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A Basilica Carved Wood Nativity

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The predella of the altar of the Blessed Virgin of St. Francis Xavier Basilica, Dyersville, Iowa, is adorned by polychrome wood carvings of the Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, and the Finding of the boy Jesus at the Temple.
A testament to faith and art — a magnificent Gothic Basilica set amidst the corn fields of Iowa

One expects to see cornfields and rolling hills in Iowa — but a Basilica?

Yet, that's what the small sign on Highway 20 said: "Basilica, 4 miles." I had traveled 2,375 miles on an assignment that took me from the Midwest to the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains. But, this time, my schedule did not allow for church and Nativity scouting. I had high hopes, however, that, during a stop at what is billed as "America's largest house," in Ashville, North Carolina, I would surely find photographic riches for these pages.

But I was disappointed: Biltmore does not allow photography. Partly, I'm sure, to prevent all those tourist camera flashes from ruining their fabulous collection of tapestries. The only flash going off, in fact, belongs to their official photographer who snaps tourists with the indoor soaring, octagonal conservatory as a backdrop. It takes almost 2,000 people to run the place, so who can blame their "No photography" policy that happens to augment the $50 entrance fee?

So I sling my five-pound camera-and-telephoto over my shoulder, and join the throngs making their way through the palatial maze that is the Vanderbilt chateau. As I round a corner, sweet pipe organ music reaches my ears. I'm drawn to it, and find myself in a cavernous, four-stories high formal dining room, complete with three giant fireplaces and, high above in a mezzanine, a pipe organ.

I linger there for sometime, but no matter how much I crane my neck backwards, I don't see the organist. I ask a guard if the the control console is in another room, and she says, "No, the organ is playing automatically." Two-thousand workers, and no organist? I wonder what our friend, pipe organ virtuoso François Debreuille would make of that.

Organ music still echoes in my ears on my drive west. I cross the Mississippi, see the Basilica sign, and reach tiny Dyersville, Iowa. And there it is, the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier, its twin spires — over 210 feet high — reaching for the sky.

Its sturdy red-brick exterior gives no hint what I'm about to see once I walk through the new, handicapped-accessible south entrance: a profusion of slender blue-and-white columns, made of clusters of shafts, crowned by leaf capitals that support graceful rib vaults that form an arched, vaulted ceiling.

Decorative bands encircle the Basilica, and passion flowers, dogwood blossoms, Easter lilies, wheat flowers, and grapevines are in abundance.

The slender windows and columns and the painted ceiling high above draw the eyes — and the spirit — upwards.

Noah's Ark — and the dove of hope — in one of the Basilica's superb 64 stained glass windows. 
The stained glass windows are topped with foils — one features Noah's Arc, floating on the Flood, and a dove with an olive branch — and as I walk the center aisle I study each one — there are 64! — looking for a depiction of the Nativity. When, standing in front of the altar, I spot The Adoration of The Magi in one of the stained glass windows of the apse, I start to shoot.

I'm so into my picture taking I almost don't hear a gentleman in yellow shirt and glasses approach. "Welcome," he says, pleasantly. "Would you like to hear about the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier?" He's John F. E. Steger, and he tells me he has attended this church since he was a boy.

"You've lived here all your life," I ask. "How do you feel being in this glorious Basilica?"

"If feels like opening a prayer book," John says, "because all the beautiful decoration we see is not there to make the church look fancy. Its purpose is to raise your mind to prayer."

The Basilica is like a prayer book — the richly illuminated kind. And, just like those beautiful illuminated manuscripts, you see the glint of gold — and silver — leaf: on the ornate capitals of the columns; the lace tracery that is the many-pinnacled altar; on the ribs of the vaults so high above.

"The cornerstone of St. Francis Xavier was laid in 1888," John says, "and built to seat 1,200 people. Today we have about 5,000 parishioners; the Dyersville population is 4,000.

"The church was proclaimed a Basilica by Pope Pius XII in 1956." John smiles, then says, "We received a bull from Rome — not the animal, it was a document — basically stating that this is a home-away-from-home for the Pope himself."

