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Construction Photos by Lydia Kosorok

In the post Building Reliever, I mentioned the particular symbolic meaning some plants have in a desert environment, plants which mark water sources being readily seen as signs from the Divine – the acanthus in particular.  It seemed appropriate for this to be the backdrop for Merciful.  The structure itself is based on the early Christian church style, the basilica – in the early days of Islam, when the faith arrived in some new settlements the traditional churches were many times out of use and were in serious states of disrepair and neglect.  Many of these structures were rebuilt and repurposed as masjids, or mosques, and became not only religious buildings but civic centers as well, for use of the faithful of all religions.  The basilica structure is built on the Golden Section rectangle, a shape sacred to and used by every faith.

The stylized acanthus leaf and the outline of the sculpture’s form was drawn out 150% larger than needed, then shrunk down to size so I could get the detail needed.  Using a special light-sensitive film made by Rayzist, similar to films made for silk-screening but designed for glass etching, I transferred the image to the glass I had cut out and etched both sides with multiple layers.  The etching gives the glass a ‘tooth’ for the paint to attach to, and by brushing off or wiping the areas left un-etched and firing between applications of paint (for German New Antique with this kind of Mason Stain and Glass Frit/Flux mixture, I fire between 1335 and 1365 F), the paint reticulates similar to watercolor and ends up looking rather reminiscent of medieval-era illuminations.  In dry-brushing the paint using brushes with stiff bristles and changing the direction of brushing, the paint develops a texture suggesting textiles.  By working both sides of the glass and using its natural transparency, even subtle differences of pigment compound each other and show up very nicely.

The eight layers of glass symbolize both the architectural use of the octagon in bridging the cube of the earth-bound structure and the dome of heaven, and the number of angels the Qur’an states will carry the throne of God in the Final Judgment.  Each vertical layer has an arch cut out, inviting the viewer inside, and in the layer before the Acanthus I etched a petroglyph open hand symbol.  It’s important to note that this was not meant as the literal hand of God, but as a metaphor for His welcome and eagerness to receive all who spiritually approach him.  Many anthropologists believe that symbols like the open hand petroglyph were not meant as a literal hand, but as a symbol of welcome.  Jenna Krajeski wrote a nice piece for Egypt Independent about this and the 99 Names Project, where she writes about some of her observations, too.  This sculpture reminds us that spirituality and religion are welcoming guides, and should not be spiritual prisons.

The bottom panel, the foundation of the whole structure, is etched and painted with an alternating 8-pointed star and cross pattern, referred to as the “Compassionate Breath”.  Traditionally, this pattern has been used as a reminder that the Creator thinks of his works with compassion through every breath, as the stars represent metaphorical inhales and the crosses exhales.  Eight is a common feature of geometric shape in Islamic art – I mentioned the angels, but the architectural symbol is profound.  Just as the octagon bridges the static earth with the infinite heavens (the cube with the dome), the octagon has become a symbol for the bridge which allows the human spirit or soul to reunite with our Creator; for Christians this became a symbol of the Body of Christ, and for Muslims this became a symbol of the Holy Qur’an – in their respective faiths, these are the vehicles which allow us to overcome the weaknesses of our natural states and become the creatures God intended us to be.

St. Mark’s Episcopal in Salt Lake, Utah, invited me to teach Sunday School for a month, and we spoke about the intersections of faith, alchemy, and creativity.  St. Mark’s has a distinct mission in the area – they go out of their way to mend the spirits of those feeling rejected and used by society, and they have become a healing center for the souls of those on the verge of giving up all hope.  Their community forms a wonderful expression of the ideal of this Divine Name, Merciful, so after out Sunday School experience together they were presented with this sculpture in appreciation of their beautiful spiritual community.  My friend Reverend Walton, Dean of the congregation, gave a beautiful Christmas service in response.

Almost every chapter in the Qur’an begins with an invocation to God’s Name Ar-Rahim, The Merciful.  This reminds us of the limitless love, compassion, and mercy our Creator is anxiously waiting to bestow on His creations – we are always welcome, and He is always ready and willing to receive us.  This also reminds me that, if we hope to receive this from our Maker, we perhaps should make it a priority to show the mercy we ourselves hope to receive to those around us.