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Brass Rubbings

Our Lady of Chicago

On a Marian city.


Chicago’s toplofty attempts to keep up its “greatness” are futile, even a little bit embarrassing; but the discovery of the city’s hidden humility inspires. Her skyscrapers (or skygropers as W.H. Auden would have called them) are not just handsome boasts like the John Hancock Center, but that same building’s famous X-frame laid gently on its side at Saint Procopius Abbey in the suburbs; not only the classical pretensions of Chicago City Hall, but the Icarus and Daedalus mosaics warnings of hubris across the street; not just the visible civic success of Daniel Burnham’s planning ambitions, but the fragments of Louis Sullivan’s lost buildings which haunt the Art Institute of Chicago like material ghosts. Chicago is not just Samuel Insull’s infamous “throne” (the Civic Opera house), but the memory of the same man, his ego unseated, whispering “Rose Bud” in Citizen Kane; not just the cantilevered marvel of 150 North Riverside, balanced by penthouse water tanks, but the apophatic hole left by the Chicago spire that was never built; not just her bumptious ecclesial attempt to imitate Paris by replicating Sainte-Chapelle at Saint James Chapel, but a storefront Pentecostal prayer meeting; not just her effort, at the Methodist Chicago Temple, to make the city’s tallest building a church (the reign lasted only seven years), but a lowly Easter sunrise gathering on Oak Street Beach. In short, Chicago’s strength is in her weakness, and a humble walk through Northerly Island’s decommissioned airport, now a nature preserve, is preferable to a party paradise weekend on Palm Island in Dubai.

All of this because T.S. Eliot’s assertion that “humility is endless” applies to cities as well, to those moments when they transmogrify from Augustine’s City of Man to the City of God before one’s jaded eyes, when they reflect not only the New Babylon but the New Jerusalem as well. Which is to say, Chicago demands to be defined not just by a school of architecture, university, political machine, sports team, or style of pizza. The architect Philip Bess attempted to supply this missing dimension by re-imagining the city in After Burnham: Notre Dame Plan of Chicago 2109. The Notre Dame reference does not just recall the school in South Bend, nor is it simply a reference to the church of that title, Notre Dame de Chicago, whose Mary defiantly challenges Ceres, the goddess of grain atop the Chicago Board of Trade. But it evokes, of course, a person: Our Lady herself, “Mother of Mercy, Mother of Divine Grace, Mother of Hope” (to cite the Litany of Loreto), each of which she tenderly inflicts upon an undeserving city below.

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