CHAPTER 4: SHRINE ARCHITECTURE
“What is St. Anne’s architectural style?” Those associated with St. Anne hear this question all the time. The easy answer: both Romanesque and Byzantine.
But this would be simplifying things. Architect Napoleon Bourassa often described his style as “eclectic,” borrowing from the rich traditions of the buildings he saw during his three voyages to Europe (including his extended stay between 1852 and 1855 to study the masterworks of France and Italy). As he often said, art is archaeology. It’s a process that digs into the past to find ideas that can still speak to the present. Bourassa also introduced additional elements – not always historical – that he was especially fond of and that are echoed in his other architectural efforts.
Most astonishing of all: Bourassa apparently had no formal training in architecture. Certainly the notes and sketches he made during his extended stay in Europe contain many architectural references and details. But, at least in his early years, he thought of himself as a teacher and painter, especially of portraits. Indeed, his portraits are perhaps the most accomplished of all his works.
THE ROMANESQUE STYLE: A LITTLE HISTORY
To fully understand St. Anne’s architectural styles, it’s important to go back to its roots. That’s especially true of the Romanesque style.
Around the time of Christ, the power of the Roman Empire was reaching its peak. Rome’s territories stretched across Europe, into the Middle East and across North Africa, encircling the Mediterranean (which the Romans confidently referred to as “our sea.”)
To serve their fast-growing, far-flung empire, the Romans became master builders. Their road systems, temples, arenas, theaters, aqueducts, and public buildings were so well constructed that some of these structures are still in use today.
In 313 AD, Roman Emperor Constantine I issued the Edict of Milan, which gave Christians the right to practice their faith openly. In 380 Christianity became the empire’s official religion. As a result, many “pagan” temples and public buildings were transformed into Christian churches. A prime example is Rome’s Pantheon, whose structure remains almost exactly the same as it did in 128 AD when it was completed. Its transformation from a “pagan” temple into a Christian church is one of the reasons why it remains intact today: early on, it went from being an artifact of the villainous Roman Empire to a testament to Christian virtues.
The favored type of Roman structure for conversion to Christian use was the basilica. Basilicas were multipurpose buildings that the Romans had used as assembly halls, marketplaces or courts of law. Rectangular in shape, a basilica generally featured a central nave (the main central “corridor” of the building), flanked by parallel columns and side aisles. Usually at the far end of the nave was a hemispheric structure called an apse. For Christians, basilicas were especially attractive to convert because they were “untainted” by Roman religious practices. (In modern times, a basilica refers to a church that the Pope has singled out and accorded special privileges.)
For nearly a thousand years, the Roman basilica remained the favored style for newly-built churches. Their simple rectangular shape made them easy and inexpensive to construct. Eventually, many of the more complex architectural techniques of Roman builders were forgotten and lost. To build, say, a dome or an aqueduct, seemed a distant, lost art, practiced by pagans.
In the 11th and 12th centuries, this attitude changed. Architects of that era were inquisitive and ambitious. They wanted to rediscover and apply the lost “secrets” of Roman construction so they could erect larger and more complex churches, the kind that would fully reflect God’s glory. They reexamined ancient Rome’s building methods, adding a few ideas of their own. The result was what later art historians would call the Romanesque (“like Rome”) period. It influenced architecture for many hundreds of years until the Gothic style took hold. To this day, many buildings – both religious and secular – incorporate Romanesque elements: rounded arches, shallow exterior buttresses/exterior sculptures and deeply set, relatively small windows.
One specialized type of Romanesque structure was the “pilgrim church.” In medieval times, it was common for ordinary people to travel hundreds or even thousands of miles to view the relics of Catholic saints and other important figures in Christian history. In fact, this was just about the only way – other than war – that a commoner would be allowed to set work aside and take a long trip. Vacations as we know them today were inconceivable, an experience only the wealthy could afford.
The most popular and revered European destination for religious travel was Santiago de Compostela, in northwestern Spain. The four main routes that pilgrims followed to Santiago all crossed France. Many large churches had been built along these routes to enhance the “itinerary” of these pilgrims. (It’s estimated that in any given year, 500,000 people crossed France for religious purposes.)
To accommodate them, pilgrim churches were exceptionally large. Those in France often featured an apse (where the sanctuary and its altar were) encircled by an ambulatory (an aisle that curved around the sanctuary). Usually five smaller chapels extended out from the ambulatory.
The ambulatory and its chapels permitted pilgrims to pray at the “side” chapels of individual saints and to view the main altar and sanctuary up close, without disturbing Mass. These chapels also allowed priests who were not scheduled for the main altar or who were just passing through to fulfill their requirement to say Mass daily.
Most Romanesque churches also featured the transepts discussed earlier. They’re the “arms” that cross the nave at right angles, creating a cross-shaped floor plan, or “cruciform.”
