First Baptist Church, Huntsville, AL
Thursday, March 23, 2017

Mosaic Design

The mosaic which adorns the facade of the sanctuary was created by artist Gordon Smith, of Smith Stained Glass Studios, Fort Worth, Texas. This art work began in 1966 and was finished in 1973.

The mosaic was designed to express the Biblical theme, "Creation and Redemption." Revelation 1:12-20 serves as the primary biblical text inspiring the design. The artist makes use of many references to the person of Christ expressed in the great Christological passages in Colossians, Ephesians, Philippians 2, 11 Corinthians 4:6; 11 Corinthians 5:16-21, Romans--Chapters 1, 2, and 8, John 1:1-16, and Hebrews-Chapters 1, 11, and 12. They supply important ideas and combinations of ideas basic to the symbolism of the mosaic. The huge symbol of the cross laid over the Christ figure is an example.

Photo: Eric Shindelbower

What is the history of the mosaic?  The mosaic was designed and fabricated by Gordon William Smith of Smith Stained Glass Studios of Fort Worth, Texas.  Mr. Smith’s studio also designed and installed the faceted glass sanctuary windows.  Smith’s studio worked 3.5 years on the massive mosaic.  Installation began in September of 1972 and it was dedicated on January 13, 1974. 

Taken from the Messenger, 8/27/1971, “Members of the church and their pastor, Dr. Alvin H. Hopson, feel that the work reflects the forward-looking atmosphere of Huntsville and its Marshall Space Flight Center where the Saturn moon rocket is built.  According to the artist, the design of the mosaic is based on the first chapter of the book of Revelation in which Christ is described as ‘galactic and universal – the Christ of earth, of space, of eternity.’ The mosaic was designed to complement the lightness and grace of the contemporary church structure.  It seeks to express basic Christian truths in a new way. The summation of the mosaic, according to the artist, involves the past, the present and the future – the Beginning and the End.  Against a constantly shifting background, the figure of Christ stands firm; the symbol of Christianity’s unchanging truths which undergird the changing world and the evolving universe”.

What caused the demise of our current mosaic?  Not long after the mosaic installation was completed, tiles began to fall off.  A couple of attempts were made to glue back pieces of the mosaic and to seal the mosaic, but these attempts did not work.  There are multiple points of failure regarding our mosaic – materials, preparation and installation.  The material used was pressed glass tiles (machine made) which do not have enough surface area for proper bonding of the cements, therefore the tiles were not “locked” in place.  The preparation of the glass tiles with some sort of netting, bonded by epoxy, resulted in another point of failure.  The epoxy did not bond well to the cements used for installation because the surface was so smooth.  Additionally, the glass tiles were placed too closely together; therefore, there was not enough room for cement to bond between the sides of the tiles.  Another area of failure in the preparation was in regards to the substrate wall.  This wall needs to have some “tooth” to allow the mounting cement a chemical as well as a mechanical bond.  It is very questionable as to the type/types of cement that was used.  As far as installation, it was done by local workmen who apparently did not have adequate (or any) experience with exterior mosaics. 

Why are we considering replacing the mosaic now?  The trustees have been discussing the deteriorating condition of the mosaic since 2003.  We have had two different companies perform an evaluation – both coming back with similar findings and recommendations.  Both companies have found that there is no real viability in repairing it – only in replacing it.  To delay any further only conveys to the community that we have no interest in maintaining the artistic and architectural integrity of our facility. 

Who would do the work?  The trustees have been consulting with Mr. Jim Piercy of J. Piercey Studios out of Orlando Florida.  Mr. Piercey and his crew will make the measurements necessary to reproduce the artwork – probably using drones to photograph the existing mosaic - and remove the current mosaic and prepare the surface for replacement.  Mr. Piercey will act as General Contractor for the Barsanti Marble Bronze Mosaic, a firm out of Pietrasanta, Italy.   Mr. Barsanati’s firm is fourth generation, originating in the year 1882.  This firm will contract for the manufacture of the glass tile and then will assemble the mosaic.  When they make their multiple trips to the United States for installation they will be assisted by Manrico Bertellotti who is their most experienced mosiacisti.  Manrico and his father own Ferrari & Bacci Mosaics, also in Pietrasanta. 

