I’ve been reading a good deal about Vietnamese Marianism lately, and a short trip to Washington, DC led me back to the Our Lady of Lavang chapel at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (BNSIC).
Years ago, I lived across the BNSIC for a semester and went to mass there, but didn’t really look closely at the BNSIC’s rich architecture inside. (I think it’s general consensus that the outside architecture isn’t as impressive as the inside.) I did see the Chapel of Our Lady of Lavang, but definitely didn’t pay much attention to it. When I was at Catholic University for two days of research last month, I was too busy to get to it. Well, this time I wrapped up my visit to the archives two hours early and there was no excuse not to visit it.
Some of the curiosity, I must admit, came from having read Thomas Tweed’s excellent monograph on the BNSIC. A historian appointed to American Studies at Notre Dame, Tweed employs interviews and ethnographic practice alongside archival materials to produce a study not only about the history but also groups of people (donors, women, children, immigrants) and even architecture (dome, bell tower, ethnic chapels). It’s pretty fascinating stuff. I do wish that the chapter on ethnic chapels were longer, and there were more than merely a mention of the Vietnamese chapel. But perhaps that task is for someone else to pursue.
Tweed’s book was published in 2011, and an updated edition, were there be one later, will necessarily add a section on the completion of the dome mosaic of the main, upper church last year (last photo of this post).
Though small, it is a beautiful chapel in many respects. The Tweed book is detailed on fundraisers and donors, and I’d love to learn about the fundraising and related matters on the construction of this chapel.
Since I’ve been thinking lately about ultramontanism and Marian devotionalism, they were my guiding concepts during and after my visit to the chapel. Historically, Vietnamese Marian devotion has had a lot to do with ultramontanism. It’s true of American Catholicism too, at least in the past, and the creation of the BNSIC certainly reflected this point. (From Tweed’s book: “The BNSIC was a monument to the era of consolidated Catholicism, with its triumphalism, countermodernism, and ultramontanism.”) The legacy of ultramontanism is still considerable among Catholic immigrants from Vietnam, but it has also coincided with the developments of Vietnamese nationalism.
In particular was the elevation of the Vietnamese martyrs (some of whom were of European origin). Although the chapel is about Our Lady of Lavang, it was hardly a surprise to see the martyrs represented in a completely Mary-less mural.
This mural is quite beautiful, and my photo barely conveys the vividness of the colors and figures. But like other standard representations of this subject matter, it reflects the hierarchical and gender dimensions familiar to Vietnamese Catholicism. There were lay martyrs among the canonized, including one woman. But you can see from the mural above (and the list of their names below) that most were male clergy: bishops, priests, and members of religious orders. This fact reflects both history and ideology.
On the right-side bottom is an inscription of “Book of Revelation 7:9” in Latin and Vietnamese. This verse reads: After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.
I’d guess that the creator(s) of the mural equates martyrdom to the glory of heaven. I doubt that it is intended to suggest that men and clergy would be the first to get into heaven. All the same, the combination strikes me as slightly unfortunate.
As if trying to provide a balance on gender, age, and status, the opposite mural shows Our Lady of Lavang comforting mostly lay women, lay men, and children along a few nuns and religious priests. Their socio-economic status is suggested by the fact that many of them are bare-footed and/or wear simple clothing.
As for Our Lady, I think the artist intends her to appear aristocratic and maternal. It isn’t an easy task, and I find her sitting pose awkward, especially when wearing clothes not meant for caring for children. It is, however, fitting to have her by a tree because the she is said to have appeared on a tree to comfort Catholics fleeing their martial persecutors. The execution could be better, but the intention is clear to Vietnamese Catholics.
Similar to the mural, the statue shows Our Lady of Lavang in blue (albeit darker) while the Christ-child donning red. But she wears a white tunic inside, which is her standard representation. (Some statues, however, show her and the Christ-child wearing all-white.)
Besides the columns and the linings on the ground, the other significant Vietnamese object (or symbol) is a traditional urn in front of the small altar.
Afterwards, I walked around both the lower and upper churches. Rather quickly, I stopped by eight other chapels: Our Ladies of Lebanon, Hungary, Africa, Pompeii, and Guadalupe; and also the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, Mary Help of Christians, and (below) St. Louise de Marillac. The last one worked closely with the better known Vincent de Paul, and was later designated Patroness of Christian Social Workers.
On the way out, I took a photo of the new dome mosaic. The visit was a very nice break during my two days in the nation’s capitol.