Modern-day miracle in the Basilica
This past May, my father and I were fortunate enough to take three weeks to travel the British Isles; one week in Scotland, one week in Ireland, and one week in Northern Ireland (yes, they are different countries and yes, it is complicated). If you have traveled to Europe before, I am sure you have been taken aback by its age, architecture, and aura. I spent much time going to old castles, looking up at old stone buildings, looking down at old tile floors, and looking out the car window toward endless dry-stack stone walls. And trust me, there are plenty of poorly-executed commercial projects as we see here in the States (the Guiness factory bathrooms being the most disappointing). But that was not the case in the breathtaking experience at the Knock Shrine and Basilica.
Our trip to the Basilica of Our Lady, Queen of Ireland was happenstance. Driving from Galway to (London) Derry on the west coast of the island, I noticed an exit/attraction sign with a giant building on it. Being a castle geek, I asked my father if we could pull off the freeway to scope it out. Fortunately, he obliged. It appeared like another small Irish town, until you approach the property. Once I learned about the story behind the Basilica, the old Parish Church, and The Apparition, it makes sense how impressive this all was. I had to Google search before I entered the building to make sense of it all.
On August 21st, 1879, 15 people laid witness to Our Lady, St. John the Evangelist, St. Joseph, the Eucharistic Lamb standing in front of the cross at an altar, surrounded by angels. It is said the apparition lasted around two hours, and was later corroborated by the Catholic Church. The site became a pilgrimage for Catholics, an estimated 1.5 million per year. A new church was built in 1976 – the one I witnessed this year. Pope John Paul II visited and upgraded the church to basilica in 1979. He gifted the basilica with a Golden Rose.
We stopped into the old Parish, which had a beautiful white Carrera marble statuary where the apparition was said to occur. It was quite an eerie feeling, and deafeningly quiet. Then we took the short walk to the basilica, which was the main event.
As soon as you walk into the Knock Basilica, you can tell that it was built with extreme care. A short hallway with a painted glass mural leads into the magnificent nave – actually, there are several hallways and entrances since it is a 12-sided room. At the center of the nave is a round altar, beautifully tiled with a round mosaic inlay in the middle. Then, I turned around and looked up.
At first I thought that I was seeing a painting; but since I could not take my eyes away, I realized it was a mosaic. At 46’ (15 meters) tall, and 46’ wide, it is one of the largest mosaics of its kind in Europe. It was designed by Irish artist and illustrator PJ Lynch. The mosaic was crafted and installed by Travisanutto Mosaics in Spilimbergo, Italy. Over 1.5 million glass and marble tesserae complete the artwork. It was assembled in Italy, and transported by trailers to Ireland to be installed.
The artwork was part of an 18-month restoration project at the cathedral, with the installation completed in 2016. The general contractor of the project was Stewart, Co. from Galway.
Being a tile installer, with a dash of artisan, this artwork was so impressive. Not only was it extremely well designed, but also well executed. Designing, creating, delivering, and installing this massive piece must have been quite the operation. I wouldn’t be able to find a table or floor large (or flat) enough to lay this out on! I have made patterns out of mosaic, re-boxed it in a sensible manner, to have it installed in the next room over. But I did not have to pack it for international travel: since Ireland is an island, it took a rough ride one way or another.
The installers, I assume, did not have to deal with the lighting issues that some of us see day in and day out! It appears immaculately flat, which is why I mistook it for a painting at first sight. The Knock Shrine Facebook page has a great video showing the installation of the mosaic as well as the layout and installation of the altar stone. View it here: https://bit.ly/3fRvmJC.
The quality of work in the Knock Basilica was top-notch. I have never seen anything like it; all of the stone in the nave was caulked, not pointed. There were individual mosaics of the Twelve Apostles in each seating section, which got overshadowed by the main work behind the altar. Other mosaics are found throughout the campus, as well as stained glass, paintings, and sculptures.
As an Irish-Italian-American, raised in a Catholic family, this was quite the experience. We can argue if The Apparition really happened or not, but we cannot disagree that the Knock Shrine Mosaic is one of the most impressive pieces of art from the 21st century. It is clear that extensive care was put into the construction and restoration of this building. The piece is a relic of classic Romanesque-style mosaics that are still being discovered all over the world. The design, creation, and installation were so well executed, there is no denying that immense pride and care went into this. Since the majority of the Irish and Italians are Roman Catholic, I can only imagine that these modern-day workers took enormous pride in their work. They both have a reputation for also being quality masons (no bias here!). I have visited Ancient Pompeii, have witnessed their ruins, and their preservation. I am confident that mankind will not allow this art, the Knock Shrine Mosaic, to be lost in history.