The Umbrian town of Terni, Italy, suffered extensive damage from World War II bombing. It paid the price for being a center of armament production. Through the decades, much of the town has been restored. The Cathedral of Terni presides over the town piazza. Tourists and residents hike to view the magnificent Marmore Cascades that plummet hundreds of feet into the valley below.
Despite all the restoration efforts in Terni, one large church stood alone in need of major renovation. The Church of the Immaculate Conception peered out lifelessly across a meadow. In 2017, Don Giovanni, then pastor in the Diocese of Terni, saw potential in the church. Its very name indicated life: Immaculate Conception, life from a woman.
Gathering parishioners, townspeople, Italian theologian Lilia Sebastiani, and other imaginative individuals, Don Giovanni experienced the birth of a plan. This church would bear witness to women whose faithfulness—as recorded in the Torah, the Bible, and the Quran—has endured through millennia. The women selected for the project have inspired, nurtured, and often suffered for their faith. What unites them is their faith in God, the Holy One, revered and worshipped in the Abrahamic religions.
The purpose of the project is to ignite discussion about what these women of faith reveal regarding the “genius of women.” This phrase comes from St. John Paul II’s 1997 book, The Genius of Women. What role does God desire that women exercise to bring about the kingdom here on earth? For far too long the true gift of women to the life of faith and the life of the Church has been underemphasized. Attention is needed to bring into full consciousness the feminine “genius of women.”
Once the women were selected—Eve, Hagar, Sarah, Ruth, and Naomi; the woman in the Song of Songs; the Samaritan woman; Mary, the mother of Jesus; friends Martha and Mary; women disciples at the Last Supper; and Mary Magdalene—to grace 10 large (14’ x 19’) panels in the Church of the Immaculate Conception, the question arose: How would they be portrayed? The ancient and enduring medium of fresco was selected.
Enter the Artist
The fresco artist chosen to portray Women of Faith is a master of the art. Mark Balma, of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Assisi, Italy, is known as the premier fresco artist in the world today as well as a portraiture artist. Drawn to art as a child who constantly sketched his teachers and classmates, Mark was trained in portraiture by Richard Lack, and in fresco art by Pietro Annigoni of Florence, Italy, who became his mentor when Mark was 19.
Balma creates memorable portraits in a technique created by Leonardo da Vinci. His portraiture includes five presidents, generals and government leaders, and simple street people. Balma’s portrait of John Lewis, the courageous, tireless member of the House of Representatives, hangs in the Smithsonian Gallery honoring African Americans.
But it was Balma’s talent in fresco that was needed for this project. Bringing Women of Faith to life requires a multitude of qualities in addition to superb artistic ability. Many of these qualities are revealed in Balma’s personal life: a deep spirituality, a devoted prayer life, a passion for his work, intense focus, and the strength and energy for lengthy workdays often standing on scaffolding high above open space.
Preliminary sketches of the 10 panels were complete, and sacks of plaster awaited transformation into art in Terni, according to the ancient technique of buon fresco. Then the coronavirus pandemic wrapped the world in change and fear. Balma has dual US and Italian citizenship, but transportation of materials and permission to enter Italy were not possible during the pandemic’s onset.
Balma’s alternative? He has chosen an ancient Greek form of fresco from the fifth century BC to continue with Women of Faith during the pandemic. He will create frescoes on heavy linen fabric stretched on frames, not in Italy, but in Minnesota. The panels will be completed in the MoZaic Building in Minneapolis. Balma contacted the construction corporation about using the space, and the response was positive and immediate. The structure, which is to be an art center, has well-lit, ample space for his work.
Paints will be created by grinding the fresco colors into an ancient recipe used throughout the Renaissance. Prayer will initiate each day’s creation. Section by section, images of women of faith will emerge. When a panel is complete, it will be removed from its frame and rolled for transport. Panels will be shipped to Terni when the pandemic loosens its grip on the world. Immaculate Conception Church will remain a place of worship as it awaits its adornments of faith.
St. Francis of Assisi was called to a lifetime of service and devotion to the Lord by words he heard from God, “Go and rebuild my church which, as you can see, is falling into ruin.” Perhaps the message of Women of Faith is this: “Go and restore faith in God, the holy one.”
Beauty, Grace, and Understanding
Don Giovanni says of the project: “Art and beauty are two forms of communication that humans have always used. I believe these new frescoes have a unique potential to bring a message of love, peace, joy, and fullness to this and future generations. They will give beauty and a sense of completion that this building has never seen and new life to a church . . . in desperate need of repair and love.
“In the time of confusion in which we live, when old values seemed to have disappeared, we find ourselves in need of knowing more fully God’s will for our lives. We propose this study of biblical women as an attempt to reveal further the will of God.” In this place of meditation, visitors will find solace and direction as they reflect on the women who nurtured the churches of antiquity.
The frescoes are more than exquisite art. They are visible prayers that will reach from a church once destroyed by bombs into a world pleading for peace. The women’s stories expressed in Scripture and tradition offer hope and direction for living in the 21st century. Each panel contains a message for God’s people today. In meditating on each biblical story, seekers may gain a deeper understanding of the will of God.
The project invites people of various faiths to visit Immaculate Conception Church in person, virtually, or through printed material to worship and discover their shared faith in the God of all. The faith that joins these women of Abrahamic faiths is more powerful and unitive than the differences of culture they experience. Don Giovanni expresses that hope: “Our prayer is that the images of Sarah and Hagar with Abraham will allow us to believe that an interreligious dialogue is possible between Hebrews, Christians, and Muslims.”
Watch the Artist in Action and Lend Support
While the worldwide pandemic has slowed the creation of the Women of Faith frescoes, the work is now underway. When the pandemic subsides, arrangements will be made to allow visitors to view Mark Balma in action in the MoZaic Building in Minneapolis. In addition, Mark’s team has provided a link on the Women of Faith website, WomenofFaithFrescoes.com, where interested individuals can watch the work in progress until its completion. The site also features descriptions of the women chosen, as well as videos detailing the art of buon fresco.
Creating works of fresco is an expensive endeavor. Don Giovanni has found support for Women of Faith from individuals and companies in Italy and abroad. No church or government funds are used for Women of Faith. CAF AMERICA is an organization that enables cross-border giving by Americans to validated charities and charitable projects across the world. For more information, go to CafAmerica.org.
Patti Normile is a Secular Franciscan, retired teacher, and hospital chaplain who resides in Terrace Park, Ohio. A wife, mother, and grandmother, she is the author of several books and has written numerous articles for St. Anthony Messenger.
All photography is by Paula Laudenbach