Realizing a vision of the New Jerusalem

Under the apse of Notre Dame’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart stands a monumental altar topped by a golden tabernacle tower. The tabernacle’s design, based on the vision of the New Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation, has housed the Blessed Sacrament at the heart of campus since Fr. Sorin purchased it in the late 1870s. 

Katie Pestler, Coordinator of Basilica Tours and Hospitality, explained the history of the unique tabernacle and the altar upon which it stands to the Rover saying, “The tabernacle and altar are one piece ordered by Fr. Sorin from a Parisian artisan in the late 1870s.” While Sorin had gathered donations to cover the costs of the altar itself, he lacked funds for the hefty tariff, and the altar remained on the far side of the Atlantic. 

Pestler continued, “Sorin and the other university leaders figured that they could enter the altar into the World’s Exhibition that was being hosted in Philadelphia that year. The altar won an award and was at the exhibition for three months before being shipped to Notre Dame and put in the basilica. This was long enough that it was considered a work of public art, so Congress ended up paying the tariff for the altar!”

In the Book of Revelation, St. John describes the heavenly Jerusalem as “great and high, having twelve gates, and in the gates twelve angels, and names written thereon, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel. On the east, three gates: and on the north, three gates: and on the south, three gates: and on the west, three gates. And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and in them, the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (Rev. 21:12-14). 

Pestler noted that the intricate architectural details of the tabernacle are derived directly from that passage, “Each side of the tabernacle has three blue doorways, which are the twelve gates of the city, and each doorway or ‘gate’ has an angel above guarding it. The names of the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve Apostles are written by each gate. At the top of the tabernacle’s spire is a lamb holding a cross with a banner over it. In Revelation the lamb is the symbol for Jesus, the Sacrificial Lamb, and the cross is the reminder of how Jesus died. The banner on the cross is the sign of His victory over death.”

This vision of the New Jerusalem is presented in tandem with the witness of the martyrs who died laboring in the earthly city. The high altar upon which the tabernacle rests holds the remains of St. Marcellus, a Roman centurion who was martyred for his refusal to participate in the pagan birthday celebrations of Emperor Maximian in the year 298 AD. 

William Smith, a basilica tour guide, further explained the theological connection between the tabernacle and the altar, which “contains six niches in which figures representing the cardinal and theological virtues stand, as if sentinels or caryatids. The cardinal virtues stand on the corners, while the theological virtues of faith and hope stand directly below the tabernacle itself, supporting the vertical movement. Smith noted that “the tabernacle itself embodies the virtue of love.”

Pestler also remarked that the tabernacle has “the names of all the original donors [inscribed] inside of it. This was offered as an incentive to donate and now those people are remembered at the basilica Masses.” Externally, its purpose is announced by an angel positioned on the Lady Chapel side of the tabernacle carrying a banner, which bears the inscription “Ecce tabernaculum Dei cum hominibus,” meaning “Behold the dwelling place of God with men” (Rev. 21:3). 

Tours of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart are available everyday, except Saturday, free of charge.

Daniel Martin is a junior from Skippack, Pennsylvania majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies and Italian. He can be contacted at, though until he emotionally processes the Phillies’ playoff loss, his response time may be protracted.

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