Former teacher John F.E. Steger, who has attended St. Xavier's since he was a boy, became my Basilica guide.
I find the Pope's proclamation in an informative brochure:

Sacred for its works of religion and renowned for the nobility of its structure is the Church of St. Francis Xacier in the Archdiocese of Dubuque… by virture of these letters we eleate in perpetuity te Chruch… situated in Dyersville, Iowa… to the dignity and honor of a Minor Basilica…

— Pope Pius XII, May 11, 1956

"Do you see the parasol, over there, the procession bell to our left?" John says. "And our coat of arms on the wall behind the pulpit? The all indicate this church's Basilica status."

Then, with a laugh, he adds, "We'd carry our coat of arms into battle — if we ever went to war with neighboring New Vienna.

"There are corn and wheat on the shield, because the original pioneers planted wheat and corn. During the 1870's and 1880's, wheat rust, the grasshopper, and the chinch bug devastated the wheat crops and the wheat farmers went broke. Corn did not suffer that same fate and so that is why we grow corn here now.

"The name Basilica is Roman, and was the place where the emperor would address the citizens: if your aqueduct was plugged, the emperor would dispatch a plumber to fix it."

John now points to a stone inlaid cross on the floor. "Would you like to walk on the floor of St. Peter's Basilica? When the late Father Petty was in Rome, they were installing the coat of arms of Pope John II in St. Peter's, and he brought those four marble pieces from the floor. "

I notice four bricks, high on the wall, above one of the side doors and John explains that, "In the year 1300, Pope Boniface VIII wanted to illustrate to the Christians of the world that Jesus had to die for us to get into heaven. He considered the courtyard of his Basilica to be the entire earth, and the Basilica to be heaven. He had one of the Basilica doors bricked from the threshold all the way up to the lintel. At the beginning of this ceremony, he literally took a sledge hammer and knocked that door down, and all of the people that were in the courtyard filed into the church. The meaning is that Jesus is the "door," through which we must pass for our salvation. That one reaches heaven through Him.

Acanthus leaves and gold leaf decorate the capitals of the Basilica’s slender columns. 
The temple as sanctuary has its roots in antiquity, and John's story illustrates the church as metaphysical sanctuary.

"The Church decided to re-enact that ceremony every year divisible by 25, which is, by definition, a Holy Year. Since that time, there have been erected four Major Basilicas, each one having their own Holy Door. Here we have a brick from each one of those Holy Doors. This is the complete set from the year 1975. That reddish brick is from St. Peter's Holy Door, the one below to the right from St. John Lateran, the one below Saint Peter's is from St. Paul Outside the Walls, and the one across from it is from Saint Mary Major."

The name of Santa Maria Maggiore brings to mind my visit there to see what is believed to be the oldest crèche in the world, dated around 1289. That reminds me, and I wonder aloud: is there a Nativity in this Basilica?"

The Nativity

To my amazement — remember, I had been looking very carefully — John says, "Yes," and begins walking toward the left aisle. "Let me turn on some lights," he says. "Here it is."

He's pointing to the altar of the Blessed Virgin that soars 35 feet high and features statues, icons from the life of the Virgin Mary, and, in five niches of its predella, a beautifully carved, painted, and gold-leafed wood Nativity (see photo at left and top of page).

The Nativity, the Annunciation, Visitation, Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, and the Finding of the boy Jesus at the Temple — what in the Catholic Faith are known as the Joyful Mysteries — are found in six niches the predella of the altar, framed by gold leaf ornamentation and silver-leaf column scrolls.

But, even with the lights on, it's so dark down here next to the floor. Even at 1600 ASA (film speed, that now denotes an electronic sensor's sensitivity to light) shooting at a super-slow fifteenth of a second I doubt if I can get any photos to share with you.

"Is there a portable light?" I ask, and John dashes into a side room where women are busy ironing altar cloths. He comes back with a utility light and volunteers to light the predella while I shoot. (You can spot him doing so in the video.)

I have to literally get on my hands and knees to shoot the carved scenes that are so close to the floor. But John's illumination makes all the difference, and I spend the next half-hour shooting the carved Nativity and Joyful Mysteries scenes.

