Deep in the Heart of the South—Deep in the Heart of Christ
Sep 8, 2018

Deep in the Heart of the South—Deep in the Heart of Christ

Knoxville’s Most Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral Pulses with Local and Sacred Tradition

On March 3 of this year, the bishop and the people of Knoxville, Tennessee, together with five cardinals and 18 other bishops, dedicated their new cathedral, named in honor of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. The event received local media coverage as a milestone marking the growth of Catholicism in a region where only three percent of the population identifies as Catholic. But relatively unnoticed was the cathedral’s importance in the renewal of Catholic architecture in the United States. With its intentional embrace of the classical tradition, design sophistication, theological fullness, and iconic richness, the construction of the $31 million edifice marks a singular high point in the recent revitalization of Catholic visual and liturgical culture.

From the early planning stages, the diocese and its leaders sought a classical architectural mode for several reasons. First, the building was envisioned to embody a clear Roman Catholic identity with a renewed ecclesiology presenting a deep understanding of the truths of the Catholic faith, including the eschatological emphasis in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, which famously stated: “In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims…” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 8). Moreover, within that cultural and theological vision stood the explicit understanding of the leadership role of the cathedral church in a diocese; it was designed to model architectural and artistic excellence for the diocese and even provide for the musical leadership expected of a diocesan mother church by creating ample space for a pipe organ and consideration of the building’s acoustical properties.

Secondly, the design acknowledged its presence in the historically Protestant American South. As such, the cathedral was meant to give outward signs of being “good neighbors,” beginning with a prominent front porch. In a kind of architectural inculturation, the southern tradition of the welcoming porch was engaged while at the same time using a deeply Roman version of the classical orders, combining the local and universal characteristics of the Church in Tennessee.

The cathedral was at first envisioned as a fully limestone structure to indicate its inherent dignity, but to engage the local culture, a mix of brick and limestone was eventually chosen. The design intentionally avoided bright red brick, however, instead choosing a blend of stone-colored Roman brick—characterized by long, slender proportions—which provided a finish with high visual interest as well as a distinctly Roman, public character.

A similar approach to architectural inculturation was taken with the cathedral’s great dome, taken as much from the architectural tradition of local buildings as from the great Catholic tradition. Yet by being topped with a golden cross, the Catholic identity of the cathedral reads clearly.

Woven through the exterior design choices, however, lies a combination of perceived simplicity at the level of the entire design, but with sophistication in its many details. Over the entry doors, for instance, an almost lyrical design of cut stones form elongated and structurally-logical keystones which interlock with the stonework of the walls. On the porch, a prayer to the Sacred Heart of Jesus appears in sophisticated “V-groove” lettering centered around a subtle but legible carving of the Sacred Heart. Even the downspouts which carry rainwater were carefully designed to match the dignity of the building and its use.

The cathedral’s design architect, James McCrery of Washington, DC, compared the design of every part of the building to the Mystical Body of Christ, where each member, no matter how different or differently placed, contributes to the beauty of the whole. The true noble simplicity of the building is achieved in simple shapes and exquisite details, yet each one is given careful attention.

While the exterior uses the relatively subdued colors of the earthly realm, the interior presents itself as the world redeemed, where large scale, decorative richness, and fine materials enchant the viewer. Unlike the grey granite of the exterior paving, the interior suddenly changes to carefully-designed patterns of colored marble, marking the glorified “streets” of heaven.

Looking up from these magnificent floors, giant-order Corinthian flat columns, known as pilasters, line the nave, sitting on pedestals which themselves are nearly six feet tall. Between their capitals, honorific titles for Christ from the Litany of the Sacred Heart give the building an architectural “voice” of praise. An arcade of marble Ionic columns in polished marble tucks between the large pilasters, scaling the high ceiling down to the human scale.

The ceiling is organized by a grid of inset squares, known as coffers, in which the paint changes from the earthly white color of the walls, to golden hues that signify heaven, to blue inset panels filled with glorified stars suggesting the heavens above, which also participate in liturgical worship. As the viewer moves closer to the altar, a great dome rises to 144 feet above the floor, claiming the symbolic number of the height of the walls of the Heavenly Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation (21:17). Within the cathedral’s dome, a 25-foot image of Christ with his Sacred Heart exposed stands surrounded by the saints in a heavenly garden, an iconographic plan developed by the architect together with the cathedral rector and executed by Evergreene Architectural Arts of New York.

