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Orleans church highlights talents of artists worldwide

At the Church of the Transfiguration, the mosaic floor runs the length of the sanctuary to the glass mosaic behind the altar in the apse.
At the Church of the Transfiguration, the mosaic floor runs the length of the sanctuary to the glass mosaic behind the altar in the apse. Ellen Albanese for the Boston Globe

ORLEANS — Inspired by faith and its seaside setting on Rock Harbor, the Church of the Transfiguration is a visual feast. The spiritual home of the Community of Jesus, an ecumenical Christian fellowship in the Benedictine tradition, highlights the talents of artists from around the world who have created an integrated composition of sculpture, frescoes, and mosaics in a classical basilica that somehow seems right at home next to the white clapboard buildings that make up the rest of the complex.

The community, which was formally established in 1970, numbers 273 members, including 25 celibate brothers and 65 celibate sisters, who live on the grounds, along with families and singles who live in private homes nearby.


Construction of the church began in 1997 and it was dedicated in 2000. The 14-foot bronze angel atop the bell tower was completed in 2010. Guided tours are offered Monday through Saturday (except Wednesday, when the community observes a day of quiet prayer) at 11 a.m. and 1, 3, and 4:30 p.m.

The building is designed to teach, our guide explained. Each element tells a story and guides the visitor forward, from the atrium, with Adam and Eve carved into the bronze doors, to the apse, decorated with a massive, glittering mosaic of Jesus Christ fashioned from hand-cut pieces of colored glass.

A floor mosaic begins at the baptismal font — made of Botticino marble, bronze, and glass mosaic — and leads the length of the church to the altar, representing a pilgrimage. Designed by Helen McLean of Belfast, it consists of hand-cut, hand-placed tiles, mostly of clay. Integrated into the biblical themes are representations of local sea life, such as clams and horseshoe crabs. It took 5½ years to complete the floor, our guide said.

14-foot-tall angel stands atop the bell tower of the Orleans church.
14-foot-tall angel stands atop the bell tower of the Orleans church.Ellen Albanese for the Boston Globe/Ellen Albanese

Nearing the altar, the floor around the ambo — the place from which the Bible is read — tells the story of Jonah and the whale. The walls of the nave are decorated in frescoes by Silvestro Pistolesi of Florence, representing scenes from the life of Christ paired with images from the Old Testament.


While the floor tiles are mostly clay in soft, matte colors, closer to the altar, glass tiles begin to mix with the clay, adding vibrant color and sparkle. This artistic evolution reaches a crescendo in the apse mosaic, 2.5 million pieces of shimmering glass portraying a radiant image of Christ with arms outstretched. The surrounding elements of the mosaic include seraphim, trees, the river of life, the lamb of God, four creatures with open books symbolizing the four Gospels, sheep, the heavenly city of Jerusalem, and the gates of heaven, all framed by reeds evoking the natural landscape of Cape Cod.

The altar affords a good view of the west wall, above the doors of the entryway. Here, an oculus window transmits light through fiery red and yellow glass and a stone lintel above the door depicts disciples of Jesus cringing at the revelation of his divinity. Surrounding the whole is a panel of gold and clear rippled glass, designed by Gabrielle Wilpers of Essen, Germany, and modeled after the ridged sand flats of the harbor.

The only part of the church that isn’t finished yet is the organ, made of components from 17 organs by the E. M. Skinner Organ Co. But it is finished enough to deliver beautiful music with a surround-sound effect created by suspending the pipes overhead in massive louvered mahogany boxes. Organ demonstrations are offered on Fridays at 3:30 p.m.


CHURCH OF THE TRANSFIGURATION No charge for tours. 5 Bay View Drive,
Orleans, 508-255-1094, www.churchof

Ellen Albanese can be reached at ellen