|Theology of the Chapel and its Architectural Elements|
As Philip Johnson who designed the Chapel, explains it, the building consists of three basic geometric shapes: a cube for the body of the church, a sphere for the dome and a granite plane connecting these shapes, by intersecting both the dome and the cube.
A visitor’s best approach to the Chapel is along the Mall, and then across the light gray, almost white, piazza, thus facing the vertical sweep of the white facade flanked on both sides by the series of square-topped arches of the black wall. Especially on a sunny day the impression is not unlike that when approaching a Renaissance church, an impression strengthened if we come at the optimum time, when the bells are striking the hour.
Traversing the white pavement with memorial inscriptions in honor of various friends and benefactors of the University, the visitor approaches the entrance, which is in the form of a huge tent flap. It tent represents the opening of the Tent of Meeting of the Old Testament. There is no door or any barrier at this point; the space of the narthex visible through the opening invites all to come in to meet their God.
The interior of the Chapel repeats in various ways the two basic geometric forms of the whole building: the straight line of the cube with its sense of imposing verticality and the elliptic shapes of the skylights corresponding to the spherical nature of the dome. These elliptic elements mark the central and religiously most important points of the Chapel: the altar and the shrine of Our Lady. They interplay with the huge semi-sphere of the dome, both enclosing the sacred space and, because of the clear space at the point of the "cut," opening to the light and the sky and to the infinity of heaven. Thus the dome is not a vault but an opening. At this point the visitor understands the reason for the dome being open by the black wall. Being lower than the dome, the wall creates a clerestory in the dome as a source of indirect natural light. At night this effect is imitated by externally located electric lights.
The fascinating play of natural light–from the dome, from the skylight over the altar and over the statue of Our Lady on the east wall, as well as from the tilted glass cross in the west wall–is perhaps the first impression striking the visitor. This light, reflected against the whiteness of the walls, makes the interior space alive, as it constantly changes with the intensity and direction of the light. Within this play of light all the elements of the interior cooperate to create a space of quietness -- one would like to call it of "visual silence" -- and thus a natural shell for prayer and contemplation. The rather austere character of the building, with its whiteness against the black of the back granite wall, is given warmth, even a certain intimacy, by the artwork and furniture: the rich texture and coloring of the Texas black walnut furniture, the bronze of the tabernacle, the statue of Our Lady, the candle holders, and the brightly colored icon of St. Basil with its rich greens, reds and golds.
It is no vague feeling of religiosity that one experiences. Those responsible for the building of the Chapel wanted to provide a sacred space, which, as Vatican II desired, would "express in some sense the infinite beauty of God, turn human minds devoutly toward God" (Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 122). This space must also provide a fitting stage for celebrating the liturgy of the Church. This appropriateness is measured not merely in terms of convenience for performing the various ceremonies; the interior of a church must itself help the faithful to focus on the heart of the Christian mystery celebrated and thus fulfill its other function, that of being not only a place of prayer, but also, in the words of Pope Paul VI, "a sign of prayer." It is such when senses and, most notably, the sense of seeing, lead the heart to what is central in Christian faith and devotion.
The Chapel of St. Basil achieves this result. Because of the diagonal position of the granite wall, the axis of the building shifts almost imperceptibly as one enters it. Facing the sweeping Renaissance-like facade of the Chapel from the piazza, the visitor expects the longitudinal axis of the whole Mall to continue also within the Chapel, as it does in older churches: through the door in the middle of the facade one’s eye encounters the main altar, with the tabernacle placed on it, in the center of the apse. With our Chapel, however, this is not the case. To start with, the opening is slightly off-center; you are led away from the expected central axis. This realization is confirmed and reinforced as you enter the sanctuary area through a door which is at an angle to the walls of the cube. Consequently, what you seem to be walking "toward" most directly is not the center of the back wall but the place on the wall where the tabernacle is located slightly to the left of the curved apse. This creates a dynamic tension between the logic of the Chapel cube and the actual logic of the Chapel interior and makes it possible for things to occupy the emotional and aesthetic center of the space without actually being at the physical center. For instance, the crucifix in the apse is not at the geometric center of the wall or the apse. This drawing of attention to the tabernacle, with its eternal light, is important for Catholics because it reminds them of the real personal presence of Jesus Christ in the consecrated Bread reserved in the Tabernacle.
There is another significant shift. For all those sitting in the pews the altar moves into the central position, stressing its role as the place of the Eucharist in the sacramental memorial of the saving sacrifice of Christ.
Why is the Chapel named after St. Basil?
Why is the Chapel at the end of the Mall?
Individual Elements of the Chapel
Chapel of St. Basil Book