When the chapel for Sacred Heart University in Connecticut was dedicated in 2009, much of the public attention was focused on the massive mosaic newly installed behind the main altar, which depicts Jesus Christ at the center of salvation history. Anthony Cernera, then president of the university, had retained the services of Marko Rupnik, S.J., an artist whose distinctive craftsmanship appears in the Vatican’s papal apartments and in the main basilica in Lourdes.
Overlooked at the time, however, was another, equally precious jewel: the Blessed Sacrament chapel. This intimate space, with just a few wooden benches, is now used for daily Masses and private meditation. What makes the space so astonishing is that its walls are covered from floor to ceiling with brilliantly colored mosaics of scenes from the Nativity story. It gives one the impression of having stepped into an icon. On these pages are reproductions of some of the mosaics with three brief meditations.
The mosaic of the Nativity of Our Lord, above, dominates the small chapel. Mary is robed in a deep red, a color that Eastern iconographers traditionally reserve for royalty. Here, at the beginning of her life with Jesus, she points viewers to her son, as she would do at the wedding feast of Cana, when she utters her last words quoted in the Gospels: “Do whatever he tells you.” Mary looks uncomfortable as she lies on the cold, hard stones. In places, the chunky tesserae that Rupnik used to fashion the scene are as large as an adult hand; they could be actual stones. But Mary’s ungainly posture presages her life, which, while filled with joy, would be painful at times. Joseph looks on pensively, as if exhausted from the journey to Bethlehem, and holds a flowering staff, the symbol of his chastity. The two seem to know that this respite is temporary. Their lives with Jesus, filled with joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties, have now begun.
The Wise Men
The Gospel of Matthew tells us that the “wise men” came from “the East” to worship the Messiah. Or as Christmas carolers sometimes sing, they came from “afar.” In Rupnik’s portrayal, though, the richly attired kings, sporting golden crowns to match their haloes, step on stones that are rather near. The artist incorporated into the mosaic pieces of a local Connecticut stone: shale. In the chapel, then, the connection between the exotic journey of the wise men and our own is made clear: our path to worship the Lord and to bring him our own good gifts can begin wherever we find ourselves.
Saints Joachim and Anne
This is perhaps the most unexpected part of the Blessed Sacrament chapel: a touching depiction of Joachim and Anne, the traditional names of Mary’s parents. (The names appear in the apocryphal Gospel of James.) It is one of the tenderest portraits of a married couple I have ever seen.
How rare it is in a Christian setting to see a couple portrayed in such a clear demonstration of physical affection. Even when Mary and Joseph are depicted as a couple, they are seldom shown touching each other, lest the art challenge the viewer’s image of the couple’s chastity.
But Joachim and Anne led a full, married life and had at least one child, Mary. In Rupnik’s mosaic, they rejoice in the birth of their new grandchild and embrace, their faces pressed together in utter joy.
When I saw this mosaic, I thought of the verse often used at weddings, something their grandson would later say, as recorded in the Gospel of Mark: “The two shall become one flesh.” Perhaps Jesus knew his grandparents well and reflected on their love.
Joachim and Anne are one in love and devotion.
View additional images of Fr. Rupnik's mosaics at Sacred Heart University.