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Saint Anselm

The church of Saint Anselm, The Bronx

In the heart of the Bronx, just off the 6 train, is the bustling, welcoming, and "byzantine" church of Saint Anselm. The church was built in 1916 and finished just one year later under the supervision of Father Bernard Kevenhoerster, a prominent Benedictine prelate.1 Although the original design for the church called for a Gothic building, the structure and format intentionally emulates that of Hagia Sophia, the church built by Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. The massive dome that hovers over the nave, the colonnaded side aisles, and the impression from the exterior of dome shapes piled one atop the other all speak to the inspiration produced by the Constantinopolitan church, one that was shared by other American churches of the early twentieth century.2

Saint Anselm

A side view of the church

In 554, the prominent Byzantine scholar and historian Procopius wrote De Aedificiis, a description of Hagia Sophia most likely intended for oral recitation. In this panegyric, Procopius expresses the great beauty, size, and harmony of the church. He praises the abundance of light and the nearly magical quality of its massive, hovering dome:

The church is singularly full of light and sunshine; you would declare that the place is not lighted by the sun from without, but that the rays are produced within itself, such an abundance of light is poured into this church. . . . Now above the arches is raised a circular building of a curved form through which the light of day first shines; for the building, which I imagine overtops the whole country, has small openings left on purpose, so that the places where these intervals occur may serve for the light to come through. . . . A spherical-shaped dome standing upon this circle makes it exceedingly beautiful; from the lightness of the building, it does not appear to rest upon a solid foundation, but to cover the place beneath as though it were suspended from heaven by the fabled golden chain.3

After World War II a group of Benedictine monks from a southern German monastery at Beuron undertook the decoration of Saint Anselm. Dom Adalbert Gresnicht was the primary artist in charge of the campaign.4 (Interestingly, Gresnicht had worked on the decorations at Montecassino, a medieval abbey in Italy that was destroyed by American bombing during World War II.) The work of these German Benedictines speaks to a more general, early Christian aesthetic, demonstrated by details such as the pied facade composed of variegated tiles and the iconography throughout—the large gemmed cross on the dome, the sculpted lambs on the stone capitals, and the fruitful palm trees in the apse.

Lamb on Capital

The sculpted lambs on the stone capitals speak to an early Christian aesthetic.

Rome is a clear source of inspiration for Saint Anselm. The format and content of the apse echoes that of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome. The roundels of ecclesiastical dignitaries that appear in the interstices of the arches lining the nave are reminiscent of early Roman monuments such as San Paolo Fuori le Mura and Santa Maria Antiqua.

Saint Anselm apse

The format and content of Saint Anselm's apse (above) echoes that of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome (below).

Lateran apse

Image: © Wikimedia Commons user Tango7174

Toward the end of his treatise, Procopius—simultaneously projecting and enacting the aims of his speech—speaks of the impact that the church has on its visitors: "No one ever became weary of this spectacle, but those who are in the church delight in what they see, and, when they leave, magnify it in their talk."5 The church of Saint Anselm has a number of similar effects—the dome hovers, the sunlight streams, and it certainly stimulates conversation. But Procopius could not have anticipated all the joys of visiting Saint Anselm, which include delicious churros out front and an incredibly welcoming congregation are just a few.

[1] The AIA Guide to NYC (1978) states that Gustave Steinback was the architect in charge of the design of the church. The 2010 edition reattributed the design to Anton Kloster.

[2] Robert S. Nelson, Hagia Sophia, 1850-1950: Holy Wisdom, Modern Monument (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004) 188-215.

[3] Procopius. De Aedificiis. Trans. W. Lethabv and H. Swainson. (New York: 1894) 24-28.

[4] Nelson, 193.

[5] Procopius, 24–28.

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