Additional Notes on the Murals

The murals have continuity and are integrated in such a way that they tell a major portion of the history of Christianity. One may enter the church through the front door and go down the center aisle to the altar, representing the Throne of God. Only a litany desk or penance table may be in the aisle, for it is only through repentance that one reaches the throne.

On the right, the Lady Chapel depicts the story of the first coming of Christ. The Annunciation foretells the coming of the Holy Spirit to the Virgin Mary and her acceptance of the role as Mother of the Savior, and then the Incarnation with the actual appearance of the Christ Child. On the left is the Holy Spirit Chapel. It is through baptism that we become children of God, members of his church, the body of Christ.

The mural over the High Altar tells the story of creation and redemption. Jophiel depicts the creation of man and tells of man’s sin. Gabriel tells us what God is going to do about man’s sin: he sends a Savior. Chamuel tells of the sacrifice Christ made for us. Michael tells that Christ’s sacrifice was not in vain as the Church will live. The angels glorifying Christ show God’s love for him of whom he said, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” St. John represents the Communion of Saints. The resurrected Christ shows his love with the promise of forgiveness and the resurrection of the body is the circle of the world, meaning world without end.

Leaving the church, the mural “Christ the Judge” is seen. It reminds us that although judgment is going on all the time, there will be a final Day of Judgment. But the same God who will  be our Judge is the one depicted over the high altar—the loving, merciful, and forgiving Savior who lived, died, and rose again that men might have eternal life.

Sources:

  • Notes of John H. DeRosen
  • Notes of the late Mrs. Richard Harding (May), mother of Mrs. William Fay (Sally), parishioners
  • Notes of June Wilcox, parishioner
  • Notes of the late Mrs. Lucian Minor Dent (Phoebe)  
  • Centennial Celebration, Saint John’s Episcopal Church
  • Correspondence with Grace Cathedral, San Francisco
  • Compiled 1987, 1988, 1990, 1991

Biographical Notes on John H. DeRosen

John Henry DeRosen was born February 25, 1891, in Warsaw, Poland. His father was secretary to concert pianist and statesman Jan Paderewski. He studied at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland; the University of Paris, France; and the University of Munich, Germany. He held the Golden Laurel of the Polish Academy of Literature. He served in the Allied Armies in World War I and was awarded the Legion of Honor Decoration, the French War Cross, and the British Military Medal. For a time, DeRosen served in the diplomatic service.

He painted murals in the great Armenian Cathedral of Lviv and in churches in Poland and in Vienna, Austria. Pope Pius XI chose DeRosen as Court Painter and requested two  notable murals in his private chapel at Castelogandolfo. DeRosen and his sisters were aboard the last train out of Poland by the “grace” of Mussolini. DeRosen’s works were exhibited in Europe and at the World’s Fair in New York City in 1939. Seven years later, he became a naturalized United States citizen.

Among his works in this country are murals painted in the chapel of Joseph of Arimathea in the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul Episcopal, Washington D.C.; St. Hedwig’s Church in Trenton, New Jersey; in a church in Toledo, Ohio; in the New Wesley Memorial Hospital in Chicago, Illinois; in Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Detroit, Michigan; and Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco, California.

After finishing his work at Grace Cathedral, DeRosen came to Memphis where he painted Christ and the Centurion at Methodist Hospital and the murals at Saint John’s Episcopal Church.

During the years he was working in Memphis, DeRosen lived at the home of Margaret Hamilton at the corner of Goodwyn and Central. DeRosen had painted murals in the homes of Mrs. Hamilton both in Memphis and in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Later, when Mrs. Hamilton was unable to sell her house in Memphis for $60,000, a sum much less than her investment, she had it torn down, along with the murals. DeRosen later became a professor of Liturgical Arts at Catholic University, Washington, D.C. He died in 1982 in Alexandria, Virginia.

DeRosen was descended from people representing several nationalities and his art reflects the influence of different countries, styles and individual artists. His art style reflects Byzantine, Italian Renaissance, Baroque, Flemish, and Dutch influences. In most murals, the emphasis is on flatness. The artist wanted the murals to stay on the walls. (Byzantine 726-1453 A.D.) However, some murals do have an expression of depth. His figures are very linear, verified by photographs of his work in progress. DeRosen animates the Byzantine rigidity. His personages, although perfectly human in the structure of their bodies and movements, keep their iconographic style.

