Archdiocese of St. Louis, Missouri)

In 1992 my mother brought me to see the Cathedral Basilica of St Louis, dedicated to the victorious Christ and St. Louis IX, King of France, patron saint of the city.  It was an unforgettable experience.  Since that visit this mighty fortress has captured my imagination and has been my favorite cathedral interior in North America due to its richness of materials and quality of artwork.  

The layout and decoration charm the visitor with a synthesis of Byzantine and Romanesque with sumptuous mosaic decorations that bring to mind the Cathedral of St. Mark in Venice or even in some ways the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière in Lyon.  St. Louis was once called "the Rome of the West."  The design weds East and West, a highly symbolic gesture, as St. Louis was considered the gateway to the West, joining both East and West together.    

Plans for the new cathedral were in the works at the end of the nineteenth century.  It was Archbishop John Kain who first purchased the land for the current site.  His successor, Archbishop John Joseph Glennon of Ireland announced in 1905 that he proposed to build a worthy temple to honor God that would last for generations.  It took 80 years to complete.   

Construction on the "new" cathedral began in 1907 and the cornerstone was laid in 1908 by the Apostolic Delegate Archbishop Diomede Falconio, an Italian Franciscan who was an immigrant to the United States.  The cathedral was completed and dedicated in 1914.  The new edifice replaced the old cathedral of St. Louis (today a basilica), which is still standing and can be visited at its beautiful location near the city's Gateway Arch monument. 

The altar was a gift from Mr. and Mrs. William Cullen McBride, patrons of the construction, whose daughter Kathleen would become the new cathedral’s first bride. That first wedding was in 1914, just two days after the first Mass was celebrated in the new and far-from-completed building. The first Mass was celebrated six years to the day after the laying of the cornerstone.  Still there was much work to be done to complete the interior decoration.  

Archbishop Glennon presided over the first Solemn Mass celebrated on the new high altar on All Souls Day 1916, and in 1917, the Blessed Sacrament Chapel was used for the first time. Its bronze gates had graced the Austrian exhibit at the Saint Louis World’s Fair in 1904.

Following several additional years of work the church was consecrated in 1926.  It was an unforgettable occasion, the Feast of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, June 29, 1926.  That year marked the centennial of the creation of the Diocese of Saint Louis.  The ceremony was a sight to behold, gathering 59 bishops and priests, including John Cardinal Bonzano, the former Apostolic Delegate to the United States. More than 100,000 people gathered to witness the procession of the Blessed Sacrament that day.  Still work continued for many years.  

The cathedral was built by Archbishop John J. Glennon, a native of Ireland, who had a 42-year tenure as Archbishop of St. Louis.  While many architects worked on the project over the years, the original design project was led by Barnett, Haynes & Barnett.  This firm traces its origin to the Englishman George I. Barnett, who was called "the Dean" of St. Louis architecture for his contributions to the building of the city and for his influence on other architects.  

His sons worked on the cathedral project.  Thomas P. Barnett was a nationally recognized architect and painter who trained at the St. Louis School of Fine Arts.  He had high regard for the classic period and was a proponent of classicism as a dominant architectural influence on the cathedral.  Also, his brother George D. Barnett helped design the cathedral structure including the main altar, the baldachin, and other important decorations.  

The cathedral is is known for its massive mosaic installation, which is the largest in the Americas.  Actually, it is one of the largest in the world.  The mosaic project was so intense that it was not completed until decades later in 1988.  For this reason many different artists contributed over the decades.  In 1912, installation of the mosaics began.  Incredibly, the cathedral contains an estimated 41.5 million glass tesserae pieces in more than 7,000 different shades of color.  They cover some 83,000 square feet.   

The mosaics in the sanctuary walls and side chapels were designed and installed by Tiffany glass studios of New York.  Mosaics in the rest of the church were done by a dozen artists.  Some of them are mentioned here.  The main body of mosaics were by Professor Otto Oetken, who labored in the cathedral for over 40 years.  Some of the other artists included Hildreth Meiere, a female Art Deco artist from New York who worked on he mosaics in the 1940s and 1950s.  Ravenna Mosaic company was also hired along with Emil Frei, Inc.  

The father and son team Paul and Arno Heuduck worked on their mosaics for many years.  The arch of the Last Judgment was completed in 1962 and the main dome in 1965 by Jan Henryk de Rosen of Poland, who depicted Biblical scenes from both the Old and New Testaments.  The mosaics in the narthex depict the life of St. Louis, King of France, namesake and patron saint of the church.  Mosaic artist Mary Reardon completed the mosaics in the 1980s.     

A book could be written on the mosaics and their installation.  Initially the German firm of August Wagner was contracted to install the mosaics. They set up shop in St. Louis, becoming the Ravenna Mosaic Company. Following the design of the artisans, mosaic artist Paul Heuduck undertook the red and gold designs of the transept galleries.  He then completed the Arch of Triumph and the Arch of Creation, followed by the pendentives underscoring the main dome depicting the Doctors of the Church.

 In 1930, the mosaics depicting the life of Saint Louis were completed in the Cathedral’s narthex, visually preparing the visitor for the growing grandeur inside. Shortly after World War II, a sacristy was added to the north end of the structure. Work on the mosaics continued. It was not to be completed until 1988, when the final two areas – the east and west transepts – were completed.

In 1997, the cathedral was designated as a Cathedral Basilica by Pope John Paul II, who honored the community with a visit on his historic last apostolic voyage to the United States in January of 1999. The symbols of the basilica status – the tintinnabulum (processional bell) and the ombrellino (processional umbrella) – flank the high altar reminding all of the special designation and awaiting the visit of the next pope.  

In 2007 the great Cardinal Archbishop of St. Louis, Raymond Leo Burke, conceived a new shrine build in the cathedral's west transept to honor and foster devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  The architect chosen was the esteemed and artistically illustrious Duncan Stroik, who enshrined a precious mosaic image of the Sacred Heart, produced by the Fabbrica di San Pietro Vatican Mosaic Studios.  The mosaic image, measuring 3' x 4', is based on an original oil painting owned by the Archdiocese, presumably by a Spanish nineteenth century artist.  The design of the shrine with the mosaic icon is free standing with a large pediment to frame the scene, lending verticality and prominence within the colonnaded apse.  The Christian faithful gather here every day to pray and give honor Our Blessed Lord.

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