The richness of the cathedral’s interior provides a setting for a great stone altar surmounted by a 45-foot baldachino, a four-columned canopy roughly the height of a four-story building.

The large interior provides a setting of awe and grandeur, yet the baldachino scales the great interior down to the size of the altar and, like a picture frame, makes it the natural focus of the viewer’s attention. Beyond the altar, the tabernacle sits under a tiny replica of the baldachino, marking the Presence of Christ both in the action of the Eucharistic liturgy and the abiding Presence in the reserved Eucharistic species.

Seen on the golden rear wall through the baldachino and above the tabernacle, a golden Tree of Life pattern in vine-like spirals extends the reach of the large crucifix, the true Tree of Life that healed the effects of Adam and Eve eating of the tree in the Garden of Eden.

In sum, the patrons, architects and artists of the new Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus have done something not seen for more than half a century: they commissioned an affordable building which nonetheless uses an erudite and recognizable classical mode, fine materials, local customs, time-honored Roman motifs, and a theologically-informed iconographic program. To a faithful Catholic, it might sound obvious to do these things. But recent years have seen many new churches where the client meant well, but lacked the architectural sophistication to hire a classical specialist or the liturgical understanding to see an iconographic program as more than a collection of devotional images. In Knoxville, the cathedral shows a wholistic approach to sacramentalizing a new world on the interior, a place where space and time suddenly change from the limitations of the fallen world to the expansiveness of the restored cosmos.

The cathedral does indeed represent a great local achievement, and congratulations are in order to all involved. But it is also more. With a humble budget in a diocese of a mere 70,000 Catholics, this cathedral has set the high point to date for architectural and theological richness in the postconciliar United States.

Gate of Heaven:  The front façade of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, Knoxville, TN, uses classical conventions that originate in the ancient world but have acquired multiple meanings across the centuries. The general basilican shape and horizontally-roofed porch reach back to the earliest churches of Rome, but also continue the local custom of the front porch as a southern marker of welcome. The use of Doric columns accomplishes two goals. First, the Doric column has been associated with the proportions of the male body from the time of the ancient Greeks, and so marks the building as dedicated to Christ, the God-man. Second, Doric is low in the hierarchy of column types, establishing that the more complex columns on the interior mark a more important place, closer to altar and sacraments. The inscription over the limestone columns reads “O Sacrum Cor Jesum Misere Nobis” (O Sacred Heart of Jesus, Have Mercy on Us”).


Heavenly Inroads:  The nave of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, Knoxville, TN, provides a processional path from the entry to the altar that symbolizes the procession of the Church to Christ her groom. Made of several colors of inset marble, the floor presents the transfigured “streets” of heaven and the importance of the procession made by each Christian to receive Christ in the sacraments. In the ceiling above, square insets called coffers contain painted stars, indicating the church is open to the eternal cosmos where all of the created order worships God. Where the ceiling meets the wall, the beams of the coffers are raised above the grey cornice moldings, giving the worshipper a view from the floor which is intentionally puzzling because the ceiling appears to float above the moldings which should support it. In this way the boundaries between heaven and earth are blurred, allowing for an intentional hint of “mystical” support for the roof.


Eternal Marriage:  As the worshipper moves down the center aisle of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, Knoxville, TN, the great four-columned baldachino becomes the natural focus of attention. The canopy, called a chuppa in the Jewish tradition, marks a place of marriage, in this case, the marriage of heaven and earth in the Eucharist. The columns support an octagonal dome, emphasizing the number 8 as the “eighth day,” the day of eternity made possible by the Eucharist which brings eternal life. In the sanctuary, the ceiling changes from flat coffers to a semi-circular vault, where its increased complexity marks the place of greater importance. The figures in the dome begin to become visible and inspire the worshipper to look up to an image of the heavenly court.


