In life’s mosaic, ‘fragments of possibility’

Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016 9:22 PM

Imagine – scarlet. Bring it to mind in all its richness. Sit with this vivid, intense color, and let it speak to you.

Now, fuchsia. And then, magenta. Try azure. And in a while, what about Tangerine or plain old orange?

I have recently been taken by color after being part of a retreat that used mosaics as a meditative medium. Since then I have learned that the great makers of Italian mosaic tiles (known as smalti) have carefully guarded the recipes that they use to create over 7,000 shades of this special glass. They even have a process for embedding shades of gold leaf in clear glass. When cut into tiles, it’s as though whatever image the gold is used to create glows from within.

But there is also stained glass used to make mosaics. It differs from smalti in thickness and the saturation of color. Imagine the transparent jewel tones of pure purple, deepest blue, brightest yellow. How do they make you feel? Like differing musical tones, colors affect us differently, something that has been known for a long time.

Add image to all this. Whether creating a picture or a pure design, andamento (the flow and movement the tiles, called tesserae, create) is another element that affects the how the work is perceived.

You may be wondering, why write about the creation of mosaics in a “religion” column? Several reasons, actually. Like any artistic endeavor, creating a mosaic draws the artist out of him or herself. Working with glass – choosing this shade over that, placing this piece here, not there – is an exercise in presence. The artist is present not only to the materials with which she is working, but she is also present to herself. During any act of creation when the monkey mind is silenced we are in a position of openness to God.

Christians affirm that we are made in the image of this God – the Creator. Each of our creative acts is “of God.” What’s more, unlike dance or music or many other visual arts (except quilting or woodworking perhaps), mosaics are made from fragments. A mosaic is a whole that is created from what has been broken. How’s that for a metaphor for a life well lived?

Many authors who write about mosaics have pointed out that this creative process is not about putting back together or fixing what was once whole or perfect. A mosaic brings into being something that has never existed before. And it uses what is “broken” and “useless.” Shards of discarded pottery, rocks, shells, bits of wood, even what’s left of children’s toys; sheets of liquid color now scored and cut or nipped and broken; thick smalti hammered against a blade until there are only little cubes of various shades of hues – these are the media of the creator of a mosaic. They are, as Stephanie Paulsell of Harvard Divinity School writes, “fragments of possibility.”

As we enter another year with so much in our world that seems broken and far from perfect, perhaps our theological work is to not waste anything – not what is shattered in our world; not what is fragmented among us; not what is broken within us. And what if, as Paulsell adds, we were to gather up the “fragments of these uncertain times and, together, create something beautiful?”

I find that a hopeful image for the world.

Leigh Waggoner is priest at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. She can be reached at 565-7865, or