The Good News About Broken Glass:
A Study of the Annunciation Mosaic
By Br. Andre Love, OSB
I am familiar with the medium of mosaic and have had the fortune of visiting several impressive installations during my travels. Ever since the first introduction, I have been fascinated by the diligence that must be required to assemble fragments of broken tile, mirror, glass, and other found objects to convey the artist's vision. A recent trip to Annunciation Hall on the campus of Mount Angel Seminary provided me with an opportunity to spend some quality time with an amazing example of mosaic art as well as an unexpected perspective of the “bigger picture”.
As I enter the lobby of Annunciation Hall, the first impression I have is one of open airiness. This is caused in part by the vaulted ceiling and high arches that support it, but mainly by the ample use of glass where one would expect a more solid wall to be. Giant panes held suspended by an iron cruciform frame treat me to a special panoramic view of the southern Willamette Valley, now in the first stages of assuming the fiery golden hues of fall. I pause to reflect that all of Creation is brought into being through the amazing artist that is Christ. I feel certain this was the architect's intension.
The palette of the lobby consists mainly of pale, neutral colors that understate the immensity of the architectural features found within. As I move forward to get a better view of the local flora, my attention is commanded by the wildly vibrant colors of the Annunciation mural that was unassumingly waiting behind a column for this opportunity to leap off the eggshell colored wall. This larger-than-life mosaic has a significant impact. I must step back to take it all in. I watch as the little bits of smaltie begin corresponding with one another in unity, blending to form the images of the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. It boldly proclaims a moment, out-of-the-ordinary, a fragment of a day in the life of a young woman, an encounter that changed the world.
My eyes are first drawn to the Angel Gabriel. I think this is due to the way the bright green outer garment is in contrast with the warm, golden background. It demands my attention. The dark green that is in the interior fold of his cloak leads my eyes to his left hand. He is holding a small scroll. He has something to say. The scroll points to his right arm that is concealed in a voluminous white tunic with only his hand showing. I wonder for a moment how I came to the conclusion that his tunic is white. There is very little white used at all; the predominant colors alternate between a myriad of beautiful grays and sweet sea foam green. White is held in reserve for the highest of highlights. It appears to me the artist has rendered the colors of a pearl of great price. Warm terracotta fragments add to the depth of the shadows in his sleeve and serve as a reminder not to linger, but to follow the wrinkles and folds up this servants arm to a free hand that is raised in a gesture of blessing toward the Virgin.
She stands draped in royal violet, scarlet, and gold that gives away her identity. She is a queen. Behind her is a structure that I don’t understand at first. A conversation with the iconographer, Br. Claude Lane, over dinner shines some light. The building represents the tabernacle from the Old Testament, the Holy of Holies, now transposed by the tabernacle of the New Covenant, Mary the Mother of God.
I look to the beauty of her face and realize that neither she nor St. Gabriel are looking at the other, rather, both gazes are fixed intently on the true subject of the icon. Somewhat in the background, but now brought to the forefront when my attention joins Mary and Gabriel’s, is the Holy Trinity. I can quickly recognize the Holy Spirit as represented by a dove, and the Word of God is in the book on which the Spirit rests, but where is the Father? Is he in the pink and light gray clouds that billow around the altar that supports the images of the Christ and the Paraclete? Maybe he is the dark blue-gray background, the mysterious unknowable cloud.
The answer came with a cognoscente “ah-ha” during the same conversation with Br Claude as he explains Fr. Jeremy’s thoughts on representing the Trinity in the icon (it takes a community to write an icon). The Father is the Altar. The Father is the plane of reality that holds all in existence, that supports the Son and the Holy Spirit. The red cloth draped over the Altar, which parallels the red cloak wrapped around Mary’s shoulders, tells the rest of the story. The color spells out the flesh and blood in which the Word is made manifest and the vessel chose to carry this Divine Condescension to term. The very notion that the God of the Universe would be so humble as to assume the very nature of Its creation in order to bring about reconciliation with Itself fills me with quiet awe. It strikes me that even the generous expanse of gold which serves as a heavenly backdrop, as it descends to meet with the shades of earthen browns that fill the lower portion of the background separated at the horizon by three narrow bands of pinkish-red, whispers the truth: Heaven and Earth meet in the flesh.
The dynamic movement of the colors in the foreground shifts my focus from the subtle gradations of the background and I raise my eyes again to the Trinity. I pause briefly again on the mystery in the blue-gray before my attention is swept away and brought back to the Messenger on azure wings. The arching movements of his wings are sudden and swift but momentum slows and comes to rest on a stance that is easy and sure. A posture that says, “Relax, I’m a professional.” As this is juxtaposed with Mary’s halting, rigid stance, it gives me the impression that she is startled. The crimson yarn she holds in her hands is pulled taut. Yet she has peace written in her facial features like she remembers, “Oh, wait, I know the answer to this…it’s Yes!” She is the epitome of humble obedience in her recollection.
I move closer to take in the details (and to avoid the stampede of seminarians moving from class to class). My mind reels thinking about the time and effort it must have taken to bring this project to fruition. All those thousands of cubes of broken glass, sharing similar qualities and a common purpose, yet each one is unique, hand-picked to play a very specific role. Individually they hold very little significance, just a tiny shard of colored glass. Collectively, however, they are mysteriously bound together to tell the Good News, to be the Annunciation, the message of hope.
In this moment of personal calm amidst the bustle of academic life, the thought occurs to me that this beautiful icon is no mere show piece to adorn the lobby of one of several buildings that make up the Mount Angel Seminary campus. No, it is more than décor. Nor is to serve simply as a sign to inform visitors of their current location, as if one would look up and say, “ Oh look, there’s a giant mosaic of the Annunciation of Christ. I must be in Annunciation Hall.”
No, this blessed icon must serve a much greater purpose than these. I recall Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger explains it as such: “The point of the images is not to tell a story about something in the past, but to incorporate the events of history into the sacrament” (p117 ).He goes on to say, “ The events themselves transcend the passing of time and become present in our midst through the sacramental action of the Church” (p117).
This icon serves as a window to bring Mary’s date with destiny here to us now, to our present that we, men and women from all walks of life, of all different sizes, shapes and colors, may join with her in humble obedience. Each one of us has heard at some point the greeting of the messenger and responded in trust to the words, “Do not be afraid. You have found favor with God.” It is in this response that we become the fragments of broken tile, mirror, and shards of colored glass that are being assembled to convey the Artist’s vision. Mysteriously bound together in Christ, we become the prismatic spectrum resounding in unison with Mary’s fiat. Behold the servants of the Lord. Let it be done according to your word. We are the Annunciation mosaic; God with us.