Plaster religious statuary is sometimes associated with substandard art. This beautiful 19th Century corpus which I've been restoring tells me otherwise.
Religious figures were often modeled for mass production by highly skilled sculptors. The fact that they were produced in plaster did not make the work less noteworthy artistically. The sculptor who modeled this figure would have studied anatomy inside and out. He/she shows great sensitivity in the modeling of the musculature and underlying bone structure.
However, commercialism can reduce quality, and I'll explain this further on.
In earlier times, both animal gelatin and rubber were used to make moulds for architectural and figurative pieces.
Gelatin, has a short shelf life, it breaks down fairly quickly, and as the gelatin deteriorates, so does the mould. Its ability to replicate sharp detail is reduced. In commercial terms, few replicas could be produced using this material. Because moulds are expensive and time consuming to make, commercial producers occasionally over-used rubber moulds which were past their best.
While first edition figures would retain all the detail of the original model, those produced using a mould which had lost it elasticity from over -use were substantially different.
I believe it is these latter figures which give religious plaster statuary a bad name. Hardly surprising if one hasn't had the opportunity to view the first editions.
There are still some good examples of plaster statuary which retain all their original details; though sadly, the commercial push to promote resin statuary means that fewer of these figures might be preserved for the future.
The corpus here is depicted with an open mouth, inviting us to contemplation of Christs last words on the cross, "Into your hands I commend my spirit... it is done!""
The figure is not a sentimental representation, but invites us to think deeply about the spiritual significance of these words for us.
It has weathered church devotions for over a century and a half, and hopefully now one hundred more!
I admit that I regard humble plaster figures with some affection. I am sure when God created plaster, he knew that it would serve to build up the church throughout time. Even though mass produced religious statuary has its faults, it did much to further popular devotion during the 19th Century.
Long may our beloved plaster statues continue!
Liturgical artist/restorer. Bachelor of Art and Design, Catholic Blogger
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