“Jesus is the sun and Mary is the dawn announcing His rising.” Pope Francis. This quote takes on new meaning on the streets of the city of Danbury these days. The sun now rises and sets on the Dawn and The Son, a new mosaic commissioned by Fr. Peter Towsley, pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish.
Combining the thoughts of Pope Paul VI and St. John Paul II, Fr. Peter Towsley has overseen the installation of a beautiful new mosaic on the facade of his Church, an image of Our Lady and the Child Jesus under the title Mater Ecclesiae (Latin for Mother of the Church).
In 1964 Pope Paul VI chose to end the sessions of the Second Vatican Council “with the joy of honoring Our Lady with the title Mother of the Church, Mater Ecclesiae… This title will help us to honor Mary Most Holy, loving Queen of the world, source of unity as our Mother, and tender hope of salvation.”
During Holy Week of 1980, at a gathering in Rome of Pope John Paul II with several thousand young people, a young man named Julio Nieto commented to the Holy Father that of all the statues in St. Peter’s Square, there was not an image of Our Lady, and therefore the Square was incomplete. Pope John Paul’s responded, “Good, very good! We have to put the finishing touch on the square.” Inspired by this, wheels were set in motion to explore putting this “finishing touch” on the square by the head of Opus Dei, Msgr. Del Portillo, successor to St. Jose Maria Escriva. Sketches for an image of Our Lady as Mary Mater Ecclesiae, based on the image Madonna della colonna from the Constantinian basilica, were sent to the Holy Father, and a site proposed, but Msgr. Del Portillo did not receive a response.
One year later, on May 13th 1981, in that same square, Pope John Paul II was shot in an assassination attempt. He attributed his survival to the protection of Mary, and as a sign of gratitude, he decided to move forward with Msgr. Del Portillo’s previously proposed suggestions to “complete” the square. On the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, December 8th of that year, he blessed the newly installed mosaic, Mater Ecclesiae. St. John Paul II’s hope was, “…that all who come to St. Peter’s Square may raise their eyes to Mary, to greet her with filial trust and prayer.”
With that same hope, Fr. Peter commissioned Brookfield husband and wife artists, Bruce and Joanne Hunter, to create a new mosaic of this same image to grace not only the facade of the Church, but the streets of Danbury. The parishioners of Sacred Heart Church enthusiastically supported the idea and their many long hours and funds were donated to bring the project to fruition. Lights were installed, so that all who pass by, day or night, from any and all walks of life, may look up to Our Lady and know that she is there as a our loving Mother, and bears the hope of our salvation, her child, Jesus. It is a tangible reminder that they are watching over and blessing all.
Life-long artists, Bruce and Joanne have been doing mosaics of public art for the past 20 years. “Before this project we had never done any religious art, so it was important to us to understand and honor the different aspects of, and the reasons for, the original piece at Saint Peter’s Basilica. Researching the visual vocabulary of religious art enlightened our understanding. Again, the history of this specific project was intriguing to us. We viewed religious art, and visited chapels and churches to see other mosaics, both for inspiration and to admire the beauty.”
“Bruce and I are enamored of mosaic work. We love it if we are facilitating a design of our own with a collaborative group, or if we are commissioned to do a piece ourselves. We love the timelessness of it, and the permanence of the medium. It permits our design aesthetic to be viewed in public spaces, hopefully allowing art to be included in everyone’s daily life,” Joanne explains. Their largest mosaic to date is a 900 square foot mural for the city of Waterbury. They designed, planned and facilitated over 1400 students and community members from all walks of life in the creation of the piece entitled “Cool Waters” that now hangs adjacent to the Webster Bank, across from the Palace Theatre. “We pursue all sorts of mosaic opportunities from school projects to urban placemaking to NYC subway art to state grants to private commissions.”
“Watching the subtle changes occur while we are creating a piece is quite something to behold,” says Joanne, “From the beginning of each project, when we pick the specific kind of tiles we want to put into the art, to picking colors of the tesserae we’ll use to create color shifts, to the actual prep work of the design and fabrication plan is all very exciting. Getting to start the actual mosaic, to see the subtle color changes that create shadow and form, the play of light glimmering on the tesserae, the image building right in front of us—then the magic really starts.”
The art of mosaic dates back some five thousand years to ancient Babylon. The thousands of pieces, called tesserae, that make up a mosaic are hand cut to form the design. Each piece catches the light at a slightly different angle. As one of the most beautiful aspects of a mosaic is in it’s reflected light, it becomes a fitting analogy of what we are all called to be, a reflection of God’s light and love in which we were created. And so this new addition to the streets of Danbury takes on many meanings, in the image, in the medium in which it was rendered, and of course simply in the profound words Mater Ecclsiae.
Mother Teresa once said, “If you ever feel distressed during your day—call upon our Lady—just say this simple prayer: ‘Mary, mother of Jesus, please be a mother to me now.’ I must admit—this prayer has never failed me.” May this image serve as a daily reminder to all passers-by on Cottage Street in Danbury to do just that, to “raise their eyes to Mary” and ask her to be their tender mother.