A chapel stands amidst the graves in the U.S. military cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, the focal point of the Allied landings in France during World War II. Inside, the ceiling of its dome features an astonishing, colorful mosaic by American painter Leon Kroll.
Standing among thousands of white marble crosses on a bluff above Omaha Beach in Normandy is a round limestone chapel. Inside, a mosaic covers its 500-square-foot domed ceiling. This is the heart of the American Cemetery and Memorial at Colleville-sur-Mer created to honor D-Day’s fallen heroes.
On one side of the mosaic, a Goddess of Liberty representing America blesses her rifle-bearing son before he departs to fight overseas. Above him, a warship and a bomber push through sea and air toward land on the opposite side of the dome. There, a red-capped Marianne figure personifying France bestows a laurel wreath upon the same young man. His now lifeless body leans against her as she cradles his head in her lap. Above them, the return of peace is illustrated with an angel, a dove and a homeward-bound troop ship. In the words of the artist who created it, this is a full round story “of war and peace.”
The mosaic is the work of Leon Kroll (1884-1974). Best known as an American figurative artist, his most dramatic paintings depict the wild seas and cliffs of Maine and Cape Ann, Massachusetts. Also notable are his fifteen murals, including an enormous World War I memorial in Worcester, Massachusetts. But the chapel ceiling is Kroll’s only mosaic.
© Photo by Warrick Page/American Battle Monuments Commission
The commission came to Kroll through Philadelphia architect John Harbeson of a firm hired by the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) to transform a 172.5-acre swath of land into the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Their design devoted two-thirds of the site to a vast rectangular cemetery with main paths laid in the form of a Latin cross. They positioned the chapel with Kroll’s mosaic ceiling at the nexus of the cross, surrounded by 9,387 precisely-aligned gravestones.
Harbeson contacted Kroll in June 1950. In December 1952, ABMC accepted Kroll’s concept sketch, with one caveat: “The figure of the soldier with rifle focuses specifically upon the Army. The Commission feels that it is desirable that such a figure recall sailors and airmen as well.” So Kroll depicted him in plain brown trousers, bare-chested and bare-footed, creating a tension of youthful vigor and vulnerability.
By June 1953, Kroll had moved into the Lutetia in Paris — the same art deco hotel he’d stayed in during a painting sojourn thirty years earlier when he met his French wife. He hired Italian artisan Riccardo Settimo, who specialized in tesserae (mosaic tiles), and began daily visits to Settimo’s atelier to assemble the mosaic. After transferring his full-color design onto “special thick paper, which will not stretch when the tesserae are glued [on] and can be washed off when the tesserae are set,” Kroll, helped by Settimo and two other Italian assistants, began cutting and placing the glass mosaic pieces. Ultimately, the complete mosaic comprised 500,000 tiles — a thousand for every square foot of the dome — all made to Kroll’s color specifications in a kiln just outside Paris.
By late September, Kroll and his crew (now including a Frenchman) were installing his creation: “There were 340 sections in that mosaic which had to fit in place just like a jig- saw puzzle. We carted [them] in cases to Omaha Beach, in Normandy. You cement the ceiling and you place the mosaic. When you finish a section, you wash off the glued-on paper several hours after the material has been fixed in the ceiling. The cement is set enough to hold it up, but not so much that you can’t move pieces around a little bit.”
Kroll was particularly pleased with the sky: “I used broken color for the sky just as in an Impressionist picture. The ceiling is a blue sky that goes down into a sort of gray-pink on the right — that was done like a pointillist picture. I had every kind of color in there, not only blue but also red, yellow-green, purples, but the predominant tonality is blue… It’s simply stunning in the effect of shimmering light.”
Kroll predicted no one but “the mothers of the poor devils who were killed there” would see his mosaic. He knew that to see it, one must look up, and perhaps only those searching the heavens in grief would notice his blue-skied allegory. Creating art within a chapel surrounded by a graveyard of men who died for a greater cause, Kroll opted for modesty in placing his signature: “I tucked [it] in the mosaic behind the coping. The only time they’ll find out who did it is if they go up there and look in.”
Upon returning home, Kroll wrote Harbeson to say that his work was complete. He mentioned that the ABMC contract had fallen far short of covering his expenses, but he dropped the idea of being fully compensated. “After all,” he said, “you see those graves, and you don’t argue about it.” There was one glitch in the design, revealed to Kroll in a letter from his ABMC liaison: “I regret to report that upon examination of the mosaic, we find that the aircraft insi- gnia are incorrect. It is true that our own people should have caught this. The best thing probably is to take out the insignia altogether.” Settimo carried out that task.
On July 18, 1956, after the completion of other architectural features and landscaping at the memorial, crowds congregated for dedication ceremonies. And now, 75 years later, thousands will gather there on June 6 to mark D-Day, including a tiny handful of veterans who survived the assault. One is Charles Shay, a Penobscot Indian from Maine who struggled ashore at dawn as a 19-year-old combat medic. Reflecting on Kroll’s mosaic, he said: “The woman beside the young man holding the rifle reminds me of when my mother accompanied me to New York and sent me off to war. I think of the men who didn’t come back, even though their mothers were praying for them. I can’t get them out of my mind.”
Bunny McBride is the co-author with Harald E.L. Prins of From Indian Island to Omaha Beach: The Story of Charles Shay, Penobscot Indian War Hero (University of Nebraska Press, forthcoming 2020).