Friday, July 3, 2015

The Architecture of Two Cathedrals

Minneapolis and St. Paul are fun to compare (see previous blog entry) and nowhere is the temptation to compare more compelling than in their two major cathedrals. The Basilica of St. Mary is adjacent to the central business district of Minneapolis; the Cathedral of St. Paul sits on a promontory on the west edge of St. Paul. Both buildings have been hailed as among the finest examples of ecclesiastical architecture anywhere in the United States. The St. Mary cathedral opened in 1914 and was designed by architect Emmanuel Louis Masqueray. St. Paul cathedral opened a year later and was also designed by Masqueray. That's right: two spectacular edifices by the same architect at the same time in neighboring locations. What architect today would not salivate over such opportunities? Masqueray did not squander his professional good fortune, producing two masterful examples of beaux-arts architecture. They compare favorably to just about any European example of spectacular church design.

The arrangement of St. Mary's is straightforward. A truncated transept rapidly forces attention on the altar, bathed in light from above. Heavenly aspirations pull the viewer/audience/supplicant forward to glorious resolution. Light floods the space with heavenly grace.
1. The barrel-vaulted nave of St. Mary's focuses attention on the alter.
2. Hints of light. 
3. The dome above the alter at St. Mary's. 
4. The alter at St. Mary's. 
5. Exterior, Basilica of St. Mary's in Minneapolis.
Nobody does it better than the Catholics, of course, in manipulating emotions through architecture. They learned long ago that modulating space on a grandiose scale induces awe.

Across the river at the Cathedral of St. Paul, manipulation of interior volume is more obviously thematic with a hypnotic repetition of circles, arcs, and domes. If anything, it is even more spectacular than its sister in Minneapolis. The ambulatory unfolds with a stunning series of chapels, resplendent with monumental statues and some of the richest marble floor designs found anywhere. All culminates in a magnificent dome full center in the space.  Here the main upward thrust is over the nave, not the altar (though the altar is celebrated by a baldachin that rivals the Vatican's). The effect is uplifting - the spirit soars with the crescendo of the architecture. Man seems exalted - a theater-in-the round with the audience in the middle, blessed by glorious light.
6. The great dome over the nave of St. Paul's Cathedral.
7. Rose window at St. Paul's.
8. Central dome over the nave; secondary apse over the alter at St. Paul's. 
9. The benediction of heavenly light.
10. Space unfolding. 
11. Exterior, St. Paul's Cathedral in St. Paul.
12. Floor plan, St. Paul's.
The tale of two architectures at Minneapolis and St. Paul is a story of one architect squeezing as much theatrical energy out of classical forms as is humanly possible. Both are worthy of visits the next time you venture near the Twin Cities.

1-11. MJK
12. Minneapolis Star Tribune