A Mountain Odyssey: Visiting the Churches of the Frescoes
St. Mary's Episcopal Church, West Jefferson
North Carolina artist Ben Long, after training in the ancient art of fresco in Italy, came to Ashe County and fell in love with its places and people. He lived here from the mid-1970s to the mid-80s, practicing his art in a pair of Episcopal churches. Along with students and local folks, some painted as models for the disciples in the paintings, he created a wondrous display of religious artworks. Today, visitors come in droves to see his handiwork.
Links to some of the artworks: Departure Visitors Last Supper Mystery of Faith Mary, Great John the Baptist Blessing
At St. Mary's in West Jefferson, on N.C. Highway 194, off U.S. Highway 221, and Holy Trinity, just off N.C. Highway 16 at Glendale Springs the churches date to early in this century, and each seats a congregation no larger than 100. The white frame buildings, trimmed in scrollwork, are described as Carpenter Gothic in style. Neatly trimmed lawns and carefully tended gardens surround them. They are open day and night for prayer and meditation and accept only donations.
At St. Mary's, in West Jefferson, the smaller of the two churches, you can listen to an eloquently recorded description of the works that grace the altar and line the rich, chestnut sanctuary walls. Here, at the altar, you have the opportunity to see the exquisite portrayal of Mary, Great With Child. This luminous fresco, modeled by Long's wife and bearing the face of a local mountain girl, was completed in 1974. On the opposite side of the altar, John the Baptist, completed in 1975, is pictured standing on the banks of the Jordan River; the face of this subject speaks volumes. In the center is the powerful fresco The Mystery of Faith, completed in 1977. This fresco, rising the full height of the altar, depicts the crucifixion of Christ and the celebration of the Eucharist. Works by Long's students line the walls of the tiny church of St. Mary's. The Laughing Christ, completed in 1975 by then-19-year-old artist Bo Bartlett, is an unusual rendition of the face so familiar to the modern world.
Down the road, about 10 minutes away, is Holy Trinity Church at Glendale Springs. The Last Supper, fills its altar wall. When you enter Holy Trinity, you are struck by the immediacy of this fresco, which truly does fill the entire end wall of the church altar. So strong are the personalities of the life-size figures, so vibrant is the texture, it's as if you have come upon that private meeting of Christ and his Disciples quite by accident. You can almost hear them speak. The luminous quality of the fresco is achieved by the sealant, which is a centuries-old mixture of white wine and fresh egg white. The white cloth at the apex of the fresco, fluttering heavenward, is described by Ben Long as the "mystery" -- that inexplicable quality of life's force that is within all of us.
Many Thanks to Allen Duffield for his exquisite photography throughout the fresco section!
Digital images are © 2001. Copyrighted material of the photographer, Allen Duffield
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