Saturday, May 13, 2023

Architectural Reflections on the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima

Basilica of the Rosary, Fatima Shrine

Today, May 13, is the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima. I recently had the privilege of visiting the shrine in Portugal, a large complex of several buildings formally known as the Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Rosary of Fatima. The most touching aspect of the space is the piety of the pilgrims who flock there to honor the Mother of God and the three little shepherds who saw her. But the architecture is also difficult to ignore. In particular, I was struck by a dichotomy between the message of Fatima--especially the prediction that Russia would spread her errors around the world--and the shrine's own artistic statements.

Chapel of the Apparitions
The three shepherds (Sr. Lucia, St. Jacinta, and St. Francisco) had visions in several different locations, but the most important was at Cova da Iria (Peaceful Hollow), where a total of six Marian apparitions occurred, including the disclosure of the Three Secrets and the Miracle of the Sun. In that cove, Our Lady appeared on top of a young holm-oak tree no more than a meter high. Within a year of the last apparition (October 13, 2017), the local townsfolk built on the site a small, charming chapel in obedience to one of Our Lady's commands. Anti-clerical fanatics bombed the chapel in 1922 but it was quickly restored. The humble monument is now encased in a modernist glass and wooden structure that can be mistaken for a highway rest stop and surrounded by a sparse, postconciliar sanctuary where Mass is celebrated on a free-standing altar. The interior of the chapel is inaccessible to pilgrims.
Chapel of the Apparitions
First Basilica
A much grander fulfillment of Our Lady’s command to build a chapel in her honor is found not far away at the top of the hill, where the children were play-making a small stone wall when they saw the “lightning” that preceded the first Marian apparition on May 13, 1917. The neo-Baroque Basilica of the Rosary, which was begun in 1928 and completed in 1953, contains the tombs of Sr. Lucia, St. Jacinta, and St. Francisco as well as fifteen altars in honor of the mysteries of the rosary. The cruciform church has many virtuous elements, including: an imposing spire that is topped with the same crown that adorns the statue of Our Lady of Fatima; a façade with a statue of the Immaculate Heart of Mary donated by American Catholics; and a robust representation of Portuguese saints and saints associated with the rosary both inside the church and atop the surrounding colonnade.
Yet the basilica, in my opinion, lacks the marvelous blend of transcendence and intimacy that some other Portuguese churches have. The grey interior has a cold vibe to it, the stained glass windows smack of a modernist antipathy to form, and some of the paintings of the events of Fatima are, well, strange. Above the high altar is a scene where the Blessed Virgin sends Saint Gabriel to distribute Holy Communion to the three children. The artist’s depiction of Our Lady reminds me of the ghostly, floating female figure in Raiders of the Lost Ark before she turns into a terrifying harpy and melts the faces off Nazis.
High altar of the Basilica of the Rosary
Outside Altar
A little further down the hill in front of the Basilica of the Rosary is a covered sanctuary where the most populous Masses are celebrated. Except for a cross-less image of Jesus either rising from the dead or jumping off the high dive, there are no architectural or ornamental indications that this is a place of importance, nor is there any sacramental symbolism. To a Catholic, it looks like a sanctuary on Holy Thursday after the stripping of the altars; to a non-Christian, it might be taken for an outdoor pavilion with limited seating and only one table.
Outside Altar in Front of the Basilica of the Rosary
Second Basilica
The outdoor altar looks over a vast, barren plaza that would be perfect for a remake of Triumph of the Will or a Soviet parade celebrating their victory in Stalingrad. At the other end of the plaza is the second basilica. The Church of the Holy Trinity was dedicated in 2007, the 90th anniversary of the apparitions. According to one of the many tourist booklets on the subject:
Under the authority of the Greek architect Alexandros Tombazis, the church represents a bold design with its main structure partially underground….It is constructed in a circular shape of 125 square metres in diameter, void of any supporting columns.[1]
Bold indeed. Chesterton argues that while the circle is an excellent symbol for madness and for centripetal religions like Buddhism, the cross is the symbol “at once of mystery and of health” and, of course, the centrifugal religion that is Christianity.[2] Unsurprisingly, the traditional design of a church, both in the West and in Mr. Tombazis’ native Greece, is cruciform. We may also add that like Leninist ideology, the circle is anti-hierarchical and radically egalitarian—except for the center which, like a geometrical Politburo, reigns over an infinite number of nameless radii.
The boast about the church being “void of any supporting columns” is also noteworthy. Columns are “abstracted people” (the Doric is based on the proportions of a man and the Ionic on the proportions of a woman), and so the columns of a church building betoken the “pillars of the Church,” those who uphold the Body of Christ and promote its spiritual mission.[3] A church “void of columns” therefore implies a Church without hierarchy or heroes.
The Plaza, a large crucifix and, in the background, the Basilica of the Holy Trinity
Other Features
The shrine has one distinctive monument that credits the fall of Soviet communism to Our Lady of Fatima. Bordering the plaza is a piece of the Berlin Wall. After it fell in 1989, Portuguese workers residing in Berlin commandeered a section of the wall and donated it to the shrine. Outside the shrine, Hungarians grateful for the end of communism in their country had stations of the cross built along the path that the children used to tend their sheep and where they received several apparitions. To the victor go the spoils.
Section of the Berlin Wall, Fatima Shrine
Despite these important reminders of the evils of communism, the shrine as a whole—thanks in large part to the plaza and the second basilica—feels like a product of communism. There are stylistic differences between modernist and Soviet architecture, but they share a contempt for celestial hierarchy, beauty, and form. If one did not know the history of the twentieth century, one would have thought that Russia began to spread her errors in the very spot where Our Lady warned us about Russia spreading her errors. It is a shame that the form of the Fatima shrine is so at odds with the content that inspired its creation.

[1] Fernando Leite, S.I., The Apparitions of Fatima (Secretariado Nacional Do Apostolado Da Oracao: 2017), 42-43.
[2] Chesterton, Orthodoxy 
[3] Denis McNamara, How to Read Churches (Rizzoli: 2017), 30.

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