St. John mosaic as vibrant as ever

A mosaic of St. John identifies the Courtenay church that bears his name. - Photo submitted
A mosaic of St. John identifies the Courtenay church that bears his name.
— image credit: Photo submitted

By June Lunny


Courtenay’s mosaic has been situated on the corner of Fifth Street and Harmston Avenue for 50 years and is as vibrant today as it was then, a legacy of its creator, Rector Bill Lunny.

In 1952, Bill was a post-grad student at Oriel College, Oxford. During his reading break, he decided to hitchhike to Ravenna, Italy, the City of Mosaics.

Mosaic has an interesting history, which fascinated Bill. The first mosaic was found in the eighth century BC, in China, composed of carefully arranged pebbles paving a floor.

Four hundred years later, artists used cubes cut from stone rods, making the task cheaper and the pieces easier to handle. The Romans took their designs to higher level, depicting stories of their gods and scenes from every day life. Such themes involved complicated shapes, and a variety of colours and textures, using coloured glass, precious and semi-precious stones and gold leaf.

Pavements still predominated, but walls and ceilings too had mosaic decorations. Soon Italy became famous for its mosaics and Ravenna became the City of Mosaics.

Each day Bill wandered around the city, discovering hidden mosaics down dark arcades; masterpieces in the numerous churches; wayside fountains cascading over colourful scenes of fish, exotic animals or fields of magnificent flowers.

Pavements seemed carpeted in brilliant tile. Enthralled at the spectacle, he made a vow that one day he would create a mosaic in Canada.

He returned to Oriel and completed his masters degree, then flew back to Vancouver. He spent another year at the Anglican Theological College and then Archbishop Sexton ordained him Deacon-in-Charge of the five point parish of Lake Cowichan.

He married June and enjoyed four wonderful years there. When the parish became self-supporting, the Archbishop appointed him Rector of the parish of Sandwick, Courtenay.

Full of enthusiasm, the parish flourished and soon the little brown church of St John the Divine was too small for its burgeoning congregation. Funds were raised and the building was doubled in size, stuccoed and painted white.

Remembering his previous vow, Bill decided he would like a mosaic of John produced on the outside wall, facing Fifth Street. He asked Pat Embleton, Charley Forrest, and other local artists, if they would like to undertake such an endeavour. They agreed and set to work in the parish hall.

First they drew the 13.5-xthree-foot-tall figure of St. John on a piece of plywood and covered it with brown paper. Then, painstakingly, each tile was cut, chipped and nibbled into place. The face alone required hours of work to form the eyes, nose and mouth. Gradually, the entire body was completed, down to his black shoes.

Once the placing was correct, each tile was glued onto the paper.

Finally, the day came to cement the mosaic onto the wall of the church. To make the figure easier to handle, it had to be cut into pieces not larger than 16 inches. The mosaic was very fragile at this stage and could only be handled in smaller pieces.

Each piece was carefully carried outside to the wall, which had been prepared with a cement-based adhesive. A small, notched trowel ensured an even bed and the chunks of mosaic were pressed firmly into the cement.

Once the cement was dry, a wet sponge was used to thoroughly moisten the brown paper and dissolve the glue. Then the paper was gently peeled off, revealing the mosaic. The final step was grouting between each tile and cleaning off the residue.

In a short while, Courtenay’s mosaic was complete.

June Lunny is the widow of Rector Bill Lunny.

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