The Meaning Behind the Mosaic

To my readers, I apologize for not posting for a while. I have been writing a series for our church on the history and meaning of the artwork found in the church. I wasn’t sure if that interested anyone outside the faith community, so I did not post my explorations. However, there is a mosaic in our sanctuary that is quite impressive and unique. I would like to share that with you as you may find it interesting.

This impressive installation was put in place in 1962. The artistic mind behind the mosaic was Cyrus M. Running who, at the time, was the head of Concordia College’s (Moorhead, Minn.) art department. The members of First Lutheran Church commissioned the work. Running began rendering a watercolor model of the design and within eight months was working with a crew to install the impressive work of art.

Assembling the mosaic was a feat in engineering. Running indicated he was probably as proud of the engineering process of the project as he was of the mosaic’s artistic expression.

The mosaic was divided into 67 sections, most of which were approximately three feet square. The main outline of the design was created from lead strips placed on top of panes of glass. One-inch square imported tile pieces were set within the frame and securely cemented in place. Over 200,000 tiles in 27 different colors were used. Once the tile pieces were in place, they were grouted with opaque cement.

To hold the mosaic, a huge framework of steel was built across the altar wall of the sanctuary, with a ladder and permanent scaffolding placed between the wall and the frame. Each tiled section weighed around 50 pounds and was put into a padded box that was carefully lifted into position within the framework. Once all the sections were in place, lighting was installed behind the mosaic. The completed size of the work of art was 24-feet wide by 32-feet high and weighed 4,464 pounds. One observer recalls the first time the mosaic was lit, saying, “The switch was thrown and the mosaic burst into color, filling the entire east end of the church.” Attached you will find a drawing of the mosaic with a corresponding key that will help you understand the personal representation and symbols found in the mosaic.

The Bible tells the story of Jesus taking Peter, James, and John up a mountain. While there, they witnessed Christ transfigured before them. His cloak becomes shining and white as snow and appearing alongside him was Elias (also known as Elijah) and Moses, and they have a conversation (Matthew 17:1–8, Mark 9:2–8, Luke 9:28–36). This event furnishes the scriptural basis for the idea behind the mosaic.

The numbers in this drawing help us understand the symbolic nature of the piece.

The central figure is Christ (1) holding symbols of the Word (the Bible) and sacrament (the wine and bread of Holy Communion). Above Jesus’ head is the hand of God (2) and below Jesus’ feet is the seven-tongued flame signifying the Holy Spirit (3). Therefore the Trinity is fully and artistically represented.

On either side of Jesus are the figures of Moses (4) and Elias (5) who express the significance of the people in the Old Testament who proceeded Christ. Moses represents the law and Elias the prophets. The large cross which dominates the entire panel graphically expresses our Savior’s sacrificial death and resurrection which he foretold after the transfiguration on the mountain. The downward curve of the cross repeats the roof and arch line of the church’s structure. More importantly, it emphasized the truth that the cross bears the weight of countless sin.

Along the bottom half of the mosaic stand the apostles Matthew (6), Mark (7), Andrew (8), Peter (9), Luke (10), and John (11). Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were obvious choices as they were the writers of the four gospels. Andrew and Peter were chosen from many other possible figures because each has so much to say to the ordinary, earth-bound believer today. Andrew was a fisherman who became a fisher of people; Peter denied his Lord in a moment of crisis but was still the rock on which Jesus said the church would be built. Each figure is represented with a symbol of his martyrdom.

The remaining panels carry traditional symbols concerned with the suffering of our Lord Jesus Christ.

  • (12) The cross and burial sheet are identified with the descent from the cross.
  • (13) The chalice and cross remind us of Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane where he asked his Father for the cup to pass him by but submitted to God’s will.
  • (14) The crown of thorns is a common symbol of the crucifixion as Jesus was made to wear one by his accusers.
  • (15) The sword and staff symbolize the betrayal in the Garden where Peter draws a sword to confront Jesus’ accusers.
  • (16) The basin and jug (ewer) pertain to Pilate’s act of washing his hands of the blood of Christ.
  • (17) Three nails are an obvious reference to the crucifixion.
  • (18) The seamless robe and dice show the fulfillment of the prophecy that the guards would cast dice to see who would attain the robe, which was more valuable intact rather than torn since it was a seamless garment.
  • (19) Thirty pieces of silver with a money bag reminds us of the 30 pieces of silver Judas, Jesus’ betrayer, received for telling the soldiers where Christ could be arrested.
  • (20) The pillar and scourge refer to the trial, condemnation, and scourging of Jesus.
  • (21) INRI stands for Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum, which is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews in Greek.
  • (22) The sponge and reed pertain to when Jesus was offered a vinegar-soaked sponge while hanging on the cross.
  • (23) The ladder is a symbol of the crucifixion and is often paired with the cross and sheet shown in (12).

If you are ever in Fargo, North Dakota, and would like to see this impressive work of art, please stop by. Thanks for reading!