What experience do the contractors have with this type of project?  J. Piercey Studios has been fabricating and installing mosaics since 1981 The Barsanti firm has designed and installed hundreds of mosaics all around the world.  These installations have included the hot deserts of the Middle East to very cold areas like Moscow.  They are experts in their field.    Manrico Bettellotti, who will be our onsite installer, has vast experience in mosaic installations, including an 11 million smalti “Life of Christ”  mosaic that stands in the Woodlawn Cemetery in Orland, Florida. 

Will they warranty their work?  Yes.  There is a 10 year warranty – to begin after the last installation.  They will also hold the price for the actual fabrication of the mosaic for five years. 

How confident are you in this work lasting?  If a mosaic is installed properly, it should last 100, 200, 300 years or longer.  The important factors are that the mosaic must be fabricated and installed correctly by experience mosaicisti, using proven techniques. 

How long will the whole process take?  Once the contract is signed, they will begin the manufacture of the glass – called smalti.  These are hand cut pieces of glass measuring about 1/4” X 5/8” X 1/4” thickness.  They will have to cut approximately 4.3 million pieces of glass to replace our mosaic (our existing mosaic has about 1.4 million pieces).  We will plan to complete one bay at a time, working toward completion of the project in five years from the time of the contractual agreement. It is necessary to take this much time to allow the manufacture of the glass and the fabrication of the mosaic.  They have to make a “cartoon” drawing of the actual size of each bay.  This “cartoon” is laid out on a floor (they will have to rent a gym) and the smalti are glued to the paper.  It is then divided into much smaller sections, numbered, and packaged for shipment. 

So, what you will see is Mr. Piercey coming with his crew to take down one bay of the mosaic and scrape off the remaining cement/mastic.  .  They will then pressure wash the surface, removing any remaining cement.  A scratch coat, similar to thinset, will then be applied over the concrete wall.  Mr. Barsanti and crew will follow to install the mosaic.  All of this work will be done from scaffolding and will probably take about one month per bay to complete. 

Will it look the same? The Trustees remain very cautious about making changes to the original design.  We intend to replicate as closely as possible the original intent of the artists that created the work.  We have all heard that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" and this certainly holds true for any work of art including our mosaic.  We know and have heard people refer to our mosaic as “Jesus in an egg beater”.  Of course, we would prefer this phrase not be employed in conjunction with something so dear to our hearts.  However, we as Trustees must also insure that we do not make design changes that create some new unbecoming reference in the future.  As the project progresses we will work with the artisans contracted to replicate the mosaic to see if any slight “modifications” might be made to the mosaic to improve the “eggbeater” aesthetic while maintaining its original intent.  However, our first and foremost mission is preservation and any changes contemplated must keep this mission in mind.

What is the cost and how will it be paid for?  The projected cost is $1.4 million with another $100,000 for contingency and upgrades to the lighting of the mosaic – so a total of $1.5 million.  The Trustees have allocated $250,000 toward this project, taken from existing estate gifts.  We have a commitment of $500,000 in matching memorial gifts – for each dollar given, another dollar will be matched up to a maximum of $500,000.  The church would be asked to pledge gifts matching the $500,000 and the remaining $250,000.  This giving period would begin in early summer, with pledges being paid out over the life of the project which is five years. 

Why spend all of this money to save the mosaic?  Can’t we do something else that is more cost effective or more mission minded?  The trustees are charged to preserve and maintain our facility.  Unfortunately, the fabrication and installation of our current mosaic was done by a firm who did not have tried and true techniques – resulting in the deterioration we see today.  Since the current mosaic cannot be restored, the trustees are recommending that we maintain the architectural and artistic integrity of our facility by replacing the mosaic.   While we must weigh the cost, we must also weigh the historical, missional, artistic, and iconic significance of what was created when the church elected to commission such a work of art.  This mosaic tells our story as a church, it tells our story as a community, and it glorifies and honors our God with its spiritual significance.  If this is just a matter of cost, we have already ceded the debate.  If the church does not want to go in this direction, then we can come back at a later date and research other motifs such as glass walls, steel, paint, lasers, etc.  However, the trustees believe that the restoration and preservation of the vision this church had back in the 70’s is still relevant today and deserves our attention.  

