Cathedral’s vivid new mosaics from Italy are designed to teach, uplift, evangelize

Timeless techniques employed to create artwork that will inspire awe for generations


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The pieces are falling into place.

The installation of resplendent mosaics, over a year in the making, marks the latest visible milestone in the renewal of the Cathedral of St. Joseph.

The picture is becoming clearer. The end is in sight.

“The arrival of these beautiful mosaics is one more sign that the completion of our mother church is drawing near,” said Bishop W. Shawn McKnight. “Before long, God’s people, like the mosaics, will fill this place with Christ’s hope and light and make his face visible to all.”

Skilled artisans of Progetto Arte Poli in Verona, Italy, designed the mosaics to specifications given by Bishop McKnight; the members of the Cathedral Renovation Commission; and William Heyer, architectural consultant for the Cathedral renovation.

The purpose of the $15 million renovation, expansion and renewal of the Cathedral is to upgrade its aging systems while enhancing its beauty, functionality, capacity for hospitality, and uniquely Catholic identity.

Bishop McKnight plans to rededicate the Cathedral on May 5.

Medallion-shaped mosaics affixed to the travertine marble in the sanctuary depict the Blessed Mother under her title the Immaculate Heart of Mary, patroness of the diocese, and St. Joseph, patron saint of the Cathedral and of the parish, holding the infant Jesus.

A radiant sunburst with a dove representing the Holy Spirit and the hand of the Father fills the alcove behind the rood beam, upon which the new crucifix will be placed. Together, they represent the fullness of the Paschal Mystery — the death and resurrection of Jesus.

An image titled “Christ, Ruler of All” faces the sanctuary, directly above the main entrance to the Cathedral.

“People will see it before they go, to remind us that Christ is still in charge, even after we leave this holy place,” said Bishop McKnight.

An intricate mosaic of the Blessed Mother under her title Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas, will be installed in a shrine within the Cathedral.

Artists from Progetto Arte Poli are also creating an ornate stand for the Easter candle, and the delicate mosaics that will embellish the front of the new altar and ambo.

Each mosaic is made up of small, hand-cut pieces of colored glass and stone, affixed to the wall with mortar.

The various materials, hues and textures give shape and depth to the figures they depict.

Using techniques dating back to antiquity, the mosaics are designed to last for centuries, to animate the spirits of people whose grandparents aren’t even born yet.

They are part of a polychromatic array of sacred artworks — stained glass, painted murals, cast bronze, carved wood and stone — all designed to instruct even as they beautify.

“The forms that we use are timeless,” said Mr. Heyer. “We’re using materials from right around here as well as from all over the world. So there’s a sense of local and universal in everything you see here.”

“Another world”

Progetto Arte Poli is the largest artistic studio in Italy. Master Albano Poli, the founder, has been overseeing the work for 70 years.

Growing up in post-World War II Italy, Master Albano was one of the many children there who had little to eat.

His parish priest would bring food for children to share with their families.

Recognizing young Albano’s talent, the priest encouraged him to attend the art school in Verona.

“That’s how the Holy Spirit started guiding him down the path,” said Anna Pighi, the studio’s export manager.

At age 17, Master Albano stepped forward to do a large stained-glass project in Naples, Italy.

“That was the start of his career,” said Ms. Pighi. “Most of the work he’s done since then has been for churches.”

News of his artistic passion and prowess and scrupulous attention to detail spread by word of mouth. He gradually drew together a circle of likeminded artisans committed to learning and adhering to classical art forms.

About 60 of them now work in various materials at Progetto Arte Poli.

“You enter this place and you feel time has stopped, with all the people working with their hands,” said Ms. Pighi. “It’s really another world.”

Master Poli, now 87, still oversees the work at the studio and fuels “the passion that drives us to perfection,” she said.

Ms. Pighi noted that in most fields, technology is seen as the future.

“Here, it’s very different — a progression of experience and ability,” she stated. “Here, we go back in history. Our only machines are the hands and the heart.”