In the mid-12th century, the Romanesque style took a secondary place to the pointed arches, vast stained-glass windows, ribbed ceiling vaults and “flying” buttresses of Gothic churches. The Romanesque style returned and flourished in the 19th century, though, at precisely the time that St. Anne parish decided to build its very own “pilgrim church.”
THE ROMANESQUE STYLE OF ST. ANNE
In selecting Napoleon Bourassa to design their church, the Dominicans chose someone very much acquainted with the Romanesque Revival. His Notre-Dame de Lourdes in Montreal, built earlier, was clearly inspired by Romanesque principles.
So, too, is St. Anne. Rounded arches cap most of its windows, while huge ones span the indoor area where the nave and transepts meet. Many smaller ones arch over the statues that line the nave of St. Anne and rounded corbels support the facade and tower eaves.
As with the ancient pilgrim churches, a large ambulatory, with five projecting chapels, encircle the sanctuary, both in the upper church and the lower basement shrine. Both have intricately carved wooden ceilings, a hallmark of every Romanesque church. (St. Anne’s ceilings and pews are made, in part, of red oak.)
Shallow buttresses support the exterior’s north and south sides. Unlike later Gothic structures, whose vertical lines draw the eye upward, Romanesque churches emphasize horizontal elements, often dividing the composition into three tiers or “layers.” This is precisely what both the exterior and interior designs of St. Anne’s feature.
By incorporating gray marble, both inside (for the wainscoting and some of the pillars) and outside (virtually the entire building is made of the long-sought bluish-gray marble), St. Anne reflects its Roman and Romanesque roots. The stone’s pale color also lightens the “heaviness” that Romanesque Revival buildings often have. The exterior marble used at St. Anne, whose building blocks are intricately arranged into seemingly random patterns, is of a fine grain, which prevents it from accumulating dirt and soot. The church’s exterior probably looks almost the same today as it did in 1906. (Because its exterior stones aren’t polished, most people don’t realize that the church is built of marble.)
One of the most striking features of St. Anne is its gallery of large statues that line the interior. Bourassa was a great fan of sculpture and many of his students went on to specialize in sculpting. One of them, Louis-Philippe Hebert, became Canada’s greatest sculptor. Hebert’s student, Joseph Olindo Gratton, was also very well known. Gratton’s most famous work was the collection of statues that grace the facade of Montreal’s Mary Queen of the World Cathedral, a scaled-down replica of St. Peter’s in Rome. It’s almost certain that he was the sculptor for the statues in St. Anne.
The statues above and around the sanctuary portray Christ’s 12 apostles, along with St. Paul, St. Augustine, and St. Joachim (St. Anne’s husband). Those along the nave depict a “communion” of saints who are especially revered by French Canadians or played an important role in the history of the Dominican Order. Smaller statues of angels overlook the saints.
An arcade of statues like this is rare in Romanesque Revival structures. However it was rather common in ancient Roman architecture, with arcades of statues of gods, goddesses, and heroic people standing beneath rounded arches. A good example is Rome’s legendary Colosseum, where many dozens of statues once stood under the stadium’s exterior arches.
Bourassa was not, however, locked into the principles and practices of either ancient Rome or of the 11th- and 12th-century Romanesque period. He was well aware of the 19th-century reinterpretation and revival of Romanesque principles, too. By alternating rough-textured and smoother stones on the church’s exterior, for example, and by deeply recessing many of its windows while capping them with crescents of stones, the architect shows that he was very much a part of the Romanesque Revival.
Bourassa also very successfully addressed the issue of interior light. He used translucent windows with lightly applied colored elements to fill the main church and basement interiors with filtered natural light. (In the early 1960s, these were replaced by stained-glass panels.)
It appears that when construction of St. Anne resumed in 1902, Bourassa was called upon to adjust his plans to include electric lighting. This was a huge challenge to architects of his day, who sought ways to integrate artificial lighting and its accompanying wiring into their artistic scheme. Light bulbs were installed in St. Anne’s rafter supports, the arch above the sanctuary, the cornices above the statue galleries and the slabs of stone above each pillar. (Some of these pillar slabs featured lights shaped into a peculiar figure eight pattern. Might this be an “infinity” reference to the eternity of afterlife? The historical documents say nothing about it.) Even some of the towers’ exterior features were lit for special occasions.
ST. ANNE’S BYZANTINE ELEMENTS
Perhaps it was a coincidence; perhaps it is one reason why Father Sauval hired Bourassa, an architect who typically incorporated Byzantine elements into his Romanesque works. Whatever the case, Byzantine architecture was the right historical choice for St. Anne Church. Before explaining why, let’s take a brief tangent into what Byzantine architecture is and why it developed.
