When the Hesburgh Library opened, its most distinctive exterior feature, the "mural," had not yet been installed. The artist Millard Sheets was commisioned to create a work large enough to cover the southern face of the tower, visible from the football stadium. Its theme was to be saints and scholars throughout the ages; this was suggested by Father Hesburgh.
In an interview, Sheets explained that:
What they asked me to do was to suggest in a great processional the idea of a never-ending line of great scholars, thinkers, and teachers - saints that represented the best that man has recorded, and which are found represented in a library. The thought was that the various periods that are suggested in the theme have unfolded in the continuous process of one generation giving to the next. I put Christ at the top with the disciples to suggest that He is the great teacher - that is really the thematic idea.
As the composition evolved, the figure of Christ the Teacher was developed with arms raised in what has become known as the "touch-down" gesture. The official designation for the mural is the Word of Life mural, because it is a representation of a passage from the Bible in the Book of John.
"The Word of Life"
In the beginning was the Word:
the Word was with God
and the Word was God.
He was with God in the beginning.
Through him all things came to be,
not one thing had its being but through him.
All that came to be had life in him.
and that life was the light of men,
a light that shines in the dark,
a light that darkness could not overpower.
The $200,000 mural was a gift of Mr. and Mrs. Howard V. Phalin of Winnetka, Illinois. It was installed during the spring of 1964 and was to be kept covered until the day of the formal dedication, but strong winds unveiled it a day early. The dedication ceremony was held on May 7, 1964 and included a mass and an academic convocation.
From a technical perspective, Professor Winkler wrote about the mural saying that "Millard Sheet's painting was converted into a mosaic by the Cold Spring Granite Company. ... The mural is composed of 324 panels, of which 189 are precast panel units. The remaining 135 are solid granite and Mankato stone, used for background panels. In all, 81 different stones, in 171 finishes, and from 16 countries, were used in fabrication. ... The following kinds of stone were utilized: 46 granites and syenites; 10 gabros and labradorites; 4 metamorphic gneisses; 12 serpentines; 4 crystalline marbles; and 5 limestones."
By strict definition it qualifies as neither mural or mosaic; the process is a unique one in which 6,700 separate pieces of granite were used to create the composition. With its large size (134 feet high and 68 feet wide) and highly visible location, it continues to attract attention, and helps to make the Library among the most familiar of the campus landmarks.
The information for this page was taken from:
Stevenson, Marsha. "Style and Symbol: Library Buildings at Notre Dame." WHAT IS WRITTEN REMAINS: HISTORICAL ESSAYS ON THE LIBRARIES OF NOTRE DAME. Ed. Maureen Gleason and Katharina J. Blackstead. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994.
Winkler, Erhard M. "'Word of Life;' Stone Mural Dominates Notre Dame Library." STONE MAGAZINE. October 1967.
Bible quotation from: THE JERUSALEM BIBLE. Ed. Alexander Jones. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1970.