DE PERE — Many people pray the mysteries of the rosary. Not many can say that they have painted them.
Nancy Gezella of De Pere can. And her four Mysteries of the Rosary paintings — one for each set of mysteries — now hang in the Mother of Mercy Hall at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion.
Gezella, who trained in interior and mechanical design, as well as art and art business, first worked in mechanical design. She now creates art — often religious icons, but also mixed media — full time.
The Mysteries of the Rosary started as an idea more than 10 years ago. Eventually, Gezella, who was raised Catholic, sketched all 20 mysteries (five each for the Joyful, Sorrowful, Glorious and Luminous mysteries). She then transferred the sketches to four canvases — each one six feet square —nailed to the walls of her backyard workshop.
“I drove my husband, Mark, crazy because I stood on a wall to paint it,” Gezella said.
When she started the paintings many years ago, Gezella had no idea where they would end up. She just knew she had to keep working and trusted there would be a place for them.
“I was working on the first or second and the anonymous donor came for an icon writing class (which Gezella teaches) and saw them in process,” Gezella said. “(Eventually) she seriously started saying, ‘I want to purchase these and donate them.’”
The donor and Gezella originally hoped the paintings would reside in a church, but none of those they toured “looked right,” Gezella said.
“We wanted someplace where people would pray in front of them. These are big pieces and you need to have a place where they will fit.”
Eventually the donor approached the shrine, since its Mother of Mercy Hall has large walls.
“We were very pleased with the opportunity,” said Don Warden, chief operations officer at the shrine. “We had been discussing what we could do with that big empty wall. The size of each canvas was a perfect fit for that space. Obviously, it fits very well with the Marian devotion of the shrine.”
While creating the paintings, Gezella had realized that such large artwork would be hard to transport on a traditional stretched canvas. So she painted each on canvas only, more like tapestries. She could then roll them up to carry in artist tubes. At the shrine, they are nailed to thin strips of wood, so they hang naturally.
Each painting is framed with leather edging, in liturgical colors: purple for the Joyful Mysteries (based on Advent’s color), red for the Sorrowful (and the Passion), green for the Glorious and gold for the Luminous.
Tying all four paintings together is the rosary. Each painting bears a rosary, with beads that look transparent.
Gezella said getting that rosary image “right” was difficult. “I had to overlay each one after all the painting was done,” she said. “Talk about nerve-wracking. … I wanted people to be able to see the images behind the rosary. So that was the idea, to have a more translucent bead.”
The rosary was not originally a favorite devotion, Gezella admitted. Growing up, she was fond of the Stations of the Cross. She attended Notre Dame of De Pere School. (Her painted stations can be seen at Nativity of Our Lord Catholic Church in Ashwaubenon.)
Gezella’s attachment to the rosary developed gradually.
“All of a sudden, people in your life start to pass away and you inherit these rosaries,” she said. “It’s such a beautiful thing and there’s another connection to it, that you have this special rosary. I have an aunt who was a sister who taught at St. Joseph Academy (in Green Bay, now closed). I got her rosary when she passed away and that was so special to me.”
As Gezella’s connection to the rosary grew, she realized that it is a poorly understood devotion.
“When it started out,” she explained, “I was thinking about the misunderstanding of the rosary — not just from non-Catholics, but even from Catholics. So that’s why I did the paintings more as images of ‘praying the Gospels,’ because I wanted people to think about that and realize that that’s what the rosary is about. It’s not about the repetitional prayers – it is about the Gospel meditations.”
Each of her 20 rosary images are linked to specific Gospel verses which are on the images. “I chose the one that went best with the image,” she added.
Except this didn’t apply to the last two Glorious Mysteries — the Assumption and the Crowning of Our Lady, Queen of Heaven. While both are dogmas of the church, they are not referenced in the Gospels. “So I went to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC),” Gezella said. “You will see a ‘CCC’ reference number on those two paintings.”
The shrine gift shop sells reproductions of her rosary paintings. They can also be found at Gezella’s website: nancygezella.com/store.
The paintings have been well received at the Shrine. “Pilgrims often comment on how beautiful they are,” Warden said. “It’s not uncommon to walk into Mother of Mercy Hall and see pilgrims standing or sitting below the images, praying their rosary.”
Other than delivering reproductions when needed, Gezella herself does not go to the shrine to see her paintings often. The same is true of her other works.
“I don’t even like to go back and look at them, even when I do icons,” she said. “It makes it easier to let go and say, ‘OK, my part is done. Now it is up to the Lord.’
“I don’t have an attachment to these things,” she added. “This is a gift God gave me. I do it, and then he does what he does and sends the Holy Spirit. Even if I don’t think it is as good as I think it should be, it doesn’t matter because the Lord can work with whatever. It’s all his. It’s hard to take any credit for it. OK, I did the work, but that’s all I can take credit for.”