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This is the third in a series on Meridian’s coverage of the Rome Temple Dedication. You can find all these articles at latterdaysaintmag.com/Rome. Join us on Facebook where Meridian will be live from the temple dedication in Rome.
The photography in this article is from Tom Holdman and Scot Proctor.
We have Temple Square in Salt Lake City, and now we have a second Temple Square in Rome. That’s what people are coming to call this 15-acre elevated jewel that features a temple with very unique architecture, other church buildings around a piazza and a Visitor’s Center whose art is jaw dropping.
Here there are replicas of the statues of the Christus and the 12 Apostles created by renowned Danish artist Bertel Thorvalsen and a twenty-by-seven-foot stained glass mural centered on Christ, called “Come Unto Me”, created by Tom and Gayle Holdman, a piece that holds its own against the other masterwork.
“Stained glass almost breathes because the light comes through so it has a life of its own and people are drawn to that,” Gayle said. “Visitors come into this beautiful building with a cool, old Italian home on one side and lovely furniture, and yet they go directly to the windows because light shines through and the Savior is in the center. We are attracted to light.”
The Holdmans thought they were finished with the Rome Temple project when they delivered their 804 finished stained glass windows, a massive job that had taken years and many hands. Then, however, they were asked, “Would you be willing to do just one more window?”
That one more window was this art-glass mural for the Visitors Center, a massive job in and of itself. Just when they might have thought, “Whew, we are finished,” they were only beginning.
There is indeed nothing that quite captivates like the intricacy of stained glass with its rich dazzle of colors and vibrancy. In ancient churches, so often dark and cavernous, the art glass was the focus of light, a reminder of the Lord the people had come to worship. However, because it is a difficult and labor-intensive process, religious stained glass still remains rare.
Asked to do this enormous job, the first question was what moment in Christ’s life should be the subject and would sum up all the rest? When the Holdmans had done the art glass window for the Palmyra Temple, choosing the scene of Joseph receiving the First Vision was a natural.
What scene could capture our Savior? The conceptualizing process began with several sketches of ideas.
Now as we are about to walk you through this process of the creation of this mural, we have to confess that we were deeply moved by the care for detail and getting it right that both Tom and Gayle explained to arrive at their spectacular finished product. It was painstaking, precise, and inspired beyond what anyone would expect to create this masterpiece. We felt as we listened to them that they were willing to explode old boundaries, expand their minds, employ every resource, redo and redo and redo again to find solutions—and they did.
It wasn’t just the weeks and months of striving for excellence alone that moved us. It was the sense that they hoped beyond anything else that the mural could convey the Spirit as their expression of their deep love for the Lord.
We know the Lord loves all of us, Gayle said. “The question is do we love Him and how are we going to show it? He said, if you love me, keep my commandments. So what are those commandments? Love the Lord with all your heart mind and strength, then love thy neighbor as thyself. We have to decide that is where our heart and our life is going to be, and we have to work hard at it.”
“Sometimes we ask ourselves, ‘Am I good enough? Is this good enough?’ It is beautiful to realize that we are all good enough at any given moment because He loves us perfectly, but you’re the only who knows if there’s more for you to give. The Spirit will say to you that there is something you can do better. It is not because He doesn’t love me, but because that is how I can show that I love Him.”
This was the case with the art glass mural they created. They looked at the various iterations before the final product and asked themselves, ‘Is there something I can do more?’ Sometimes it meant something had to be done one more time to get it to a higher level.
“You do it because you know that you have it in you and that this one more thing is what is really needed. It is a privilege to do what is really needed, and that usually takes that extra oomph.”
At the beginning, they designed and then drafted several concepts. Tom showed them to us by casting one after another on the floor before us so we could see the evolution. They considered Christ calming the sea, calling His apostles, healing the troubled or reaching out for little children.
Each had its strength, but ultimately they chose an approach that was entirely unique—including all of Christ’s mission and ministry, His parables and miracles all in one mural with Him at the center of it all. This meant that 120 parables, stories, and ideas from the life of Christ are all shown in this one panel. Tom confessed that there are actually more than 120. Many others are there as well, hidden in the stained glass.
This means that some people and objects had to represent more than one thing. For instance, they put two stones by the woman at the well, so she could also represent the woman taken in adultery.
The concept to include all of this required sketch after sketch. We thought, so this is how you achieve such superiority as an artist. So much care.
“As you do sketch after sketch,” Tom said, “You think about it. People think that artists get an idea and then it instantly all happens in their head, but what happens is you get line upon line of it, and then you push and you draw the concepts, and you begin to know which idea you need to let go of and which you keep.
“In an early sketch we started with an image of Christ that resembled the Christus. This form works well in marble, but in glass, it wasn’t as intimate as it needed to be,” Tom said.
