Days before we closed for Christmas break, I visited a church to refurbish the carved symbols on the altar. These were of the alpha and omega, with a Pelican in the centre, feeding its young.
The Carving of the Pelican was looking rather dull. It was lost in a sea of beautiful deep green marble. The story it was meant to tell had become unreadable.
The P.P. wanted to revive that story, so that he could better explain the Eucharist to the children.
The story goes something like this:
In medieval times, it was thought that the Pelican preened feathers from her breast until it bled. With her own blood, she fed her young chicks to ensure their survival.
The Pelican became a symbol of the Eucharist; Christ feeding the faithful with His own body and blood.
I might add to the story by saying "Strengthened and matured, the young birds find that they have the strength to leave the earthly nest and soar heavenward."
The source of this legend has been lost in time, yet it gave rise to the intriguing Catholic symbol we see in our churches today.
The following set of stations of the cross belong to a London Church.
Father wanted them to look as beautiful as possible, but hold back on some areas where damage was minimum to retain their sense of age.
I think this was the right approach, as the stations were new in 1858, and part of their beauty was in their age.
The figures which make up the tableaus, are beautifully carved, and originate from Belgium or Germany. As with many old church pieces their provenance has been lost with the passage of time.
We restored the figures where paint had flaked, and replaced missing spears and clubs.
The spires and gilded acanthus leaves were broken, along with some of the crosses topping the frames. We found that the wooden frames had been more colourful, the tan brown which now predominated was not original, but a change made just after the war.
It appeared that when the stations has been restored in 1948, new back grounds had been added, perhaps the originals had deteriorated to such an extent that this was deemed necessary.
The image below shows the crudity of this " new" addition compared to the attention given to the frames and figures.
When we visit various churches, parishioners often tell us how unhappy they are about the scenic element to their stations of the cross having been painted out altogether.
We felt it important to address this problem, not only to restore some of the original integrity of the artworks, but also to enhance the story - telling aspect of the set. (That is the Catechetical element.)
The following images show the eleventh and twelfth stations with backgrounds re-painted in th spirit of the originals.
Above: Damaged processional statue after restoration .
A recent request to restore a statue of Our lady for a May procession, proved a bit more of a challenge than usual. The face had lost its shape beneath layers of paint. The broken hands sported broken thumbs which had been replaced with "plaster sausages."
The lining on the mantle was textured with old repairs resembling a gold-painted rock fall.
The condition of this statue was rather poor, considering it for a decent burial seemed the kindest thing to do. However, the statue held memories for a number of parishioners, and so we did all we could to save it.
In this particular case, old paint had to be removed to reveal the true nature and extent of any damage. This would ensure that repairs would be sound and thorough. The inner walls were strengthened and her face remodeled along with her thumbs.
After many hours work, the statue looks good again, the surface of the gold mantle is smooth and her face pretty again -she will serve as a processional statue few more years yet!
Left: plastering over old paint makes for a poor repair, with low adhesion. It has made the thumb too large for the hand.
A section of the statue wall, compared with a two pound coin.
Reverse of the statue shows the split in thin plaster wall, and damage to the hands
A cracked neck suggested that the face may have been damaged when the head had fallen off at an earlier date. Nose, mouth and eyelids had to be rebuilt.
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!
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