Trompe l’Oeil Murals at the Old Whaling Church

Photograph by Kate Feiffer

Photography by Kate Fieffer

For three months last winter, muralist Margot Datz climbed up a scaffolding in the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown. Using paint, in a dozen shades of gray, she fastidiously recreated the Carl Wendte mural that likely had been an integral part of the church’s original design. One black-and-white photograph is all that remains of Wendte’s original fresco, and from this sole photograph Datz reconstructed the intricate weaving of line, form, and perspective needed to reflect the German-born Wendte’s design. · Margot Datz, along with Chris Scott, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, which owns the Old Whaling Church, shared thoughts on the process.

Margot Datz on backwall scaffolding

Carl Wendte [born 1820] died at twenty-eight. He came from Germany and was European trained. He was married to a woman and they were Unitarians and lived up in Boston. His first church was in Boston. It was a church from the 1600s on Commercial Street, which is kind of indicative of why that church no longer remains, because it just became so commercial that they ripped down the church, so we don’t have that in evidence.  But we do know that he did these other two churches, in Nantucket and Provincetown, as well as ours.

— Margot Datz

If you look at the photograph, there’s nothing else in the photograph but the mural. There’s no people. There’s no activity. It is intended to be a documentation of this design.

— Chris Scott

Carl Wendte mural Whaling Church

Photo of original Carl Wendte mural

Why did they go to all the trouble? They could have had any kind of design. They could have had paintings of saints. Anything . . . Is the arch a reference to a historical arch in some seaport? Is it a reference to the maritime aspect of the whaling captain’s work?  As we were discussing the elements . . .  Margot was one of the first ones to point out that there’s a whole room behind this arch, filled with light. Then the final, the third element, was mysterious to us, so we were just calling it the shadowy thing. And one day in discussing it, it was a sort of eureka moment. The idea is there’s a theological message here. The viewer is in a forechamber here, in this main hall. You’re drawn, visually, through an arch, through a transitional space. As you transit that space, you find yourself in a room that’s illuminated with light. You don’t see the full dimensions of the room until you get there. And beyond that is shadow and mystery.


This whole technique of illusion rests on consistent light sources. So in creating this illusion, we had to decide where did Wendte select his light sources. Because they had to be consistent no matter where you are in the building

— MD

If you look at the photograph, you see it the way the eye is supposed to see it. You don’t see the detail. So every time Margot went up a level of scale, it required more detail to create the same effect. Even in the four-by-four rendering, she created the trompe l’oeil effect with that rendering, but it’s a fraction of the actual detail.

— CS

Margot Datz study of original mural, which hangs in the Baylies Room of the Old Whaling Church

Margot Datz study of original mural, which hangs in the Baylies Room of the Old Whaling Church

I blew it up to fourteen-by-twenty-two-ish and gridded it. Then I blew up my grid and worked on the pencil drawing, making sure everything fit into the grid . . . It wasn’t just a logical thing, because Wendte used about five different perspective points versus one, and I think that he did this in order for the congregation to be able to view the image from different areas, further and further back, so that the image translated fairly well no matter how far back you were in the church.


We did it the way he did it.

— MD

There’s this interplay of architectural elements and paint elements and they’re absolutely married.

— CS

There is only so much visual information you can put into a rendering, and then you have to take that quantum leap . . . There’s a lot of drawing-board time and a lot of thinking. Moving from the drawing to
the rendering to the wall. There’s a lot of thinking that’s right on the wall. I couldn’t tell you from the drawing that the great arch is twenty-four concentric bands
of tone.

— MD

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