The artist exhibits the central position of Christ in relationship to creation and man in the use of contrasting colors which are deep and fiery at the center, but surrounded by cool blue shades with their sweeping effects on the circumference. The distinct traces of pure white sweep like ribbons of mercy around the center portion. The sinless character of Christ is mingled freely with the whole creation. He is the source of all moral perfection and holiness.

In the midst of the seven churches, symbolized by lampstands, Christ stands. He is ever present to encourage them as they battle with opposing forces. This is the scene of the most striking colors in the design. The Christ figure occupies the center panel. This is the focus of the confluence and movement of the mosaic as a whole. Nothing less could represent the scriptural references to "the Cosmic Christ." The Greek letters, Alpha and Omega, are superimposed on the bosom. The kingly crown is suspended above the head ready for that final coronation "Day of the Lord" II Thessalonians 2:2-3). Redemption is complete when He shall be crowned Lord of all creation in the consummation of the ages to come (I Cor. 15:24, 25).

Various components heighten the interest of the Christ figure pictured in the center panel. He holds the seven stars in His right hand. A beam of light representing Revelation's two-edged sword, God's Word, spreads from His mouth. The Alpha and Omega are superimposed across His breast as is the cross. In each of the other panels there is a lampstand. These represent the churches which orbit around the Christ figure. The churches are luminaries in a dark world (Phil. 2:15).

While the primary emphasis is on Christ, the seven churches as mentioned in Rev. 1:4 are represented by lampstands in each panel or bay. they function as a visible part of the glorious destiny over which Christ.

Himself presides and Who is the center. Both the becomingness of the lampstands and their orbital movement seem to illustrate the same truth. Inherent in the design is an impression of the process of creation, of order evolving out of disorder. No doubt is left about the ultimate destiny of all things in Christ whether past, present, or future (Colossians). In the background of the upper part of the Christ figure is an expanding dimension of depth where the colors and lines flow together, forming a horizon of mystery lying behind the head and shoulders.

Furthermore, the art may be viewed as a symbol of the expanding work of the church in all the centuries since Jesus first sent forth His disciples. The viewer can see and feel the centrifugal force of the mosaic. Jesus of Nazareth is the Lord of Creation. He initiates the movement of all redemptive forces. the centrifugal viewpoint appears obvious, as all things appear to move outward from Christ as Source. The grandeur and the mystery of His power are represented by radiations which project and mingle in the whole design.

On the other hand, if the idea of movement is reversed, the design as a whole further suggests a centripetal movement - a pulling toward the center of all the galaxies orbiting around Christ. Christ is the center of the universe. He is the Lord of life and the Lord of history. No element of the historical process-past, present, or future escapes His judgment or obstructs the manifestation of His love.

The Christ figure stands 43 feet high. The head is more than 5 feet high, and each eye in the Christ figure is about 8 inches in diameter. About 1.4 million pieces of Italian tile - none larger than a man's thumbnail - comprise the mosaic. Each piece was set in place by the artist with tweezers and/or fingers.

The hands of Jesus are extended and appear to be engaged or involved in the motion and process of everything depicted in the mosaic. The art work is a strong reminder of the presence of Christ, Whose work of redemption is not only past. but always present and continues toward the future. The facade has been designed not only to capture the attention of the eye, but to issue a strong invitation to come inside the church.
Motion which passed May 20, 2016:  

1.      1. The church authorize the Trustees to enter into a not to exceed contract with J. Piercey Studios in the amount of $1,500,000 for the removal and replacement of the mosaic with the proviso that the Trustees contribute $250,000 of outright funds and $500,000 of matching funds toward the project. 

2.After the contract is signed, the church authorizes the Finance Office to send letters inviting the church family to contribute.  The Finance Committee will oversee the administration of funds received and expended.

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