Gayle said, “With that stiff stance He seemed less approachable and He seemed less human, and we wanted to portray his humanity. We have to remember that He is the literal Son of God, but He is half mortal as well, so that he can understand us. He knows what it feels like to hurt.. He knows what betrayal is. He knows what pain is. He understands loss. He understands all of it.”
“We also wanted the viewer to know that the person kneeling before Him could be you. You could see yourself there with all your infirmities,” Tom said.
“We knew that an artist has the opportunity in a composition to direct your eye where it should end up, so we wanted every angle and every line in the mural to be drawn right to the heart of Christ,” he said.
This meant many and sometimes subtle changes from the original conception, which amounted to piles of sketches of variations. Sometimes the changes were not so subtle. In this iteration, the woman at the well to the left of Christ has a hand that is not reaching out to Him, thus breaking the line. This had to change.
“You have to look at her hand and arm and make sure it angles right toward the heart of Christ. That helps make you feel that you are right in the scene. We have a little girl in the scene looking right at you. She pulls you into the picture, almost like asking you how do you feel about Christ? Where do you stand?”
In an early version of the sketches, Christ is holding the hand of the boy kneeling before Him, hoping to be healed. They altered the hand for the final mural, so now as you stand looking at the mural, Christ is reaching for you and His foot is turned before Him. From the original, the boy’s body now is turned so that he is more obscure and could represent all of us.
Gayle said, “The Spirit was just nagging about that. Turn the boy. That is not a small thing. You have to go out and get costumes and models and it is not so easy to turn the body to a new angle. But the Spirit just kept saying, the body needs to be turned.”
“This finally meant in this scene, that you are always reaching for Christ, and He is always reaching for you,” said Tom.
“It makes such a difference to those who come and see it,” said Gayle, “but they wouldn’t know that there was an aspect missing that could have made the mural connect deeper with people. They wouldn’t have even known what was missing. We literally had to get the costuming again, get the model back and take new pictures.”
It is also fascinating to note that the people in the art glass are real models, who had to find the emotions and assume the poses. If someone were to have blood on them in the stained glass, the model was made up with blood.
Getting the right expressions on the faces of those in the scene is also a process. What would the face of someone look like who saw the Savior? How do you express that inward feeling of yearning love in art glass? Below are various stages of the woman showing small emotional differences to capture how it would feel to be close to the Savior. The next photo is of Peter and a street urchin.
Below is a close up of James’ expression as he looks at a crippled boy who is being made whole.
Many iterations painted of Christ’s face to capture the combination of love and strength.
Tom Holdman traveled to the manufacturer and examined hundreds of sheets of glass with the concept art, searching for the shades and values that lay hidden in the glass.
Tom said, “When you are looking at the factory through sheets of glass, you have to visualize the shading of the outfits. You have to see the flowers and the sky. When Michelangelo looked at a piece of marble, he could feel his people wanting to come out. We have to look at pieces of glass and see the fabric or the stone wanting to come out of the glass.
“This window,” he said, “has over 6,000 pieces of glass in it, but we cut much more than that. You put a piece of glass in and you have to see if it works or not. You have to envision how it will work together.”
“Sometimes you have to cut a stone multiple times,” said Gayle, “not because it broke, but because it may not match all the colors around it. You realize it could be better, and that’s where you make adjustments and move on.”
Each layer of powered glass was applied separately and fired at 1200 degrees. Some were fired as many as 10 times, increasing the risk of breakage.
The mural required 25 artists at different levels. Ironically, the Holdmans continued to make changes right to the end when it was being installed in the Visitor’s Center on Rome Temple Square.
“We were directed by the Spirit to make changes,” said Gayle, “because this was literally going to be a tool for the Lord. You are asking what you can do to be an instrument of His peace. We wanted this art glass mural to be that. How you do that came little by little as we went. If you hope to be a servant to God, all you can do is start going forward and doing the best of your ability.”
That last change was this. By the little girl facing forward in the far left of the mural was a bunch of fruit. It occurred to the Holdmans that that fruit could be replaced with the precious stones mentioned in the Old Testament that represent the Ten Tribes of the House of Israel.
The BYU Geology Department stepped up to the challenge and found and donated all the stones mentioned, some that had been in their collection for over 100 years.
Tom made those changes right at the Visitor’s Center in Rome.
For the Holdmans, this wasn’t just exceptional artistry. This level of care was based on a keen love of the Savior. Gayle said, “We were directed by the Spirit, because this was literally going to be a tool of the Spirit. It was like we were crying, “Lord, let me be an instrument of thy peace. How can I be an instrument of thy peace? I feel like He was answering. We want this work to be something that will testify of Christ.”
A new book called Come Unto Me, Illuminating the Savior’s Life, Mission, Parables and Miracles is available, explaining the mural and giving insight into the events and parables of Jesus’s life. It is written by Brad Wilcox, Gayle Holdman, Tyler Griffin and Anthony Sweat.