Historian discovers Basilica aligned to capture solstice sunlight

·3 min read
John Fitzgerald learned about the astronomical location of the Basilica while researching the stained glass windows. (Heather Barrett/CBC - image credit)
John Fitzgerald learned about the astronomical location of the Basilica while researching the stained glass windows. (Heather Barrett/CBC - image credit)
Heather Barrett/CBC
Heather Barrett/CBC

It's often thought that the Basilica of St. John the Baptist, like many St. John's landmarks, was built to face the ocean. But a local historian says the designers may actually have had their eyes on the heavens instead.

According to historian John Fitzgerald, the Victorian-era stone cathedral is positioned so that the sunrise of the winter solstice and the sunset of the summer solstice, the shortest and longest days of the year, align with very specific stained glass windows in the Basilica.

Kenny Sharpe/CBC
Kenny Sharpe/CBC

Fitzgerald said he first discovered the solstice alignment when he was researching the cathedral's stained glass windows as part of his work as the executive director of the Basilica Heritage Foundation. It began with a very simple question about the five windows in the sanctuary behind the altar: "Why are those windows there?"

Fitzgerald began to suspect that the windows had something to do with the winter and summer solstice, noting how there are times where "you would start to see the sun blindingly come through" the windows. This inspired him to reach out to Randy Dodge, the chair of the St. John's chapter of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.

Kenny Sharpe/CBC
Kenny Sharpe/CBC

"[Dodge] sent me back a map showing that on the winter solstice, the sun rises almost directly in front of the building. And at the summer solstice, it goes down through the centre window in the back, behind the altar."

Fitzgerald said he "was gobsmacked" by the discovery. "I was saying, 'Why did they do that?' And then I said, 'Is this pagan?'"

He realized there are a number of other churches built the same way. "Chartres Cathedral in France [is a] medieval cathedral aligned to the solstices. The Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Italy [...] And then the Vatican itself was lined up with the solstices."

Submitted by Randy Dodge/Google
Submitted by Randy Dodge/Google

Fitzgerald says no matter the era of construction, cathedrals were built to reflect symbols and allegory. He said being aligned with the sun is a tradition of Franciscan church building, noting how the construction of the Basilica in St. John's was "started by one Franciscan and finished by another."

Despite the other examples, Fitzgerald said it's still "a remarkably rare kind of a practice" that carries symbolic meaning for church-goers.

"On the longest day of the year, the Sun goes down through the apostles windows, so that symbolizes [...] the last judgment," Fitzgerald said. "If you're a Christian, at the last judgment, going through the pearly gates, then you're going to be asked [...] 'Have you lived your life like an apostle?'"

As for the organ loft, where the sun rises on the winter solstice, Fitzgerald said "by the time it gets above the horizon, it's just tipping the corner of the Saint Paul window, who was blinded by a bright light on the road to conversion."

"I'm amazed that people would give such forethought almost 200 years ago to doing something like this," Fitzgerald said. "They were up here on the barrens and in the mid 1830s, St. John's was really two streets and a few houses up the side of a hill."

"They had to be up here on the solstice with their pins, with their lines and their stakes and their tape and sort of putting their thumb on the horizon and trying to figure it all out and figure out what that line was."

Submitted by John Fitzgerald
Submitted by John Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald said when he sees the solstice light come through the window, he feels that "there's something bigger and far beyond all of us out there."

"Maybe it's this time of year that causes you to look up at the heavens and look at the stars in the sky, the sun, and the moon," Fitzgerald said, thinking about the coming Winter solstice. "It's the return of the sun. It's the return of longer days and easier breathing. And maybe it's a sign of hope."

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