A mystical light

March 16, 2006

From the beginning, light illuminates the biblical narrative. As an image and a symbol, it signals the presence of God, throughout the world and within man. And so it would be that yesterday, the interior of the nearly restored Basilica of the Assumption was aglow with sunlight, the old cathedral's new linen-white palette reflecting the simplicity of Benjamin Henry Latrobe's neoclassic design. The intent of the $32 million renovation was to restore the nation's first Roman Catholic cathedral to its 19th-century origins, and it mostly reflects that vision. It relies on diffused light, an effect known in Latrobe's time as lumiere mysterieuse (mysterious light). Could there be any more appropriate metaphor for a symbol of religious freedom?

Marylanders should care about this building for several reasons. The basilica, completed in 1821, is one of the most important architectural landmarks in the country. Latrobe designed it at the request of John Carroll, the nation's first bishop. For American Catholics, it's their St. Peter's. But people of all faiths should appreciate the basilica because it represents the role religious freedom played in the state's founding.

Patrons of the basilica restoration view the project as a way to illustrate that history. The renovation, which at its core upgraded the cathedral's aging mechanical systems, also provides more worship space, discreet lighting to illuminate the church on a cloudy day, and electrical jacks in the cathedral floor for the television crews expected at its bicentennial celebration Nov. 4.

Although initiated by Baltimore's Cardinal William H. Keeler, the renovation project has been funded through private donations from across the country and abroad. It restores and reinvigorates a place of worship and also a masterpiece of architectural and historical significance.

The transformation will be striking for anyone who remembers the basilica as it evolved into a gray relic of shadows. The great dome is accented with rosettes painted the palest of pink and set against a celestial blue background. But religious artwork and statues familiar to worshippers are being restored and will be returned to the church. The basilica's most arresting architectural feature, revived through the project, is Latrobe's series of 24 skylights in the basilica's green outer dome. They will provide that essence of mysterious light that had been snuffed out in years gone by.

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