DeRosen used ceracolors to paint the murals. This is a medium of basic natural colors dissolved in cold wax. When he could no longer obtain these paints, he switched to casein paints. Neither ceracolors, nor casein paints are now available. Whenever there is gold leaf or imitation gold leaf, he used a different process. He covered the wall with slow sizing, a gelatinous glaze that makes a smooth surface for gold leaf, and 18 hours later applied sheets of gold leaf over the sizing. This is confirmed in his statement, written April 2, 1977.

The murals in Saint John’s were painted between 1951 and 1953 at a total cost of $26,500.

Addenda

From Richard White and others:

In “Christ Triumphant,” the face of Jophiel is the likeness of John DeRosen. Not long after this mural was completed, one of the women of the parish was so upset over the nude figures in the “Adam and Eve” shield that she withdrew her membership. The mural is painted on a false wall, which is not a supporting church wall. This was to avoid cracks in the event that the outside east wall ever suffered damage.

The red in the background of this mural was mixed over and over in the choir room (which until 1991 adjoined the sanctuary to the South) until DeRosen was satisfied with the shade. DeRosen hired a commercial painter to do the background painting when he had finished all the other work.

Richard White (organist and choirmaster during that time) said that he had been told the face of Jesus in the “Baptism of God’s Son, Jesus Christ” is that of Charles Bullard, the nephew of parishioner Charles Bullard. Richard Bettison posed for the figure at  right, and John DeRosen’s assistant, Mr. Brown, posed for the figure on the left.

In the “Annunciation,” the face of the figure on the south is that of Bill Burnett, the son of parishioner Lydia Burnett McConnell.

From other sources, it was learned that John Boatner’s face was used for both Chamuel and Uriel in the “Christ Triumphant” mural. Cary Harwood posed for the Mary figure, Posey Twiford Potter for the figure’s hands, Tom Prewitt, Jr. for the Baby Jesus and Bill Burnett’s hands were used for the figure of Gabriel, the kneeling figure of Mary as well as the aforementioned angel. Marion Reece, church financial secretary during and after that period, posed for the Elizabeth figure in “The Visitation.”

Marion Reece believes Billy Bettison posed for the angel on the right side of the mural over the altar in the Lady Chapel. She says that embedded in the high altar are five crosses, stones brought by parishioners from the five centers of early Christianity.

Beth Rutland, church school superintendent, posed for the figure of Priscilla in the Holy Spirit Chapel. Aquilla’s face is that of the artist’s assistant, John Baker, who also posed for several of the draped figures in the murals.  Many parishioners posed for parts of other figures, such as for hair, face, hands or full figure. John DeRosen also draped a mannequin for composition.

While in Memphis, DeRosen bought a new car, a sedate blue coupe. When someone remarked he looked like a businessman, DeRosen took the car back and exchanged it for a snappy roadster. His cars were always named Danille, i.e., Danille I, Danille II, etc.

When DeRosen was painting and Richard White was “practicing too much,” the artist would complain the walls vibrated and bothered him.  In a day or two, DeRosen would look for the organist, saying he was too lonely and asking that the organist play. It was the same with the canvas screen, which hid the artist from view as he worked on the big mural. When it was up, he often wanted it down, and vice versa.

One afternoon, The Rev. Loaring-Clark, The Rev. Donald Henning, rector of Calvary Episcopal Church, and Mrs. Paul Calame (Janice) were seated in the back of the church talking. Canvas was hiding the work being done on the High Altar mural. “Tib,” as Rev. Loaring-Clark was affectionately called, said that he was the only one who had seen the Christ figure.  This was the day before his fatal heart attack.  Background painting had yet to be completed, but the work continued all night long while a prayer vigil was held as the body of the beloved rector lay in state. The painting was unveiled for the first time at his funeral.

Additional Sources: “Who’s Who in American Art,” Helen Gardner; “John DeRosen,” David Fox Taylor.

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3245 Central Avenue | Memphis, Tennessee 38111
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