A Work of Art In Many Pieces

By Moira E. McLaughlin
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, June 23, 2007

N inety-five feet above the church floor of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast Washington, four men stand on scaffolding, their faces inches from the ceiling. With only rudimentary instruments and a map, they work quietly and quickly on a mosaic, rarely turning their heads away from their work.

The art form, dating to the Greeks, is older than the scenes of Jesus they are piecing together. It was the Byzantines who brought the art to the church, and it is in that tradition these men work.

The mosaic was the vision of the shrine builders more than 50 years ago and is coming to fruition with a $1 million donation from the Knights of Columbus. The dome will be called the Knights of Columbus Incarnation Dome and will depict the biblical stories of the Transfiguration, the wedding at Cana, the Annunciation and the Nativity.

The Incarnation Dome is the second of the three in the shrine to be completed with mosaics. The first dome was finished last year, marking the first mosaic added to the shrine in 35 years. The Incarnation Dome will be completed July 10 and dedicated in November. Within a year, the shrine will begin planning and designing the big dome, which is five times the size of the other two.

But for now, the detailed work continues. One man scrapes wet cement onto a small portion of the ceiling, troweling the area over and over. A co-worker prepares a sheet of tiny pieces of Venetian glass for installation, checking to make sure the sheet of pieces will fit with another in front of him. Two other men take the protective covering off the mosaic in place on the ceiling and clean between the pieces of glass, scrapping out cement and brushing off dirt.

The men fit the sheets together like a puzzle, confidently lining up numbers and lines. Matteo Randi, 31, who works for Rugo Stone, guides them. From Ravenna, Italy, he has dedicated his life to the art, spending 12 years in school honing his craft.

Randi, a Catholic, says the emotion he can feel from looking at a mosaic is incredible. Yet sometimes, especially on a hot summer day, the art is just hard work.

"This is real work," he says, searching for the right English words to explain.

Randi moved to the United States four years ago. He also teaches mosaics at Casa Italiana in Northwest. But mostly he is busy with projects such as this one.

"This is a very precise work," says Monsignor Walter R. Rossi, the rector of the shrine. "If you don't know what you're doing, there will be a major problem. Remember this has to be installed forever."

The process of installing the mosaic started in November at Rambusch Decorating Co., a design firm in New York. After artist Leandro Velasco made a sketch of the mosaic, the firm enlarged it to the size of the dome, reversed it and then sent it to a small Italian town, Spilimbergo, outside Venice. About 25 workers for the Italian company, G. Travisanutto, broke glass into tiny fragments using hammers and chisels. With tweezers, they pieced the glass together to make faces, robes, words and other parts of the mosaic, said Jacquelyn Hayes, a spokeswoman for the shrine.

G. Travisanutto worked with Miotto Mosaic Art Studios of New York, the company that did the mosaics at Reagan National Airport.

The mosaic arrived in Washington in 346 boxes filled with 2,000 sections consisting of 2.5 million pieces of glass in more than 1,000 colors. Randi estimated that a mosaic of a bush has 300 colors in the leaves alone.

The men began installing the mosaic May 29. The scaffolding encloses the men and seals off the sounds of the workers so that services can be held in the church below.

Although the artwork is expensive and time-consuming, Rossi emphasizes the importance of mosaics in the church.

"When you're building a church, when you're dedicating a church, you want something that is going to be intrinsically beautiful as well as last forever," he said. "Through visual scenes, people contemplate what's going on, and hopefully that will lead them to reflection and prayer. We're a people who need to see things."

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