FRENCHTOWN — Sidney artist Mila Hamilton and her assistant, Cameo Monnin, of Russia, know something of the challenges faced by Michaelangelo when he painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Italy.
They have transformed the ceiling of the sanctuary of the historic Holy Family Catholic Church here.
The artists completed a mural on the concave ceiling above the high altar Thursday, following several months of planning and three weeks of scrambling up scaffolding to do the work. It portrays Jesus as a young boy, blessing his parents, Mary and Joseph.
“Primarily, it was the parishioners who came up with the idea (of a mural) and asked if we could do it,” said the Rev. Jim Simons, pastor of the 200-family congregation. “I thought it was a good idea, too. They had the idea once before, but it didn’t come to fruition. Since it’s the Holy Family Church, a mural of the holy family was appropriate.”
According to Hamilton, 12 years ago, a parishioner had contacted an artist, Susan North, about designing a piece for the church.
“Then, some exterior work … took priority and the mural was put on hold,” Hamilton said. North was killed in an auto accident two years ago. When thoughts of a mural resurfaced this year, the parish members approached Hamilton. She and Monnin have worked together on other church projects.
They developed sketches and presented them to the congregation following a Mass in December. Within a month, Simons said, enough money had been raised to go forward with the artwork. The painters approached the project with great care. Holy Family Church was built in 1866 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
“I’m always honored to paint in a church,” Hamilton said. “(The design is) an historical decision, so it’s not trendy.” She has put many religious symbols into the picture: Jesus holds up two fingers, a sign of blessing through which the whole congregation is blessed. Joseph holds a carpenter’s square and stands near a sacrificial lamb. There are grapevines signifying communion and roses for Mary, with thorns which will become Jesus’ crown. Above them all, is “the holy spirit like a dove,” whose rays form a cross.
While Hamilton thought through some of the composition in advance, much of it evolved as she painted it. Working in the concave curve of the ceiling, however, presented a bit of a challenge. The perspective changes depending on where the observer is standing. The artists had to “proportion things so they didn’t lean funny,” Hamilton said.
In fact, she had to repaint two tall shrubs on the left side of the picture more than once. When she put them in first, straight up, they looked from the pews as though they were leaning toward the center of the picture. So she painted them again, leaning slightly to the left. That was better, but not good enough. The third time, Hamilton painted them so that, from the scaffolding, they look as though they are bent at a steep angle to the left. From the pews, they appear to be standing straight and tall.
In order to plot the painting, Hamilton and Monnin made cutout stencils from large sheets of paper.
“I taped them to the ceiling and moved them all around until it looked good,” Hamilton said.
Church-goers will celebrate not only the mural but also a new altar of sacrifice soon. The high altar was partially dismantled to accommodate the scaffolding needed by the artists and will be reinstalled. Volunteers have been carefully moving the current altar of sacrifice out of the sanctuary to protect it from stray drops of paint and then back in again for services, Simons said.
An anonymous donor gave wood for the construction of a new altar of sacrifice and a pulpit, which have been built by John Grilliot, of Versailles.
According to Simons, before the altar can be used, it must be blessed by the archbishop of the diocese.
“There is no special ritual for the mural. It’s very beautiful. We’d like (the day of the blessing of the altar) to be a special day. The archbishop will dedicate the altar and (the pulpit and the mural) will be celebrated at the same time,” he said. No date has been set yet for the dedication.
Hamilton has also created paintings for the Sacred Heart Church in McCartyville, Pasco United Methodist Church, Hardin United Methodist Church, Calvary United Baptist Church in Sidney, First Baptist Church in Sidney, Grace Family Worship in Troy and her home church, Sidney First United Methodist.
She and Monnin also painted murals and religious symbols for the St. Remy Catholic Church in Russia following a major remodelling and reconstruction of the dome over its high altar.
“That is Cameo’s home church, so on that one, she was the lead artist and I was the assistant,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton also operates Gallery 2:TEN in Sidney. It features the work of more than 20 area artists.