Every Eye will See Him:  A longstanding architectural tradition sees a church’s dome as a representation of the eternal “dome” of the heavens, which, in the Christian revelation, shows the interpenetration of divinity and all of creation: heaven with earth, saints with humanity, God with his people. Here, in the new Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, Knoxville, TN, the four evangelists visually “support” the revelation of the heavenly realities above, as they did with their gospels. Above them, a canticle sung by the angels and saints from the Book of Revelation praises Christ with the words “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain” in text boxes surrounded by fictive flowers and gems, markers of the new garden of heaven that replaces the Garden of Eden and the fallen world. In an early Christian method of indicating hierarchy, Christ appears as the largest figure, while the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph—forming an image of the Holy Family—appear slightly smaller. The rest of the saints, ancient and modern, are smaller still. At the center, where natural sunlight enters through the cupola, an image of the Trinity is presented as a triangle inserted with a cross, surrounded by the Latin phrase “Credo in Unum Deum” (“I believe in one God”).


Re-Orientation: The altar of sacrifice in the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus is made of various colored marbles to sacramentalize heaven’s gem-like color and radiance. The altar sits amidst an illusionistic floor pattern. The stones surrounding the altar appear three-dimensional, and depending on the angle, they appear to “shift” from one direction to another in what the architect calls “intentionally un-architectural architecture” which exists in the earthly realm but at the same time seems to defy it. It therefore causes the Christian to become slightly disoriented and therefore be reminded that the liturgy is celebrated on earth as it is in heaven. Twelve round stones of three different colors surround the altar, indicating the Twelve Apostles who stand around the altar of God. Each piece of flooring stone in the cathedral had to be drawn one by one and its color and type indicated by the architect to produce the desired result.


Life from Above:  The underside of the baldachino in the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, Knoxville, TN, shows the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, recalling the epiclesis in which the priest calls down the Spirit to transform bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Theological names for Christ, including “Via Veritas et Via” (“The Way, The Truth and The Life”) are presented in gold lettering in the beams supported by the columns, known as the entablature. In another “anti-architectural” move, the lower part of the entablature, known as the architrave, is missing, replaced by carved bronze drapery. Normally, drapery would be supported by the architecture, yet here it serves a supportive role, upending the expected earthly order.


First and Last:  Behind the main altar in a chapel-like area of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, Knoxville, TN, the tabernacle houses the reserved Blessed Sacrament and establishes a relationship with the Eucharistic action through imitation of the forms of the Altar of Sacrifice. A miniature version of the baldachino over the altar covers the tabernacle, and an Altar of Repose with similar materials and motifs stands beneath. The Latin phrase “Ecce Agnus Dei,” (“Behold the Lamb of God”) appears on the miniature canopy, and the Greek letters “A” (“Alpha”) and Ω (“Omega”)—indicating Christ as the beginning and the end—appear on the tabernacle doors.


Born from the Side of Christ:  The baptistery of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, Knoxville, TN, sits in a carefully designed floor pattern giving it a permanent setting in the life of the building while indicating the realities of baptism: blood-red stone forms a cross in a background of white marble in which four pieces were cut from a single block of stone. The large white vein that appears in each white piece was then turned 90 degrees, giving the floor a sense of rotational movement like the “wind” of the Holy Spirit. A bronze roundel is inset in each side of the baptistery’s bowl, displaying shells and four scriptural scenes related to baptism and redemption. On each side of the bronze inserts, wavy incised lines called strigilation not only refer to the waves of water, but recall similar motifs frequently placed on stone caskets in the ancient Roman world, marking the font as a place of death to the old self and rebirth in the waters of baptism. Appearing on the font’s cover is a bronze figure of John the Baptist crafted by sculptor Nick Ring.


Architects, Craftsmen, and Artisans of the Sacred Heart Cathedral:

James McCrery, McCrery Architects, Washington, DC, design architect

Barber McMurry Architects, Knoxville, TN, architect of record

Evergreene Architectural Arts, Brooklyn, NY, decorative painters

Andrew Wilson Smith, architectural sculpture

James McCrery and Fr. David Boettner, Cathedral Rector, iconographic planning

Nick Ring, Traveler’s Rest, SC, bronze sculpture for baptismal font

John Canning Studios, Cheshire, CT, marbleizing faux finishes

Rugo Stone, Lorton, VA, marble fabrication and installation

Clancy Custom Woodwork, Knoxville, TN, millwork

Mountainview Millworks, Hedgesville, West Virginia, additional specialty millwork


Denis R. McNamara

Dr. Denis McNamara is Associate Professor and Executive Director of the Center for Beauty and Culture at Benedictine College in Atchison, KS, and cohost of the award-winning podcast, “The Liturgy Guys.”