Even on an overcast fall afternoon, the nearly 300,000 tiles that make up the mosaic on the new Catholic student center at UW-Madison were shimmering as freshman Casey Gilinson walked by.
The two-story mosaic — like the new $30 million Saint Paul University Catholic Center itself, clad in brick and stone and topped by a copper dome — is a striking new addition at the most prominent gateway to UW-Madison, and stands out next to its drab, concrete campus neighbors.
“It’s colorful,” Gilinson said. “It’s nice to see on my way to class.”
Not everyone was a fan of the mosaic and its popping colors, though.
“It’s too gaudy for me,” said Liam Klotzbach, who was visiting campus from UW-Platteville.
Based on a 13th century mosaic at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, the St. Paul’s facade depicts the Coronation of the Virgin — Jesus crowning Mary as the two sit on a throne in heaven. Angels watch from below, and Jesus holds a Bible open to the Book of Revelation 3:12.
The mosaic was finished in mid-October after weeks of work by Fantini Mosaici, an Italian company that assembled about 290,000 tesserae tiles, said the Rev. Mark Miller, director of student ministries at St. Paul’s.
Miller said the mosaic is his favorite feature of the new building, which is expected to open next month and also includes the student center, a chapel, meeting rooms and an event hall.
“The people who pass by — students and people on State Street — they are confronted with this image of heaven,” Miller said. “It’s the kind that draws your eyes up naturally, and what we hope is that it lifts people’s minds and hearts up as well.”
Mosaic is a significant choice of medium
The mosaic’s bright colors bear no resemblance to the features of the building it replaced. The old Saint Paul’s, which was demolished in early 2016, was known for its modernist concrete exterior from the late-1960s, which divided opinions for the opposite reason.
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The new building at 723 State St. could have been even more noticeable — the Madison Catholic Diocese initially proposed a 14-story facility for the site, but downsized its plans amid opposition and rising construction costs.
UW-Madison art history professor Thomas Dale, who studies Christian iconography and medieval mosaics, said both the work’s medium and the scene it depicts are significant.
The coronation speaks to the church’s view of Mary as an intercessor on behalf of humanity, Dale said, while using a design from medieval Rome connects St. Paul’s to the Vatican and Catholic history. The same can be said of the use of mosaic, the technique that has been present “almost from the very beginnings of art in the Roman church,” he said, and which sends a message in its reflective tiles.
“If you’re trying to create this idea that the church is a kind of meeting place between heaven and Earth, that shimmer evokes something of that heavenly presence,” Dale said.
As Miller hoped, the mosaic draws the eye. Students and others turned their heads to study it as they walked through the end of State Street or waited for orders at the pedestrian mall’s food carts.
On Twitter, responses varied from “the most beautiful thing on State Street” to “out of place on a public university campus.” (While it’s surrounded by several UW buildings and grounds, St. Paul’s is on private property.)
Drew Anderson, a postdoctoral researcher at UW-Madison, dubbed it “Loveseat Jesus.”
Miller said he has heard some complaints about the mosaic second-hand, but none directly. Critics will have to learn to live with it — mosaic is a famously durable medium, and Miller said the enameled glass won’t fade over time.
“Most of the people find it, at least, interesting,” he said.
Editor's Note: This story has been changed to accurately name the Scripture passage in the mosaic.