In 330 AD, Constantine relocated the capital of the Roman Empire to the city of Byzantium. (It was renamed Constantinople; today it’s Istanbul, Turkey.) It was natural that at this crossroads of Eastern and Western cultures would be born a new style that blended Romanesque with Asian and Middle Eastern influences. The result was Byzantine architecture.
Which Byzantine elements does St. Anne exhibit? Domes, for one. Domes cover side-chapel exteriors. Bold, copper-sheathed domes cap the tops of st. Anne’s two 155 foot tall bell towers. They are unique, almost strange in appearance.
They are not, however, “onion domes” as some have labeled them. (Onion domes are the bulbous, curving structures that top Russian churches, many Islamic mosques and the Taj Mahal.) St. Anne’s towers also feature eight “mini domes” about 20 feet below the two larger ones.
Another convention of Byzantine churches (especially those in western Europe): their main entrance faces west, while the sanctuary is at the east end of the church, pointing toward Jerusalem. (Eventually churches in other architectural styles adopted this tradition.) Perhaps it was a happy coincidence that Father Sauval bought a piece of land whose shape lent itself to a church with a west-facing entrance. Almost surely he knew about this tradition and perhaps factored it in when he purchased the land.
Even better, St. Anne fronts on South Park, with the Taunton River beyond. The park was designed by the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted. Olmsted had long been America’s leading landscape artist. His company designed, among others, Montreal’s Mt. Royal Park, New York’s Central Park, Washington DC’s Capitol Grounds and the park that surrounds the American side of Niagara Falls. To leave St. Anne church through the front doors and face a setting sun over this venerable, historic park is still a very special experience.
The church’s interior likewise includes many Byzantine touches. The top sections (called the “capital”) of St. Anne’s pillars feature a Corinthian design, which was common to Roman and Romanesque buildings. Corinthian capitals typically feature leaves, flowers and vine-like patterns. The leaves depicted were often those of the acanthus shrub, which is precisely what Bourassa chose to top St. Anne’s columns with. There’s one variation, however, at St. Anne: the “foliage” is interlaced with geometric, stick-like lines, a design element more common to Byzantine architecture and one that Bourassa used at Montebello as well.
Most experts believe that the most distinguishing trait of the Byzantine style is its use of mosaics. St. Anne has none. However, one of Bourassa’s early drawings seems to indicate that mosaics were indeed part of his original design. These may have been the most important decorations that Bourassa was forced to delete. These mosaics may have been replaced by stenciled designs that were applied onto most of St. Anne’s walls. (Such surface decorations were common to both Romanesque and, especially, Byzantine structures.) Or, more probably, both stenciled designs and mosaics were in Bourassa’s original plans. It might even be that he wished to cover the floor with mosaics.
The gold-highlighted stenciled shapes were painted over in the late 1950s-early ’60s remodel. A trace of them can still be seen through the paint on the walls near the choir loft and especially the stenciling that frames the four paintings that adorn the church’s transepts, where they were left undisturbed.
So why was Byzantine architecture an especially appropriate style for St. Anne? The answer requires us to explore a little bit of history.
Most Christians are surprised to discover that St. Anne, the mother of Mary and therefore Jesus’s grandmother, is not mentioned anywhere in the Bible. How did early Christians find out about her? She is indeed cited in apocryphal writings. (Apocrypha are very early Christian writings that were, for one reason or another, excluded from the New Testament. Early church authorities doubted their accuracy. It’s certainly possible, though, that some of their content is historically true.)
Many biblical scholars believe that Jesus’s mother Mary lived in Ephesus at least for a while and perhaps for the rest of her life. Ephesus had been an important site to the Greeks and, later, to the Romans, who visited its Temple of Diana to worship and make offerings. (The temple was one of the original Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.) Christianity took hold there early on and St. Paul preached there on several occasions. (His letters to the Ephesians are included in the New Testament.)
Ephesus, only a few hundred miles from Constantinople, continued to be a significant city in the Christian era, while Constantinople became a crucial and thriving crossroads for commerce. By the fifth century, it even developed its own architectural and artistic style, one inspired by both Eastern and Western traditions. It became known as the Byzantine style.
So what does this all have to do with St. Anne? If Mary did indeed live ln Ephesus, she almost surely would have shared stories with the Christian community there about her early life, including information about her mother.
Is this how Anne’s name became known? Perhaps Anne’s name and story were passed down as oral history, generation to generation, and spread to other parts of the Byzantine Empire. One thing is certain: the story and cult of St. Anne became significant enough that a fourth-century church in Constantinople was dedicated to her. Many other St. Anne churches were built in other Eastern Mediterranean cities as well.
So it’s thoroughly appropriate that Bourassa graced Fall River’s St. Anne Church with Byzantine architectural elements, for it was in the Eastern Mediterranean that Mary lived and where both the cult of St. Anne and the Byzantine style were born.
