Papal altar 'in unity' with shrine's aesthetics

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The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is among the 10 largest churches in the world.

Despite its size, the shrine cannot accommodate the 25,000 people expected at Pope Francis' Sept. 23 canonization Mass for Blessed Junípero Serra. Thus the Mass will take place outdoors, but not without an homage to the shrine's distinctive interior aesthetics. The Archdiocese of Washington called upon Catholic University in Washington and a Maryland deacon to create the papal altar and furnishings to be used outdoors that day. These were the same parties approached for Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Washington in 2008.

Catholic U. turned the honor into a contest around final exam time, attracting designs for the papal altar, ambo and chair from 18 student teams in May. The winning team, announced June 2, consists of Ariadne Cerritelli of Bethesda; Matthew Hoffman of Pittsburgh; and Joseph Taylor of Elderburg, Md.

"This is so monumental," said Hoffman, 22, who graduated from Catholic U.'s undergraduate architecture program in May and started graduate studies there this fall, along with Cerritelli. He meant that literally and figuratively. He explained that his team wanted to "retain (the shrine's monumental) timelessness" in their design and that, as a cradle Catholic, "doing something for the pope is just about the best thing you can do."

The team included a statement with their submission:

"In order to respond to the traditional Byzantine Romanesque style of the basilica, while also maintaining the element of simplicity, we have combined the use of the arch with a refined design while incorporating the same materials already utilized in the shrine. The strength and character of the stone gives the piece a sense of purpose fit for the holy liturgies ... The papal chair is designed to bring focus, not on itself, but on the Vicar of Christ himself who will preach from it."

Randall Ott, who's served as the dean of Catholic U.'s School of Architecture and Planning since 2003, said that the student-designed altar and furnishings had to meet two needs: to be visible from a distance to accommodate a large-scale outdoor event, and fit - physically and aesthetically - in the shrine for permanent use.

Ott described the winning team's design as Byzantine, with mosaics reminiscent of the Patriarchal Cathedral Basilica of St. Mark in Venice, Italy, and symmetrical forms that match the arches and domes in the shrine.

According to the shrine's architectural webpage, which is maintained by archives staff, Romanesque architecture is defined by its symmetry, large scale, substantial walls, arches, piers, groin vaults, towers and decorative ambulatories. Compared to Gothic architecture, Romanesque structures look relatively simple.

"About one-third of the student submissions were asymmetrical, reflecting a thrust in contemporary church architecture," said Ott.

Rugo Stone, a Lorton-based stone contracting company founded by Brett Rugo in 1997, supplied the mensa, or marble top - a beige Botticino Classico marble as seen in the shrine's interior pillar - for the papal altar. The company has been contracted for many of the shrine's chapels.

In the center of the altar is a symbol commemorating the Virgin Mary, and four columns on the front represent the four vows taken by Jesuits, such as Pope Francis, to join the Society of Jesus, as well as three arches representing the Holy Trinity.

"The detailing and the symbolism are part of a clear vision to communicate faith in design," said Hoffman, adding that his personal faith is an important aspect of his own life.

Overall, Ott praises the altar and furnishings for their "integrated feeling" and "drive toward unity."

"(The design is) appropriate for outside and will fit beautifully in the shrine," he said.

The jury included Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl; Bishop Barry Knestout, auxiliary bishop of Washington; Catholic U. President John Garvey; basilica Rector Msgr. Walter Rossi; and Ott.

The altar and furnishings have since been constructed by Deacon Dave Cahoon, who also is a carpenter, and a team of 12 craftsmen at St. Joseph's Carpentry Shop in Poolesville, Md. Doug Fauth, owner of Carriage Hill Custom Cabinets and Millwork in Frederick, Md., built the papal chair, chairs for two deacons and eight benches from medium-density fiberboard. Each contains a thin veneer of cherry wood. Lawrence Wroten made the relief carving of the papal seal from cherry wood for the back of the papal chair, while Karen Kouneski applied the gold-leaf and Mother of Pearl mosaic tiles to the altar's center arch.

When asked about their inspirations, Hoffman, who hopes to become a church architect one day, said that he and his fellow architecture students visited the shrine. They also studied in Rome last spring to enhance their understanding of Renaissance, Baroque and Revivalist styles and to consider how to apply some of those "flavors" to American architecture.

"We could never replicate what they have in Europe," Hoffman said, alluding to the investment of capital and human labor required to build now-historical churches and cathedrals. But he still aspires toward their aesthetics in his current and future architectural work.

"Can you imagine these kids going to their first job interview? They'll pull out their portfolio and lead with a design for the pope," said Ott.

When your dream is to design Catholic churches, that's not a bad place to start.

Stoddard can be reached at cstoddard@catholicherald.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015