Tucked around the right side of the altar platform, next to the confessional, is the Gratia Plena sculpture. The artist, Steven Heilmer, presents a compelling new image of grace that Mary, the mother of Jesus, can be for us. Unique and inviting, Gratia Plena was carved out of a single piece of Carrara marble and installed in the Chapel of St. Ignatius at Seattle University in spring 2001. Gratia Plena, which means “Full of Grace,” is a translation of the biblical exclamation of Elizabeth as she greeted Mary, from which developed the most familiar of Catholic devotional prayers, the Hail Mary.
The statue discloses three elements:
What follows are some reflections on the sculpture, offered as possible starting points for your own reflection and prayer:
Tipped forward, the gold-leafed bowl is the place from which milk flows from a mysterious, hidden, unending source. Likewise, the same gold leaf, pressed into the chapel’s square east wall creates a reflective and suitable background for the altar. The rim of the bowl creates an additional image of a halo above the figure of Mary. This circular shape is replicated in the bronze circular rim of the baptismal font.
Flow and the image of movement resonate throughout the chapel. Water as a sense of flow is a prominent image in the chapel. The reflection pool in front of the chapel was designed by architect Steven Holl to establish a sense of “aqueous space” that continues in the watery, dark polished concrete of the floors.
The sense of flow from the reflection pool also moves inside to the image of the River Cardoner on the narthex carpet, which is separated from the pool only by a clear window.
The ceiling above the sculpture flows in a curve from east to west, where the baptismal font is located. Water in the font moves in a subtle fashion due to a small pump that circulates the “living water.” In the Blessed Sacrament Chapel by Linda Beaumont, 600 pounds of beeswax flow down the walls as an image for the countless prayers people offer.
In Heilmer’s sculpture, the figure of Mary is outlined rather than specified in order to emphasize all believers’ identification with Mary as model disciple. This polished outline reflects traditional images of Mary, such as Our Lady of Guadalupe. Gratia Plena’s female figure emerges into view only when observers have placed themselves in the proper perspective to recognize the figure.
Gratia Plena is rich in Biblical allusions closely relating our sculpture and Scripture. The presence of Mary is complex, revealing the wisdom, vulnerability and grace of her discipleship. The overflowing grace of Gratia Plena mirrors her celebratory prayer of Luke 1, “For you, the Almighty, have done great things for me, and holy is your Name. Your mercy reaches from age to age for those who fear you. You have filled the hungry with good things, while you have sent the rich away empty.”
“I have come to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them out of that land into a good and gracious land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:7-9).
“I could not talk to you as spiritual people, but as fleshly people, as infants in Christ. I fed you milk, not solid food, because you were unable to take it. Indeed, you are still not able, even now, for you are still flesh" (1 Corinthians 3:1-3).
“All ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank from a spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ" (1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12).
“The splendor of the Lord goes over you" (Isaiah 60:1).