Readers of this blog are probably well aware of my interest in church architecture – and I have a good one for us in the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.
In this post, we will explore the history, architecture, and art of this magnificent cathedral.
The Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul was designed by Napoleon LeBrun and John Notman in the mid-19th century. The cornerstone was laid in 1846, and the cathedral was consecrated in 1864. The cathedral was built to serve as the mother church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which was established in 1808. The cathedral was elevated to the rank of basilica in 1976 by Pope Paul VI.
The facade of the Cathedral is graced by four massive stone columns of the Corinthian order, over 60 feet high and 6 feet in diameter.
The architecture of the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul is a blend of different styles, including Renaissance, Baroque, and Neo-Classical. The exterior of the cathedral is made of white marble, and the bell towers are over 200 feet tall. The cathedral has a Latin cross plan and features a central nave with two side aisles. The interior of the cathedral is stunning, with elaborate murals, stained glass windows, and intricate carvings.
Six Verte lmperial marble columns, rising 40 feet high and weighing in excess of twenty-five tons each, are set into the curved wall of the apse.
The altar is covered by a baldachin made of antique Italian marble, while the underside of the dome has a marble mosaic with a central figure of a dove representing the Holy Spirit. The mosaic also bears the Latin inscription “In omni loco sacrificatur et offertur nomini meo oblatio mundo,” which means “In every place there is offered and sacrificed in My Name a clean oblation” (Malachi 1:11). The corners of the baldachin have 10-foot-tall angels made of white Italian marble, and the capitals are made of cast bronze. The decorative rosettes are of Botticino marble.
The confessionals are walnut-stained oak; their privacy is secured by red velvet curtains.
The floor is of white and dark green marble tiles over an inch thick.
The Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul is also home to one of the most magnificent pipe organs in the world. The organ, which was built by the Austin Organ Company in 1926, has 6,634 pipes and is one of the largest instruments of its kind in the United States.
Although this organ is much smaller than the Wanamaker Organ also located in Philadelphia.
The organ has been restored and expanded over the years, and it is still in use today for concerts and liturgical services.
The art of the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul is one of its most notable features. The cathedral features a stunning collection of religious artwork, including murals, sculptures, and stained glass windows.
In August 2009, statues of Saint Peter and Saint Paul were relocated from the now-closed Church of the Most Blessed Sacrament to the Cathedral Basilica. Saint Peter is shown holding the keys to the kingdom, while Saint Paul is holding a book to represent his epistles.
The Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul is renowned for its mosaic artwork. The mosaics were created by the Mosaic Studio of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Italy, and designed by Italian artist Luigi Gregori. The mosaics span over 83,000 square feet of the church’s interior, one of the largest collections of mosaic art in the world.
They are composed of millions of tiny glass pieces called tesserae, which were shipped from Venice. These tesserae were meticulously arranged into designs and glued to the walls and ceilings using a special mortar made from marble dust, lime, and pigments. The entire process of creating the mosaics took nearly two decades, from 1906 to 1928.
The mosaic that depicts Mary’s Assumption into Heaven is one of the most impressive artworks in the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia. The mosaic is located above the main altar and is considered the centerpiece of the church’s mosaic collection.
The mosaic shows Mary, the mother of Jesus, being taken up into heaven by a group of angels. Mary is shown with her arms outstretched, wearing a white gown and blue mantle, while being lifted up by the angels. The figures are depicted in vivid colors and intricate details, with the surrounding area featuring a gold background.
The north mosaic mural showcases key figures and events in Pennsylvania’s religious history. Pope Paul VI and John Cardinal Krol’s coats of arms are at the top, and the symbol of the 41st Eucharistic Congress in 1976 is at the bottom. Among the depicted historic scenes are George Washington and members of the Continental Congress at Old Saint Mary’s Church, founder of the Blessed Sacrament Sisters, Mother Katharine Drexel, who is now a saint, Sisters of Saint Joseph helping the wounded on the Gettysburg battlefield, and Commodore Barry, who founded the United States Navy.
