Celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul

Twelve bronze chandeliers — six on each side of the long nave — suspend on 30-foot-long chains from the double-barreled ceiling in the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, warmly illuminating the rich yellows and browns of its beautiful interior.

Each chandelier weighs a half-ton, and together the 12 provide the only light for the pews, except for the natural light from the stained-glass windows. Four additional chandeliers illuminate the choir balconies, two on each side. 

In Catholic structures, numbers are highly symbolic. Three represents the Trinity (the father, son and holy spirit), while man and the cross are symbolized by the number four. Four is also used to represent the seasons and terrestrial life. Therefore, seven (three plus four) and 12 (three times four) are considered the merging of the divine with mankind. Once you start looking, you will find instances of the these numbers throughout the church.

The symbols on the chandelier are alternating crosses and what look like four-sided clovers, or quatrefoils. In Gothic art and architecture, and traditional Christian symbolism, the quatrefoil is a decorative symmetrical shape consisting of four partially overlapping circles of the same diameter. Examples of the symbol can be found throughout history, from Mayan monuments in ancient Mesoamerica to early Christianity to Islamic art and architecture.

Though the quatrefoil appears in many different cultures and religions, it doesn’t always carry the same meaning. Cultures infused borrowed symbols with new meanings that were distinctly significant to them. Cultural borrowing has occurred since time immemorial. The same quatrefoil on our basilica’s chandelier appears in a Mexican city dated 500 BCE; historians at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City believe it to be associated with water.

The quatrefoil has even been part of the official U.S. Marine Corps officer uniforms since 1859, and was said to have originally been designed as crossed pieces of rope sewn into officers’ caps before becoming mandated as a uniform item.

It is a breathtaking spectacle to see the chandeliers lit at night in the otherwise dark basilica. You may wonder what happens when one of the bulbs goes out. “There’s a catwalk on top,” sacristan Mark Labonte explains. “To change the lights, someone goes up into the catwalk and lowers the lights on a crank to the ground. Then someone else on the floor replaces the bulb and it’s cranked back up.”

According to Dave Cyr, no bulb has been changed in the last three years, since he took over maintenance. No one currently at the basilica knows for certain how many bulbs are in each chandelier, but Cyr believes there are nine.

Celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul

The Sun Journal is celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston, which was completed in 1936. For a year, we will present a weekly photo series that takes a close look at the iconic structure, its history and even some of the people who built it. We will explore rooms behind the high altar, crawl along the catwalk, explore the cellars and rooftop carvings, and peek into drawers and cabinets in the sacristy. We’ll show you historical photos and compare them with current images of the basilica. We’ll also speak with basilica experts and comb through historical documents to uncover some of the 80-year-old church’s enduring myths and mysteries.

The entire series is being archived at sunjournal.com/basilica.


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