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Italian Marble Shapes European-Inspired Cathedral in Tennessee

by | Sep 27, 2019 |

An earlier version of this article appeared in Building Stone Magazine. All photos courtesy of Rugo Stone.

European churches are more than just places of worship—they are centers of design. Incorporating massive stone columns and ornate decorations crafted centuries ago, these spaces are a source of inspiration for much of today’s architecture, especially in the religious sector.

For the 25,000-square-foot Sacred Heart Cathedral in Knoxville, TN, architects drew inspiration from Baroque architecture to create something reminiscent of the Old World.

“The priest and bishop both insisted on a marble floor throughout the church,” said James McCrery, founder of McCrery Architects, LLC in Washington, D.C. “They wanted stone on all of the flooring.”

Although the clergy specified marble, the most prominent material used in the design of traditional Roman Catholic churches, they gave McCrery and his team free range to select the specific types. After careful selection and consultation with the stone supplier, Rugo Stone, more than one dozen varieties of Italian marble were selected for the different elements of the cathedral, from the flooring to solid columns, including Bianco Carrara, Calacatta Borghini, Calacatta Vagli Oro, Fior di Pesco Carnico, Giallo Siena Brocatello, Grigio Carnico, Nero Portoro, Ramon Grey, Rosso Francia Languedoc, Rosso Mangiaboschi, Statuario Michelangelo, Verde Issorie and Verde Macedonia. The marbles range in color from white and gray to yellow and red, incorporating subtle to striking veining patterns.


Merging architectural styles

The cathedral contains 20 solid marble columns, as well as various marble-clad liturgical elements, which were carefully crafted by fabricators from Italy and the United States.

The center aisle leading to the sanctuary features a unique geometric paving pattern of vertical rectangles intertwining with circles, with bookmatched Fior di Pesco Carnico. The design was inspired by the works of the famous Roman family of architects and workers, the Cosmati. The Cosmati created decorative geometric mosaics used mainly for church floors and inspired the Cosmatesque style. This art technique was popular in the medieval Roman world, where colored stones were cut and inlaid into walls and floors, set into stone matrices or encrusted upon stone surfaces.

A total of 10,500 square feet of marble was used for the intricate flooring patterns throughout the cathedral, with an additional 2,000 feet of marble used for pier surrounds and other elements.

With characteristics of both Baroque and Romanesque architecture, the cruciform plan of the cathedral features an exterior clad in brick and Indiana limestone. “The cathedral is set upon a hillside, creating a prominent raised granite stepped entrance,” said Brett Rugo, owner of Rugo Stone in Lorton, VA, which supplied all of the interior and exterior base stone, including Mount Airy White granite and Impala Black granite. “At the top of the granite steps at the portico landing is a herringbone pattern of granite, which provides a hint of the detailing that awaits as you enter the cathedral. Upon entering the narthex, there is a field of paving set in a diagonal pattern. This pattern is repeated along the perimeter aisles and transepts. The narthex field of paving is flanked, with a decorative radiating petal pattern of the same pavers welcoming you into this cathedral.”

On the north and south sides of the narthex walls, two recessed niches feature glass and stone mosaic panels, which were crafted exclusively for this project in Rugo Stone’s mosaic studio by their skilled artisans. “Each individual tesserae of stone and glass tile is hand-cut and meticulously located to create an exquisite, eye-catching detail,” said Rugo.

As you pass through the narthex, there are two solid Giallo Siena Brocatello columns on each side of the entry to the nave. The fragile Class D marble needed to be reinforced with a steel rod set within its center at full height. “The steel rods provide strength for the columns,” said Rugo. “Class D marbles tend to be weak in such long delicate spans, such as a column.”

Within the nave and transepts, there are 14 solid columns of Carrara Bianco, set upon solid Grigio Carnico octagonal and veneer bases. “These columns were installed utilizing scaffold with carrying beams and a manual chain hoist to carefully bring the columns into a vertical position and lift each column up and over the marble bases,” said Rugo. “Special engineered connections were made to the steel arches above.”

To the left of the sanctuary at the south transept is the baptismal font, which incorporates a basin of solid Carrara Bianco with an intricately carved filigree wave pattern on the side walls. “The basin is supported by a solid shaft of marble, with inlaid panels of Rosso Francia Languedoc and Neo Portoro Extra set upon a Grigio Carnico base,” said Rugo.


Creating something one-of-a-kind

The raised sanctuary features an elegant design, with special attention paid to detailed ornamentation. Continuing the Cosmati theme, the flooring is one of the most ambitious designs created for the project. “The paving pattern is a marble mosaic carpet comprised of 12 types of marble and more than 2,000 pavers and treads,” said Rugo.

The geometric-inspired design features dozens of two- and three-dimensional shapes. Each shape was meticulously crafted, incorporating at least three different types of marble, to create a unique, dimensional design.

“In the center of the mosaic marble carpet is the altar of sacrifice made of polished Statuario Michelangelo,” said Rugo. “The face panels are made of Campan Payolle Gris, Giallo Siena Brocatello and Rosso Francia Languedoc, waterjet with hand-tight joints.”

To the left of the altar is the raised cathedra, which is adorned with a decorative panel made of solid Fior di Pesco Carnico, with inlaid diamond bookmatched panels. “The bishop’s coat of arms is made of glass and stone tesserae mosaic and inlaid stone,” said Rugo, who explained that special rigging was required to lift and set this vertical panel above the chair. “This panel was carved on the rear side to mold itself around one of the four solid Rosso Francia Languedoc columns at the sanctuary.”

“The main altar is really special and beautiful,” added McCrery.

At the rear of the sanctuary, there is the altar of repose, where Communion is held on Good Friday. This raised altar is also made from polished Statuario Michelangelo, with Grigio Carnico treads and Fior di Pesco Carnico risers. To accent the white, gray and black tones of these marbles, the neighboring wall panels and paving elements were clad with a combination of Campan Payole Gris, Verde Issoire, Fior di Pesco Carnico and Bianco Carrara.

The tabernacle, located on the rear altar, was encased in Rosso Francia Languedoc and surrounded by four mini Giallo Siena Brocatello columns supporting the ciborium.

To manufacture most of the pieces within the cathedral — the columns, bases, floors, steps, altars, tabernacle, cathedra and baptismal font — a Carrara, Italy-based fabricator, Pedrini Mario Srl, was enlisted. “The fine details on the baptismal font, the rich engraved colored material on the face of the altars, and the tabernacle in red marble were completed with the highest quality,” said project manager Gianluca Ceccarelli, who worked on the project for almost eight months, coordinating with Rugo and McCrery regularly to ensure everything went according to plan. “It was a very nice and important project that we worked on.”

The overall process went smoothly. “Rugo is amazing; they don’t have problems,” said McCrery. “They have good design and shop drawings. They went in and went to work.” Rugo enlisted a team of four masons and six finishers to complete the installation, which took around six months.

From design to completion, the cathedral took about two years to complete, and has received various accolades, including a 2018 Natural Stone Institute Pinnacle Award in the Commercial Interior category.

“The cathedral has been very well-received,” said McCrery. “The owners are beside themselves. The most important thing though is not the awards, but the fact that the church has seen a very sharp uptick in people joining since its opening.”