The human touch has a more profound impact on the people who view the artwork, day after day, Sunday after Sunday, generation after generation.

“It’s not merely a decoration that you’re putting in your Cathedral,” said Ms. Pighi. “It’s really an artwork. And it’s going to last forever.”

“Many satisfactions”

Because these techniques are so difficult to master, it’s important for the artisans to be filled with zeal for every aspect of their work.

“It takes years and years to get to the perfection that we all want to achieve,” said Ms. Pighi. “That passion is what drives you.”

The artisans’ work adorns sacred and secular spaces throughout Italy, as well as points throughout the United States, China, Hong Kong, and several countries in Africa.

Progetto Arte Poli recently created a new marble ambo for the breathtaking, fourth-century Basilica of St. John Lateran, cathedral for the Diocese of Rome and the official church of its bishop, the pope.

The ambo blends newly created stonework with ancient pieces from the basilica’s past.

“We are very thankful always to the Lord for giving us the opportunity to do projects such as these,” said Ms. Pighi.

“Having so many people ‘sotto un unico tetto’ — ‘under one roof,’ as we say in Italian — it’s also important to have new challenges, new projects,” she said. “Many challenges, but so many satisfactions!”

Other projects have included the mosaics donated by several South American embassies to the Holy See and installed in the Vatican Gardens, the stained glass at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome, and work at the Basilica of Our Lady of Health in Venice, the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Florence, and various locations in Vatican City.

“These works belong to humankind, to the Church,” Ms. Pighi stated.

Cardinal Antonio Tagle, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, commissioned Progetto Arte Poli to work on a project in China.

“He told us that art is a form of evangelization that draws people of different backgrounds together for one unified purpose,” Ms. Pighi recalled.

The results transcend boundaries of language and culture.

“When we do artwork, it’s not just an artistic piece,” she noted. “It’s something that will then be seen by its community, will be perceived, will be experienced and will bring emotions to the people.”

Many parts

Mosaics are among the most ancient forms of art. Perhaps the most famous examples in the United States cover the walls and ceiling of the massive Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, King of France, in St. Louis.

Progetto Arte Poli uses an array of materials to create mosaics, primarily marble and smalti, a glass-based material developed centuries ago in Venice.

“And whether you’re using stone or smalti, everything is cut by hand,” Ms. Pighi noted.

“You have to imagine one of our artists with a special hammer, busily taking one big piece of either stone or glass and cutting it,” she said.

Fashioning each tiny piece with precision is essential.

“Like the Madonna of Guadalupe and the others where we present a face, you have to make sure the features of the face are exactly those that are going to be perceived — from a few feet away, as well as from a great distance,” Ms. Pighi noted.

She said the Guadalupe image is likely the most challenging for the artisans.

“It’s an image that we all know,” she said, “but from a technical perspective, the image is very, very complex for a mosaic, especially with the dimensions we decided. It took a lot of time and attention to detail.”

Because it is an interpretation of an image that appeared miraculously on the tilma of St. Juan Diego as a result of his encounter with an apparition of the Blessed Mother, it must be precise and accurate.

“It’s not something that’s bound to interpretation,” Ms. Pighi noted.

Grand assembly

The large mosaics had to be created in pieces that were small enough to be shipped from Verona to Jefferson City without breaking.

From the earliest stages of the design, each of the large pieces was created to fit seamlessly together after delivery.

“They arrive in several pieces like a very big puzzle,” said Ms. Pighi. “And once they are all put together, you don’t see any kind of joint. It all becomes one piece.”

She said the ultimate purpose for all of these mosaics is to help the entire community feel increasingly closer to each other and the Lord, “and for more and more and more people who do not come to church often to be drawn back.”

The artisans at Progetto Arte Poli are convinced that they are doing God’s work with projects such as these.

Their goal is that generations from now, people will still perceive the great passion and devotion with which these works were created.

“It’s really the passion to deliver the message of God to the community that’s receiving these artworks,” Ms. Pighi stated. “Like Cardinal Tagle said, it is the home of evangelization and of really bringing all people together.”