Bishop Kenrick founded Saint Charles Seminary in 1832, and the mural includes a silhouette of artist Thomas Eakins on a bicycle. The buildings of Saint Michael’s and Saint Augustine’s churches burned and rebuilt during the “Know-Nothing” riots, and Saint Martin’s Chapel at Saint Charles Seminary is also featured. Finally, Saint Mary’s Church, the first Cathedral of Philadelphia and the site of the first public religious commemoration of Independence Day on July 4, 1779, is also depicted.
The South Mosaic Mural is dedicated to the life and works of Saint John Neumann, who was the fourth Bishop of Philadelphia. Saint John Neumann is portrayed wearing his episcopal garments in the center of the mural, and the phrase he lived by, “Soli Deo” (“For God alone”), is repeated in German and Italian.
The mural shows Bishop Neumann’s zeal in traveling to the most remote areas to confer Confirmation. In this scene, he is receiving young people and their sponsors. The monstrance in the mural recalls Bishop Neumann introducing into the diocese the tradition of the Forty Hours Devotion in 1853, an annual three-day period of Eucharistic adoration, and the rule he wrote for the confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament.
The mural also shows Bishop Neumann’s joy at the completion of the exterior of the Cathedral in 1859. It also shows him present at the promulgation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 at the invitation of Pope Pius IX. Additionally, the mural includes symbols of the 80 churches built during his years in Philadelphia, with Saint Peter’s Church being recognizable.
The Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul is renowned for its collection of stained glass windows, covering almost 20,000 square feet of the church’s interior. The windows were designed and crafted by famous artists and studios such as J&R Lamb Studios, the Tiffany Glass Company, and the Willet Stained Glass Studios.
They feature vibrant colors and intricate designs with themes ranging from the life of Jesus to abstract patterns. Wealthy donors commissioned many of the windows, often with a personal connection to the subject matter. Notable windows include the rose window, featuring Christ and the twelve apostles, and the Four Evangelists window, depicting the gospel writers and their symbols.
These stained glass windows are considered some of the finest examples of stained glass art in the United States and are a popular attraction for visitors to the church.
Mary Katharine Drexel was a nun and philanthropist born in Philadelphia in 1858. She was educated at home by tutors and taught to serve the poor. After the death of her father, she founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in 1891 and established schools for Black and Native American children throughout the United States.
She died in 1955 and was beatified by the Catholic Church in 1988 and canonized in 2000, becoming the first recognized saint born in the United States. Today, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament continue to serve in various ministries primarily among Black and Native Americans.
Pope John Paul II visited Philadelphia in October 1979 as part of his first papal trip to the United States. His visit to the city was a historic event, as it marked the first time a pope had ever visited Philadelphia.
He held mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul and was attended by an estimated 3,000 people. During the Mass, Pope John Paul II delivered a homily in which he emphasized the importance of the Catholic Church’s role in promoting peace, social justice, and the dignity of all human life. He also spoke about the challenges facing the Church and the world at that time, including poverty, war, and the erosion of traditional values.
The visit of Pope John Paul II helped to strengthen the bonds between the Catholic Church and the people of Philadelphia, and it is still remembered as a significant moment in the city’s history.
A church can be designated a Basilica with two symbols: the umbraculum and tintinnabulum. The red and gold velvet umbraculum was used to provide shade for the pope and placed in the Cathedral’s sanctuary in 2011.
The tintinnabulum is a bell on a pole with the papal tiara and Keys of Heaven, placed in the Basilica in 2013 to signify its link with the pope. If a pope was to say mass at the Basilica, the tintinnabulum would be used to lead the very special procession down the aisle.
The Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul is a true gem of Philadelphia, with its stunning architecture, beautiful artwork, and rich history. Whether you are a lover of church architecture and history or simply appreciate beautiful buildings, the cathedral is definitely worth a visit.
Visit their website for more history and up-to-date event information.