The image of Jesus and the woman at the well greets BITH students, faculty and staff alike as they enter Barrows Lobby at the BGC. The mosaic is the result of two semesters of work by Wheaton College students enrolled in Mosaics, a class taught by Associate Lecturer of Art Leah Samuelson, a muralist and mosaicist by trade.
The President’s Art Commission, a committee started by President Phil Ryken that funds the installation of art around campus, entrusted the task of filling Barrows Lobby with “an enduring work of art that would express the mission of the college, but particularly the Billy Graham center and the graduate school: to share the gospel with the nations,” according to Ryken.
The committee considered many ideas before choosing Professor Emeritus Joel Sheesley’s idea of a mosaic in the Byzantine style. President Ryken described the project as “part of an overall attempt to bring beauty to our campus, maintain a higher aesthetic standard in our visual environment.”
Staying true to the Byzantine, or early Church, style of mosaics, the image of the woman at the well is made up of glass tesserae called smalti. The glass comes from Italy and Mexico where they use ancient technology to create the smalti. In order to reveal the inner glass from the “misshapen quadrilaterals” or rectangular bricks, students use a hammer and chisel to split the material creating the quadrilaterals that go into the mortar. Samuelson estimates that there are about 53,460 tesserae total in the mosaic.
In addition to the glass tesserae, the students also used natural material as well: ceramic and stone. All of the stone was donated by Wheaton’s Geology department.
Associate Professor of Art Jeremy Botts created the design of the image from scratch. His design spans nine panels that were mounted on the wall in Barrows Lobby last week. The mosaic depicts Jesus and the woman at the well set against a background of a field of wheat. Embedded in the mosaic are verses from the story in John 4, including, “Everything I’ve ever done,” and “We have heard for ourselves that this is true.” The text is written boustrophedonically, or “as the plow turns,” a style that changes direction every other line to reflect the style of early Greek manuscripts.
During the ceremony, Botts and some of the students who worked on the mosaic explained the symbolism of some of the piece’s aspects. Although the mosaic depicts a first century story, there are buildings in the background meant to represent 1800’s Wheaton, including a representation of early Blanchard, as well as magnolia flowers, a reference to the magnolia tree blooming outside Adams Hall, where students worked on the project. “This is bringing the Biblical text to our community, it’s a way of showing the relevance and the connection,” Ryken said.
In addition, Samuelson explained that the square halo around the woman’s head is traditionally used for a saint that is still alive. Although the woman is not still alive, she is a representation of all current church members who can still freely drink of the living water Jesus offers.
“It feels so amazing to see everything together. For the past two semesters we have been working on this mosaic in separated panels and we can finally see it all together. All the hard work has paid off,” said sophomore John Mark Daniel, a student in the mosaic class. “I hope this mosaic brings our community together and makes those who see it feel welcome on our campus no matter who they are. Art has the power to do this like nothing else does.”