The second major renovation of the Church of Saint Mary occurred after a devastating church fire that resulted from a lightning strike in 1929. The current interior ceiling height of nearly 70 feet above the finished floor is actually much lower than it was in the original church, due to the damage that resulted from the fire.
The most decorative areas of the ceiling appear above the Sanctuary. Using quadripartite vaulting, the ceiling is broken into ribs that terminate in vault shafts decorated with terminus corbels. The terminus of the ceiling ribs have decorative bosses which present as gilded polychrome with acanthus leaf designs.
Subsequent renovations changed the ceiling designs, undertaken in the 1940s to mark the Sesquicentennial (150th) Anniversary of the Parish foundation. Between the 1950s and the 1960s, major changes occurred in the sanctuary with the removal of the large canopy and red dossal behind the Crucifix. Some of these changes impacted the ceilings. In the 1980s and 1990s, additional renovations occurred due to restoration and ceiling damage, along with the addition of new lighting fixtures. As recently as 2016, damage from the HVAC condensers caused ceiling damage to the borders surrounding the paintings, but this damage was quickly repaired.
In August of 2011, a highly unusual earthquake struck in the Commonwealth of Virginia, causing serious structural damage to many brick structures in the Old and Historic District of Alexandria. Bricks from the parapet wall above the 1881 skylight shattered the glass, crashing onto the right arm of the Corpus of Our Blessed Lord on the Cross below, and damaging some of the marble floor tile. By the grace of God, the historic altar and tabernacle were spared any damage. Local artisans and craftsmen were able to execute the repairs before more damage resulted. The ancestors of the Feulner family that donated the skylight in 1881 also donated the funds for the 2011 repairs.
Above the Sanctuary in 1881, the ceiling construction presents as a neo-Gothic quadripartite rib vaults with decorative bosses and corbels at the terminus points. Gilded with gold leaf background and rendered in blue and white decorative paint, the many stars of the ceiling design represent the “Window into Heaven” where Our Lady reigns as Queen of Angels, Queen of Apostles, and Queen of the Church. As the “Stella Maris” or “Star of the Sea” the Blessed Virgin Mary was the natural patroness of the Mother Parish of the Commonwealth and the port city Alexandria. As the North Star guides ships to a safe port in a storm, so Our Blessed Mother guides Christians safely to their heavenly home. The entire construct of the ceiling represents the sacred nature of the space in which the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass has been offered for nearly 200 years without interruption.
Above the Sanctuary is a decorative painting of the Holy Spirit, appearing as a dove with a background of emblazoned gold. The location of the image directly above the altar corresponds to the action of the Spirit present at every offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Here the priest confects the Most Blessed Sacrament, making present on the Altar the Sacred Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, the Holy Spirit, present at the Incarnation of Our Blessed Lord, overshadows the Altar of Sacrifice in the same way.
Located directly above the Crucifix, the Altar of Reposition and the Tabernacle, the skylight was a gift of the Feulner family. According to an 1881 article published in The Alexandria Gazette about the church renovations under the local architect, Philip N. Dwyer, the skylight was newly installed, along with the decorative ceiling. The skylight consists of an intricately designed large rectangular skylight, measuring to approximately the same size of the current Altar of Reservation. This skylight depicts the “Lamb of God” triumphant, shown standing upright with a “Cross Buttony” and banner. The Cross Buttony appears elsewhere throughout the church, and appears prominently in the Maryland state flag. Maryland was the first colony where Catholicism could be practiced. The Seven Seals described in the Book of Revelation appear beneath the Lamb.
Located directly above the Sanctuary, the image of the Most Holy Trinity was placed closest to the Sanctuary. As we know from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, where one Person of the Trinity is present (as Our Lord Jesus Christ is present on the Altar) there also are present the other Persons. This painting speaks to the Real Presence of the Son of God, upon our Altar and in our Tabernacle, for love of the people of God. The Sacraments administered through the authority and power of the Church bring the Most Holy Trinity to be present among us in the church. This painting is oriented in such a manner that the gures are best viewed from the East, as if they are presiding above the Altar. While the attribution of the painting is not certain, it is believed to have been executed by the Alexandria artist, F. S. Shuman.
During the renovations following the great re of 1929, the ceiling in the Nave of the church was decorated with three large paintings. The Alexandria artist F. S. Shu- man painted this version of “The Immaculate Conception,” after the original by Bartolome Estaban Murillo. Known as the “Walpole Immaculate Conception” Murillo painted this oil on canvas circa 1680. In the eighteenth-century, the painting became part of the collection of Sir Robert Walpole, Houghton Hall, England. The original is now housed in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. As with the painting of the Most Holy Trinity, this painting of the Patroness of the parish is also oriented to be viewed from the East, signifying her great perfection and unity of heart with the Triune God.
This painting depicts Jesus with Saint Joseph and the Blessed Virgin Mary, is located just above the Narthex, at the Royal Street entrance of the Church. The sense of the faithful has always held that Saint Joseph died in the arms of Jesus and Mary, and therefore is revered as the patron of a “happy death” (one in which the Sacraments have been provided). This painting greets the faithful upon entering the church from the South Royal Street entrance, and is best viewed from the West. While the attribution of the painting is not certain, its stylistic features appear to be similar to the Most Holy Trinity painting, believed to have been executed by the Alexandria artist, F. S. Shuman.
The Basilica of Saint Mary
310 South Royal Street
Alexandria, VA 22314
313 Duke Street
Alexandria, VA 22314
Monday-Friday: 9:00am – 7:30pm
Saturday: 9:00am – 4:00pm