Celebrating the basilica of Saints Peter and Paul

The high altar at the basilica of Saints Peter and Paul is constructed of one piece of Italian marble. The twisting, peach-hued Solomonic columns in front were part of the basilica’s old side altars and reconstituted to fit with the high altar. The centerpiece of the altar is a mosaic depicting a lamb that perfectly matches the pelican mosaic on the front altar commissioned 70 years later.

Father Lariviere, who was a pastor at the basilica from 1999 to 2008 and is now at Sacred Heart in Auburn, explained that the word “sanctus,” displayed three times in the mosaic, is an acclamation from Isaiah 6:3: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!” The tripling of the word can be interpreted to mean “holiest of holy.”

The lamb holds a banner, a symbol of victory over death. Its head is framed by a halo, a symbol that pre-dates Christianity and is believed to be an invention of the Hellenic epoch. As with many other symbols and rituals in Christianity, the halo was incorporated into the religion because of its cultural significance, but the Bible shows no example of a halo to distinguish a “saintly” person. After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C., halos became popular symbols of light and divinity. They are rarely observed in early Christian art, but became a fixed symbol of Christ in the fourth century, particularly when a lamb was used to represent Christ. Christian scholars explain that the halo, like a crown, differentiates and exalts a figure of significance.

Lariviere pointed out that the lamb’s red halo is bisected by a stylized gold cross, which frames the lamb’s head. The lamb sits on a book, assumed to be the Book of Revelation, popularly known as Apocalypse, although interpretations differ and some believe the Italian mosaic artist intended it to be the Book of Life.

Seven banners hang from the book, which is perhaps a reference to the seven seals, a phrase from Apocalypse. The opening of the seals is said to mark the Second Coming in Catholicism. The seven seals contained information known only to God until “the lamb was found worthy to open the scroll and look on the contents,” according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.

Seven is an important number used in rituals and ceremonies in Catholicism and, according to the Catholic encyclopedia, symbolizes fullness, totality or completeness, the merging of heaven (three) and mankind (four). According to Lariviere, seven is prominent in both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. As he explained, the number seven also comes up often in the Book of Revelation.

The lamb is a common Christian symbol for Jesus. The Book of Exodus in the Bible describes 10 Egyptian plagues that bring suffering to the land of pharaoh, one of which was the final plague, the death of the first-born. Young male lambs were sacrificed and their blood was used to mark the sides and tops of the door frames, to serve as a sign, which would protect the Israelites from the death angel (12:13, 23). This became known as Passover.

The mosaic is often referred to by parishioners as the “Lamb of God” altar. This phrase is found in John 1:29: “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’ In Apocalypse, the lamb plays a key role. The Latin term for lamb of god is agnus dei.

Basilica expert and historian Bob Gilbert said the mosaic is made from the same material — onyx and gold — as the pelican seal on the front altar, though they were crafted decades apart. The Lamb of God mosaic is original to the upper church. “They took an awful lot of photos and hunted around,” Gilbert said, to explain how the two seals match so perfectly in material and design.

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 1936-1937. For a year, we are taking 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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