Around the eighth century, this veneration for St. Anne spread into Western Europe and continued for many hundreds of years. A popular 13th-century book, The Golden Legend, gave it even greater momentum. And in the 17th century, St. Anne d’Auray, a church in Brittany, France, became an important shrine for pilgrims. (St. Anne is the patron saint of Brittany, from where many early French settlers in Canada originated.)
It was around this time that people from Brittany and Normandy crossed the Atlantic to settle Quebec. They brought their longstanding devotion to St. Anne with them, dedicating Canadian churches to her name and creating a new pilgrimage site at Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre, not unlike the one that they had left behind in d’Auray.
Would Fall River’s St. Anne follow this pattern as French Canadians once again migrated to a new place? Would Fall River become the next de-Beaupre or d’Auray? The pastors of St. Anne hoped so. And if this indeed occurred, pilgrims would experience a St. Anne that represented an appropriate blend of Byzantine and Romanesque influences, one that boldly refers back to the historical, Byzantine region where the veneration for Anne took root.
St. Anne Church, though, may reflect a few additional artistic styles. Let’s consider that possibility.
Napoleon Bourassa insisted that great art was firmly rooted in long-accepted historical and religious traditions. “Modern” architecture usually failed to impress him. As a result, innovation rarely surfaced in his work. Almost certainty, though, Bourassa was aware of other styles that had emerged in his own time. One of these was Art Nouveau.
Art Nouveau first appeared in France in the late-19th century. Curved lines, floral designs, and geometric patterns marked its approach. Such elements also characterize much of St. Anne’s architectural appearance. Art Nouveau was born around the time that Bourassa drew up his designs for St. Anne. During his last visit to Paris (1888-89), he may have taken note of this just-emerging art movement.
It’s therefore possible that he intentionally introduced a few elements of Art Nouveau into his work, especially those that overlap the Byzantine style. A few small objects that Bourassa created around 1900 were clearly inspired by Art Nouveau, so he certainly knew about it. But is there any evidence of Art Nouveau in St. Anne? Possibly. One telling example: Peacocks were an extremely common motif in Art Nouveau, perhaps the most common motif. If you look up at the rectangular friezes just below the church’s top windows, there they are, carved into the design: peacocks.
Maybe Bourassa was a little more open to contemporary art – or at least certain elements of contemporary art – than most people realize. At the very least, some of St. Anne’s design can perhaps be viewed as a precursor to Art Nouveau.
St. Anne also features elements that are Bourassa’s own. He seemed especially fond of diamond or triangular shapes, not only at St. Anne but at other structures he designed. Two diamond-shaped windows flank the facade’s small, round window and triangles cap many other windows. A triangular shape appears over the main entrance door and, far above, as a triangle-topped pediment. Inside, the lower pillars are connected at their tops by triangular shapes, as are those in the basement shrine.
And what of the towers’ peculiar domes? They vaguely resemble the domes that topped certain late-19th-century buildings, like Philadelphia’s City Hall, the central towers of some of Fall River’s mills, and even Fall River’s original City Hall. But there may be another explanation.
At the time of Bourassa’s 1888-89 visit to France, rumors of a new, clever art object, the Faberge egg, were circulating in Europe. First designed in 1885 for Russia’s tsar, a Faberge egg is a sort of precious, intricate version of the Easter egg. These art objects were sometimes decorated with a scalloped design. St. Anne’s original copper domes were also scalloped. And a Faberge egg is usually set in an intricate supporting “nest,” sometimes decorated with small circular medallions. So were St. Anne’s tower domes. (During the 1950s-60s remodel, these medallions were removed, as was the dome’s scalloped surface, and replaced with a simpler design.)
Could it be that St. Anne’s unusual tower domes are based on Faberge eggs? Perhaps. Here’s another clue. In art, the egg shape is often associated with birth. And the pivotal fact in St. Anne’s life is that she gave birth to Mary. A Faberge egg dome would be cleverly appropriate for a church dedicated to St. Anne.
Granted, this interpretation is certainly a stretch, even farfetched. Probably it’s all a complicated coincidence. Then again, it’s plausible that Bourassa, scholarly and devout, could very well have understood and applied these “hidden” allusions into St. Anne’s design. If he did, it was an apt choice.
It’s valid to try to interpret what Bourassa had in mind as he designed St. Anne. But it’s misleading to think that St. Anne Church was built exclusively to his vision. Almost surely supervising engineer and architect Louis Destremps contributed ideas to its final form, as did Bourassa’s assistants and, of course, the Dominicans. Cost considerations dictated many alterations and artistic ones influenced others.
Ultimately, the creators of St. Anne are the thousands of parishioners who helped pay for this magnificent structure and who, in some cases, were the carpenters, stone smiths, and other laborers who built it. Without their pride, faith, and enterprise, St. Anne Church would not exist.