The Luminous One

The Luminous One

Mosaic Whole
Barrows Auditorium, the Billy Graham Center
Commissioned by the President's Art Commission
63,000 Tesserae of Glass, Ceramic, and Stone
7.5 x 15’ 


A Story of The Luminous One

            This mosaic depicts the narrative of an encounter between a Samaritan woman and Jesus at Jacob’s well. In Orthodox tradition the Samaritan woman’s name is Photini, meaning “the one who brings light” or “the brilliant one”, and she gives our mosaic its name. In the story, Jesus reveals himself as the source of the good news of boundless community, and Photini in turn, becomes an evangelist herself. Our mosaic is an image that embodies church tradition, archaeology, biblical studies, cross-cultural communication, gender dynamics, psychology, family-systems, and counseling. All of the disciplines studied in Wheaton’s graduate programs are reflected in some way in the mosaic.  It is our hope that this artwork stands as a destination for campus visitors and Wheaton College residents alike, and that it offers us the opportunity to re-encounter God’s everlasting intention that the world grow into its increasingly communal, restored identity.

The Design Process

            The project began in 2016 with a commission for the Barrows Auditorium lobby that would convey the mission of the Billy Graham Center for Global Evangelism and be a brilliant welcome greeting everyone who came through the front doors. As members of the President’s Art Commission, President Phil Ryken and Professor Emeritus Joel Sheesley envisioned a Byzantine era mosaic of one of the powerful stories from John’s gospel. They chose one of the moments from the beginning of the gospel that describes Jesus confounding society’s ways of seeing the relationship between divinity and humanity.            

            Design professor, Jeremy Botts drafted the initial outline of the scene. He compressed time and space by incorporating visual elements from ancient and classical western eras, early Christian art under the rule of Justinian, the Italian Renaissance, West Bank landscape, Midwest America landscape, Mennonite symbols, and recognizable places on Wheaton’s campus. Botts insisted the Luminous One be an artistically contemporary piece, with multiple traditional roots.

Examples of the visual elements used:
  • ancient west: wave border, peacock as life eternal
  • early Christian: Jesus’ royal purple robe with a dark outline, golden sky
  • Renaissance: horizon, sheep at varying scales of size                                                                      
  • West Bank: foreground and stone well, olive tree
  • Midwest: wheat field and wildflower field
  • Mennonite: goose as Holy Spirit
  • Wheaton: Adams Hall magnolia, Illinois Institute building (Blanchard Hall)


The Construction Process

            The creation of the mosaic was a long and adventurous process led by Community Art professor, Leah Samuelson, involving two semesters of mosaic classes, advisory experts, and over 63,000 hand-cut tesserae.  Students began the process by attending a 5-day workshop at the Chicago Mosaic School where they gained crucial understanding of the tools and processes used in traditional mosaic building. The first step in getting The Luminous One up to scale was creating a full-sized cartoon by projecting Professor Botts’ initial drawing onto a large sheet of paper the same size as the mosaic. The cartoon was then traced onto nine panels of wedi board, a specialized, light weight, non-shrinking substrate used for mosaic backing. The panel system allowed a mosaic to be created off-site, in sections that could rest on table tops for convenient reach when setting tesserae. The mosaic needed to be constructed on separate panels that would fit together in the end because of the immense weight of mortar, and glass, stone, and ceramic tesserae. Carpenters would eventually hold up each 175-pound panel by hand for installation in the Barrows lobby.

            Students used hammers and wheel nippers to individually shape each tesserae, they mixed mortar in small batches, and could set approximately nine square inches of mosaic in a three-hour work session. Their challenge was to visualize their portion of the mosaic image each day and ensure it had the same flow (andamento) as the work of their peers, and that the nine panels would match like a puzzle to form an integrated image once installed. Their classroom could only accommodate a few panels set out for working at once, making installation a precarious day of reckoning. The traditional, Byzantine setting method utilizes directly applying tesserae into wet mortar, with no use of grout. Tesserae are submerged up to 90% of their height into the mortar, and are spaced apart at irregular intervals (interstizio) to give the mosaic a sense of breath and rhythm.

Collaboration and communal ownership infuse the memory of making the mosaic with a rich metaphor of forming society together, one bit at a time, and the materials used hold stories of their own. Some of the many materials, some donated by faculty and used as tesserae include:

  • fulgarite (lightning rock)- masses of sintered soil or sand formed when lightning strikes the ground: placed in Photini’s hair
  • ceramic tiles made by student in the ceramic studio: golden brown placed in the wheat field
  • Italian marble found along the shore while in Greece: placed in the peacock feathers
  • Vitreous glass from Hong Kong: placed in the peacock feathers
  • ceramic from 12th century Israel: placed in the Illinois Institute building
  • arrowhead from Missouri - placed in a corner star
  • Auschwitz stone- placed in Photini’s big toe


Engaging the Work

Art History professor, Matthew Milliner gives us starting points to see into the mosaic:

-As we interrogate an image, an image can interrogate us. The backward text is an art historical motif for depicting encounters with new spiritual insight, when normal ears cannot hear a message of new consciousness. It also invites us to imagine those inside artwork looking out. With that gaze, the backward text would read forward, and vice versa. How are we confronted by this scene?

-Photini’s square halo is a reference to a rare motif in art history in which the halo bearer is a saint who has not yet died at the time of the art’s construction. While a historic Photini would have lived and died thousands of years ago, contemporary viewers could imagine themselves in her place. How do we imagine ourselves in the encounter imaged here?

-The unending waves in the border repeat Jesus’ offering of living water, which flow from his hands and tumble throughout the landscape in this image. The woman from Samaria initially claimed not to belong to Jesus’ community because of her differing identity. How does the water pictured here show a new kind of touch and inclusion?



Instructor Leah Samuelson, Associate Lecturer of Art
Designer Jeremy Botts, Associate Professor of Art
Advisor Sue Coombs, Principal at the Chicago Mosaic School
Commissioned by the President’s Art Commission


A special thanks to everyone one who helped to make the project possible including: the President’s Art Commission, the Arts Division, the Billy Graham Center, the Graduate School, the Geology Department, the Bible and Theology Department, and individual faculty who donated materials, time, and expertise.

Students, auditors, and volunteers who worked on the mosaic: 
John Mark Daniel, Hannah Frankl, Diane Greenberg, Kasia Hiltibran, Grace Holmen, Sarah Kaczka, Jill Kuhlman, Amanda Laky, Emily Langan, Sienna Laya, Joy Lee, Josh Mangis, Erin McCord, Charis McIntyre, Mitchel McRay, Tessa Miller, Elena Spafford, Sam Stevenson, Greta Swanson, Claire Waterman