Majestic Mosaics

The Knights of Columbus Incarnation Dome
at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

A gleaming, 3,800-square-foot mosaic was dedicated Nov. 17, 2007, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., which is the United States’ preeminent Marian Shrine and its largest Catholic church. In celebration of the Knights of Columbus’ 125th anniversary that year, the organization’s board of directors pledged $1 million toward the creation of the mosaic, to decorate the south dome in the nave of the Basilica’s Great Upper Church.  Fourth Degree Knights accepted the challenge to raise $500,000—half of the organization’s commitment to the project. 

When announcing the gift, Msgr. Walter R. Rossi, rector of the Basilica, noted that “the association of the National Shrine with the Knights of Columbus is as old as the Shrine itself.  Since the laying of the Shrine’s cornerstone in 1920, the Knights of Columbus have made the National Shrine part of their own apostolate of strengthening and supporting the Church in the United States. Through tangible gifts such as the Knights Tower, the Ushers Program and now the Incarnation Dome, the Knights of Columbus show forth their dedication to this patronal church of the United States and their devotion to the Mother of God.” In recognition of the organization’s gift, the work was named “The Knights of Columbus Incarnation Dome.”

Mosaic art dates to 2,000 BC and it was used commonly in the Greek Empire and throughout Byzantium. To create mosaics, artists cluster small glass tiles, called tesserae, usually backed with gold leaf. The tile arrangements of different colors depict images and are set in an ungrouted fashion, often at slight or uneven angles to reflect and refract light.

Early Christians used mosaics extensively, yet the tradition has not continued universally. Unlike modern depictions of art, which are primarily on walls, mosaic art was used on ceilings and floors as well. The National Shrine has a byzantine character in both art and architecture. Mosaic art is used widely throughout the church, with an eye toward tradition but with a distinctly American quality as well.

The Knights of Columbus Incarnation Dome, which was designed, fabricated and installed over an 18-month period, depicts the Incarnation—or manifestation—of Jesus through the rendering of four New Testament scenes: the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Wedding Feast at Cana and the Transfiguration. The pendentives, or corners, depict Old Testament Prophets who wrote of the manifestation of the Messiah.

Artistic supervision for the project was provided by Rambusch Studios, based in New York City, which designed, developed and coordinated fabrication of the project.  The principal artist was Leandro Velasco.  Over 2.4 million tiles (tesserae ), in more than 1,000 colors were assembled by Travisanutto Mosaics SRL of Spilimbergo, Italy.  Thousands of sections of completed mosaics were installed like a giant jigsaw puzzle by a team of six artisans, led by Stephen Miotto and Matteo Randi, under the direction of the project’s general contractor, Rugo Stone LLC of Virginia.

This exhibition, now showing, includes photographs, design elements, mosaic tiles, artisans’ tools and a full-scale model, in mosaic, of the head of Christ represented in the finished dome.