By Derrick Knutson
St. John’s Lutheran Church Pastor Ed Wheatley described the gift his church is about to receive from world-renowned artist Mark Balma as an “overwhelming” donation.
Balma, best known for his frescoes at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis and the Cathedral of St. Paul – he’s also had work commissioned by the Vatican – is donating six frescoes to the Stacy church.
“With so many people unemployed and so many families facing foreclosure, I wanted to give something to the community as a whole, something that would bring people together, that would strengthen their spirit and their faith,” Balma said.
Mary Welty, an administrative assistant at the church, said construction on the three Gothic arches to be built at the east entrance of the church will start this week, and once those structures are completed, Balma will start creating the frescoes, which she said will be the only known free-standing frescoes in the world.
The center Gothic arch will be about 17 feet high, with the side arches rising to around 15 feet.
Fresco is a process whereby ground up earth pigment is applied directly to a wet lime plaster. As the fresco cures, colors are absorbed into the plaster and eventually harden to stone.
Balma will complete the images throughout the summer.
Welty said Balma decided to make the frescoes for the church because he has ties to the Stacy area, and he’ll have leftover material after he completes another work of art in the state, so instead of letting it go to waste he decided to donate it to the church, along with his time and artistic expertise.
Although there are concept sketches of what the frescoes will look like once they’re finished, Balma has already changed the images from the original designs and the public won’t know exactly what the artwork will look like until its completely done.
However, Rev. Dr. Alfred Valerius, who has served as part of the St. John’s congregation for over 25 years, has chosen the scene he’d like the frescoes to depict.
He selected “The Transfiguration of Christ” as the theme.
According to Valerius, the Transfiguration on the mountaintop is the pivotal moment in the ministry of Christ when he revealed his divinity.
Balma is currently working with computer graphics artist Ray Downing of Studio Macbeth to design the image of Christ.
Those familiar with the Shroud of Turin might know of Downing.
In March of 2010, the History Channel released a two-hour documentary about the shroud, a 14-foot length of cloth believed to be the actual burial shroud of Jesus.
A face, believed to be that of Jesus, is imprinted on the shroud. Using the fabric and the aid of computer imaging, Downing produced a three-dimensional image that Balma will use to create the “most historically accurate” rendering of Christ ever produced, Welty said.
Ben Hollingsead, an intern pastor at the church, said the image would likely be a departure from the anglicized “Swedish Jesus” people are used to seeing in works of art.
Despite the poor weather during the groundbreaking ceremony for the frescoes at the church May 20, Wheatley said there was a great turnout for the event.
“Sunday was a blast,” he said. “I’ve never seen people here that bubbly before.”
Wheatley said he wanted to thank everyone who attended and also express the church’s gratitude to Balma and others – PEI Construction and Mason Joe Fisk are building the arches – who made the donations to make the frescoes possible.
“We’re hoping the frescoes will be a place people can gather around that will instill faith and hope,” Wheatley said.
He added, “We’re getting the frescoes, but God will be getting the glory.”