With more than 83,000 square feet of mosaic art in the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis, it’s understandable that a small mosaic of an angel of time — depicted as an hourglass with wings — probably doesn’t garner a whole lot of attention from visitors.
But last spring, it gained the scrutiny of cathedral basilica staff, who noticed a smattering of tesserae — the small glass pieces that comprise mosaic art — on the floor of the All Souls Chapel near the site of the mosaic.
As it turns out, a blister had formed on the upper wall and began to expand, pushing tesserae off of the wall. The damage was the result of heavy rains that had come through the area that spring and managed to leak through the exterior roof and guttering, said Tom Fasl, the cathedral basilica’s business manager. In all, about four square feet of mosaics in the upper corner of the chapel’s wall needed to be restored.
After the exterior repairs came the task of hiring someone to restore the mosaics to their original beauty. Enter Jim Foltz, co-owner of Radiant Arts Inc. of Beach City, Ohio, who spent four days working on the project in April. This was not his first time working at the cathedral basilica. Several years ago, he was tasked with restoring some of the leaded windows in the transepts. In addition to mosaic work, Radiant Arts also specializes in stained-glass restoration and statuary work.
After determining what was needed, Foltz contacted Mosaici Donà Murano of Venice, Italy, which produces smalti, a type of glass paste that is hardened and chiseled into individual pieces of tesserae, which typically measure from about 1/4 inch to 3/8 inch thick. Of course, like most everything imported from overseas during the pandemic, there was a several months delay in shipment, which pushed the project back to this spring.
Foltz has nearly 50 years of experience with stained glass, and 30 years of experience with mosaic installation and repairs. But among all of his work experience, “this is definitely the most prestigious,” he said of the cathedral basilica. The building was dedicated in 1914, and it took about 80 years and more than 41 million pieces of glass tesserae to complete all of the mosaics.
Before the tiles are set on the wall, Foltz applies a mortar mix. He maps the tiles on a piece of paper to outline his work before placing them on the section of wall one by one. Years ago, Foltz toured several places throughout Italy to learn more about the art of mosaics. “In Italy, they do it in reverse,” he said. “You glue (the tesserae) to the paper, and it’s applied backwards.”
Additionally, the different shades of gold tile used in the cathedral basilica are placed at slightly different angles, giving them a shimmer effect depending on how the lighting hits them. That technique is done using a small jeweler’s hammer to help slightly angle the pieces and enhance the reflectivity — a total art form.
The restoration project was made possible through the support of the Friends of the Cathedral Basilica, which provides funds needed to maintain and preserve the cathedral basilica. There about 120 Friends, as well as 66 members of the John L. May Society, who donate at least $1,000 a year. Previous projects have included restoration of windows and pews, cleaning mosaics and restoring doors.
“All of the preservation and restoration of the cathedral basilica in the last 11 years has been because of the Friends of the Cathedral, and bequests that were made to be used to restore the cathedral itself,” said Fasl, the business manager. In 2018, then-Archbishop Robert Carlson also started the Archbishop’s Gala to raise additional funds for restoration and maintenance efforts of the 107-year-old building. Projects resulting from the gala’s success have included updating the air conditioning and heating system, continuing upkeep of the building and bringing the cathedral basilica better into compliance with the Americans With Disability Act.
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The Friends of the Cathedral Basilica is a group of people dedicated to providing needed funds for ongoing maintenance and preservation of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis. To learn more about Friends of the Cathedral Basilica and make a donation, visit cathedralstl.org/give/parish-online-giving.