Piece by Piece the Mosaic Murals of SHU’s New Chapel Take Shape

News Story: August 7, 2008

Throughout the ages, the faithful have worshipped in holy places before religious-themed mosaic murals depicting the epic biblical stories that enrich their devotion. Few are privileged to witness the process of the ancient tradition that places those artfully arranged stones and tiles in their sight.

The construction of a new chapel on the Sacred Heart University campus has provided unique insight into the artistic process that dates back almost two centuries. On August 17, members of the Sacred Heart community have watched a team of artists, led by world-renowned Jesuit artist Fr. Marko Rupnik, create the mosaics that will serve as the backdrop for their prayers and religious services.

When the 16 artists arrived from Italy Saturday night the chapel walls were their blank “canvases.” After they worked for several 14-hour days the murals have taken shape, conveying God’s love for humanity in the stories of the Nativity, the Descent of the Holy Spirit and others.

Creating mosaics is a tedious process that begins with sketching one’s designs, reproducing the sketches at the desired scale, and affixing various sizes, colors and textures of stone, glass or tiles, called tesserae, to a supporting surface. Because it is a lengthy process, the artists created some of the figures’ faces at Fr. Rupnik’s studio in Rome.

After attending Mass together on Sunday and then praying in the new chapel space, which is still under construction, the artists unpacked segments of completed mosaic elements, including the faces of Christ, Mary and Joseph, and the Apostles, and arranged them on the marble floor, almost like working on a giant jigsaw puzzle. Using a laser pointer, Fr. Rupnik guided his artists as they transferred his sketches onto the 28-foot by 44-foot apse, or curved wall of the large worship space and the flat walls of the smaller Chapel of the Nativity.

Before they began adhering mosaics to the wall, one artist held up the face of Christ in its intended place at the center of the mural to map out its exact location but also as part of a time-honored tradition of the mosaic process in Christian art.

“All relationships in Christianity begin with Christ,” said Dr. David Coppola, SHU’s AVP for Administration, “so it is fitting that the beginning of this labor of love begin with Christ’s face.”

Then from their positions throughout the five-tiered scaffold in the main chapel, the artists began placing their pre-done mosaic figures on the walls, slathering it first with a special mix of plaster, sliding the segments into their designated locations and using a soft-headed hammer and other tools of the trade to secure them in place.

Hundreds of thousands of tesserae and dozens of colors will grace the chapel walls when the project is finished in another week. In the faces of the donkey and cow for the manger scene alone there are 20 different colors of stone.

The artists did not mind giving up a day of leisure to begin the project only hours after arriving on U.S. soil.

“To begin work on Sunday has meaning because it’s the day of the Lord. It is also a day dedicated to not working but we do this sacrifice,” said Svetozar Zivkovic, of Montenegro, one of Fr. Rupnik’s team of artists, who represent eight different countries.

“We are used to working hard. We were tired but it’s part of the job. When you know that you are doing something that is not simply going to be in a museum but in a place where people actually are going to pray and maybe feel closer to God, then it is worth the sacrifice. It is also for us a moment of penitence for which we are grateful,” said Lea Lampe Zivkovic, originally of Slovenia, Svetozar’s wife.