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Mosaic exhibit shows rejected design for Memorial Church


Jane Stanford, who once declared that her heart was in the university but her soul was in Memorial Church, had her religious beliefs literally carved into the church's sandstone walls. Among them are these words: "Whichever form of religion offers the greatest comfort, the greatest solace, is the form which should be adopted."

So it comes as a mild shock to see a watercolor sketch now on display at the Museo ItaloAmericano at Fort Mason in San Francisco, one of a collection of more than a dozen working drawings and paintings in the exhibit "Antonio Paoletti and the Stanford Memorial Church Mosaics."

Top, an alternate design for the facade of Memorial Church is seen in a watercolor sketch. Although little is known about the design, it is thought to have been drawn very early in the process of creating the church’s mosaics. Below, a century-old ledger contains an early rendering of the church’s tapestry mosaics. Photo: L.A. Cicero

Water-stained and unfinished, the sketch presents a strikingly dissimilar vision of the 84-foot-wide mosaic that now covers the church façade -- the pastoral "Christ Blessing the People," a soothing wash of soft green, violet, gold and cornflower blue.

In the alternate version, figures rise from tombstones; one is a skeleton still draped in shrouds. A Christ figure at the top of the scene is surrounded by kneeling figures and raises a hand not in blessing but in judgment. To his left, damned souls tumble headlong into flames and the outstretched wings of a fanged dragon while sword-wielding angels beat them back from Heaven. Had the design actually been used, the dragon's wings would appear not far from where an angel figure now cradles two children on her lap.

The undated drawing is signed by Paoletti, the artist hired by the Venetian glass company A. Salviati & Co. to paint images for the mosaics. There's no record of Jane Stanford rejecting the alternate façade design in the correspondence that she's seen, said Maggie Kimball, campus archivist. It's possible she never even saw it, Kimball added.

Stanford began working in 1899 with Maurizio Camerino, the glass company's chief decorative artist. She spent two months in Venice in the fall of 1900, when she may in fact have turned down the grim alternate design for the façade mosaic, Kimball said. But judging from what's known about Stanford's tastes, it's unlikely she would have seriously considered that a vision of hell should dominate the Main Quad, Kimball added.

Other watercolors in the small exhibit -- which depict scenes that most likely will be familiar to frequent visitors to the church -- bear Jane Stanford's initials, indicating her approval. The process of finalizing designs took months, as new paintings and ones with requested modifications were shipped to her by boat.

Once Stanford approved designs, full-sized images of them were created as patterns and divided into 2-foot-square sections that were then translated into glass by individual artists. The mosaics were created in Venice and shipped in pieces to New York and then by rail to California, where they were transferred to the church walls. The fact that the mosaics were created in a Venice studio proved to be fortunate: The working drawings were stored in Italy and were used to recreate the mosaics after they were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.

Included in the exhibit are original oil paintings of seven of the eight Old Testament prophets that ring the chancel and sketches of ceiling and other mosaics on loan from their Italian owners, Gaetano Selendari and Tiziano Ortolani. Also on display is Camerino's ledger, where, beside rows of figures tallying up the number of tiles required for the project, he sketched the pattern that ultimately would serve as a design for the tapestry mosaic that covers some parts of the church ceiling. Chunks of weathered, tiled sandstone also are on view -- they are pieces of the original mosaics dumped as earthquake rubble in San Francisquito Creek and later retrieved.

Some of the watercolors in the exhibit are similar to ones owned by the university and held in the archives. Stanford also owns three large preliminary studies painted by Paoletti, donated by Camerino's heirs. (One of the large tempera paintings hangs on the wall in the Newhall Room at the Littlefield Center and shows yet another schema for the church and the Main Quad: acres of mosaics, not just covering the church façade but lining the arches and applied in bands along the arcades.)

The exhibit shares museum space with "Opus Veritas: Fragments of Truth," a juried exhibition of international mosaic artists. The juxtaposition of the old sketches and contemporary work illustrates the fact that the recent surge of interest in mosaics is the "rebirth of an old art form," said Julie Benbow, museum director. "It reminds all of the modern mosaic artists that they come from a centuries-old tradition."

The exhibit, in Building C at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco, will be on display through Sunday, April 4. The Museo ItaloAmericano is open from noon to five p.m. Wednesday through Sunday; Mondays and Tuesdays by appointment. Telephone the museum at (415) 673-2200.