Mary comes to life in cemetery mosaic

WINTER PARK | The words of the late Bishop Thomas Grady, “we honor Mary because God first honored her,” boast why the first diocesan cemetery is named after her. Driving up to Queen of Angels Cemetery, visitors cannot miss the 10-foot by almost 11-foot mosaic of Mary, surrounded by angels, greeting guests just beyond the small pond—welcoming them to this sacred space.

The work of art is made of Venetian glass, hand-cut and crafted in Italy under the direction of Conrad Pickel Studio, Inc. in Vero Beach. Studio artist Lyn Durham first drew watercolor concepts, evolving into a final pastel work. The final product is an imposing masterpiece made of an estimated 250,000 pieces of glass, on the east side of the columbarium building.

The 70-year-old studio is family-owned, founded by Conrad Pickel, who learned the art of stained glass in his homeland of Germany. The method dates back to the Renaissance. The artist draws an image, an actual size pastel drawing, which is sent to the glass factory. “They (artisans) gather the glass and press it into a small pancake ¼” thick and 6” in diameter,” explained Paul Pickel, the studio’s second-generation owner. “Then it is cut into strips, later cut into small mosaic pieces. The glass is made by adding metallic oxides to the natural ingredients of the glass,” thus producing a wide range of up to 2,000 colors.

The glass pieces and rendering are sent to nearby Spilimbergo, where the image is reversed and divided into sections. Eight to 10 skilled craftspeople work on sections – some specialize in faces, others in hands and backgrounds. Cutting and fitting is a pain-staking and slow process, taking more than six months to complete. For this project, there were 69 “puzzle” pieces or sections. The pieces are then glued onto paper and shipped. It took foreman Paul Thornton and his assistant, Bradley Sanderson, five days to install the final artwork, carefully matching the elegant pieces seamlessly.

The Queen of Angels mosaic is not only a symbol, but a reality of everlasting life, joyfully looking toward the eternal, while also acknowledging a present eternal reality. For Pickel, “It’s just a thrill to see (the mosaic) come to life.” He said, “From the moment you create the design to then actually see it on the wall… the colors are so beautiful and the shading is fantastic.” As a Catholic himself, Pickel says, “To know that people will be inspired by that – even though they may not be consciously aware of it – the feeling or suggestion affects people as they’re sitting in church or come up to the cemetery. That’s a great feeling – that we are able to contribute to that.”

Scott Fergerson, director of Ecclesiastical Properties for the diocese agrees. “The mosaic beautifully depicts Mary as our Queen of Angels. Its prominent location provides a constant reminder of the comfort our Blessed Mother provides as the faithful depart to their heavenly homes.”

The idea for a Marian name came from that of the Diocese of Orlando’s patroness, Mary, Mother of God, designated in 1977 by Pope Paul VI at the request of Bishop Thomas Grady. As plans for a diocesan cemetery formed and slowly came to fruition, former Bishop Thomas Wenski wanted to honor her by naming the first, and hopefully future cemeteries with a name given to Mary. David Branson, director of cemeteries for the diocese, noted, “As the Diocese of Orlando is dedicated to Mary, thus the desire was that diocesan cemeteries, apart from those associated with parishes, would carry a Marian name and seek the blessing of Mary for its ministry. The name would also reflect how the diocese is dedicated to the honor and intercession of Mary,” he explained.

Bishop John Noonan received 15 names for consideration, noting Queen of Angels as the primary choice. Bishop Noonan thought of all the beautiful images of Mary that stood out in his mind throughout his life. “There are a number of special scenes of Mary in the life of Jesus that are captured by famous artists,” he said. “Michelangelo’s Pietà is one such scene—Mary holding the dead body of Jesus after being taken down from the Cross.” He pondered the daily recitation of the Rosary prayed by millions of Catholics throughout the world. “In the Rosary, the fourth and fifth Joyful Mysteries – the Assumption and the Crowning of Mary – are two beautiful scenes captured by artists over the centuries.” Reflecting on these depictions of Christian devotion to Mary, as the Mother of Jesus, Queen of Angels seemed to make the most sense. He added, focusing on Mary’s hands, “Simply look at the Pietà—how she holds the body of her son Jesus; the tenderness, care and love that we pray all our loved ones will receive from Mary in death. … The prayer that comes to mind is, Mary please look after our loved ones here on earth and in Heaven,” he noted. He wanted visitors to share that experience as they entered the cemetery, an assurance that their Mother was with them and those they loved and lost.

The decision to highlight the cemetery entrance with a mosaic of Mary came early in the design concept, according to Branson. “We wanted to have religious art that was very visible from the entry way, knowing a new road would be built to enter the combined properties of the cemetery and San Pedro Spiritual Development Center.” He added, “We wanted a hallmark image as a visual impact upon entering the property.” Two studios competed for the project, but Branson said, “Pickel was closer to Bishop Noonan’s vision of Mary welcoming departed souls to heaven, accompanied by angels.” He noted Bishop Noonan’s appreciation of the design, particularly, “Mary welcoming the faithful to heaven and the angels beckoning and welcoming the faithful with her.”

The words from the Requiem Mass, better known today as the Christian Burial Rite, also served as inspiration for the name and art for Queen of Angels. At the end of the rite, all sing the Song of Farewell or In Paradisum, sung as the casket is being incensed, sending the prayers to heaven.

“May the angels lead you into paradise. May the martyrs receive you at your arrival and lead you to the holy city Jerusalem. May choirs of angels receive you and with Lazarus, once a poor man, may you have eternal rest.”

As a final reminder of Mary’s connection with our eternity, Bishop Noonan recalled, “We pray daily, Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” How apt then, to name the cemetery after Our Lady and crown it with a mosaic demonstrating her unceasing goal, to lead us to her son, Jesus.

Queen of Angels cemetery is adjacent to San Pedro Spiritual Development Center in Winter Park. It is the first diocesan cemetery and opens in June.

By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic, May 27, 2020