Forget making the trek to the crowded National Gallery. To see some of the most beautiful mosaic works of art in the country and a get glimpse of Catholic history to boot, look no further than the Basilica of the National Shrine to the Immaculate Conception in the Brookland neighborhood of Washington, D.C.
This massive place of worship holds more than 70 different chapels dedicated to the Virgin Mary and the immigrants and religious orders who helped build the shrine. The basilica has hosted thousands of visitors, including Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis. It’s easy to see why the church attracts such large crowds — the 500-foot interior is covered in hundreds of thousands of tiny, glittering mosaics that light up the entire space with flecks of light.
Groundwork on the shrine began during 1920, and while construction was technically completed during 1961, the center Trinity dome is still covered with scaffolding and I-beams. The archdiocese expects the final mosaic work on the dome to be completed by next year.
The main section of the church boasts incredibly ornate details, most notably the hard-to-miss, imposing mosaic of Christ behind the main altar, which was designed by Jan Henryk De Rosen. Tucked away behind Greek-style archways, small side chapels hold hidden treasure troves of American iconography, detailing different Marian appearances.
While the upper church is an impressive sight, my personal favorite part of the basilica lies underground. Down a small, unimposing flight of stairs tucked in a corner of a side entrance lies a hidden gem, known as the “crypt church.”
While it can’t boast as many glittering mosaics as the upstairs portion of the building, the crypt church features more traditional styles of art in a quiet, cozy setting. The lower level holds the remains of Archbishop Thomas J. Shahan, who proposed the idea of building a Marian shrine in the United States.
The lower level also holds several Marian chapels, but there are also small altars dedicated to different female saints from early Church history.
If you poke around just outside the entrance to the crypt, you can find a small museum illustrating the history of the basilica, notable American saints, and traditional customs passed down from religious immigrants to America. You can even check out the chair Pope Benedict XVI sat in during his visit to the church, but a soft-spoken, elderly guard will remind you that you can only look, not touch.
Before you leave the church grounds entirely, step outside the basilica and head to the back of the building. Down a weatherbeaten stone path lies the hidden Marian garden, with bright flowers and gently bubbling fountains during the spring and summer. Nestled among the trees, with the large frame of the basilica looming overhead and a serene statue of Mary and Jesus beside you, it’s easy to see why Pope Benedict named it the Golden Rose of the D.C. area.