A graceful Gothic, gold-leafe arch houses a polychrome wood carved Nativity at the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier. 
I see all these photos in my iView Media Pro browser, but I don't really recall shooting them, because I was under a spell. Was it the unexpected discovery of these carved reliefs? Their surprise location? The uplifting effect this church has on the soul? And let me not forget to mention the kindness of my guide-cum-photo assistant.

"Is the light OK?"

John's voice brings me back from my reverie. The light from the utility lamp casts just enough lumens that make the gold leaf sparkle, and bathes the softly-colored figures in a golden glow. A Gothic arch supported by two silver-leafed pillars and a gold-leafed trellis of flowers and leaves frames the Nativity. A golden Star of Bethlehem shines down upon a stone manger whose twin arches are supported by a single central column. The ox and the ass are shown behind it, and two angels hover above it, holding a "Gloria in Excelsis Deo!" banner.

The Holy Family is carved in three dimensions: Mary, in a blue cloak and red dress is kneeling, hand clasped in prayer. Joseph stands to the right, his raised hands held protectively over the Baby's head. Jesus lies in his manger, swaddled in white, and a white dove is busy picking seeds off the stone floor.

You'll see the Nativity and the other panels in the video that I created just for you. And, since all the time I was in the Basilica I imagined what it would be like to hear its organ. John says, "It sounds magnificent, and good organist can really blow the moss out of those pipes." So the video had to have an organ music accompaniment, and I found the perfect piece in Dieterich Buxtehude's Ciaconna in E-moll, BuxWV 160 for organ.

If you're like me, you probably have to play the video a second time — not to just enjoy the beautiful Basilica of St. Francis Xavier and its Nativity and Joyful Mysteries, but also Buxtehude's haunting music.

Eight Choirs of Renaissance angels

"Oh, Come Let us Adore Him!", one of the Eight Choirs of Angels painted by artists Alphonse and Lottie Brielmaier in 1904-1905. 
Eight Choirs of Angels

High above the floor, on the vaulted ceiling, brother and sister artists Alphonse and Lottie Brielmaier of Milwaukee painted, in 1904-1905, eight Renaissance angels.

In flowing robes and playing musical instruments, the angels were inspired by Fra Angelico (Brother Angel) who, in 1436, entered the monastery of St. Marco in Florence — and set about to adorn the monastery, including all the cells, with devotional art.

The Basilica's Choir of Angels was inspired by Fra Angelico's Linaioli Tabernacle (created for The Linaioli, the Guild of the Flax Makers), and includes twelve angels playing different musical instruments.

The Basilica angels are accompanied by phrases, in Latin, proclaiming the Faith: Venite Adoremus (Oh, Come Let Us Adore Him, image at left); Pax Vobiscum! (Peace Be Unto You!); Te Deum Laudamus! (Praise the Lord!); Gloria in Excelsis! (Glory to God in the Highest!); and Alleluja!, which, even without the two "H's" needs no introduction.

Creating a Basilica video

So guess what I did all those nights in all those hotel rooms all through Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee? I tried to figure out a way to present these beautiful angels to you at eye level, so to speak: you won't have to crane to appreciate their beauty.

I accomplished this by cutting and pasting, as Louis Dause used to do, but I did my cutting on my Mac Powerbook in Photoshop, the image-manipulation program, and my pasting in Final Cut Pro, the great video editor.

First I had to use Photoshop's transform tool to render the angels in their real proportions, because, shooting them from so far below, the lens distorted them since they are painted on a curved surface.

And it occured to me to present the resulting video in a frame which uses elements of the Basilica's superb wood carving (see top of page).

I hope you enjoy my handiwork as much as I did creating it.

And, if you're anywhere near Iowa, you'll have to stop at Dyersville.

I already have plans to go back soon — to experience the peace of the Basilica; light a candle in the memory of all those who created this masterpiece of church architecture and symbol of faith amidst the corn fields; and meet Father Phillip F. Kruse, Pastor of the Basilica, and invite him to a thank-you lunch with John F. E. Steger.

Basilica of St. Francis Xavier, 104 3rd Street SW, Dyersville, IA 52040.
Rev. Phillip F. Kruse, Pastor of the Basilica and the Pastoral Staff and parishioners of St. Francis Xavier welcome visitors. Open daily; group tours available by appointment: 563.875.7325

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