Earlier this year I completed a commission from Fr. H to make a 44 inch statue of St.Catherine for his parish. Revd. H sent me some images of his ideal "Catherine" and how the finished statue might look. The range of images were eclectic in style. Some very simple and others highly decorated. From these we extracted which elements of the figure design were essential, and which could be achieved in practical terms.
To create the figure I used water based clay which I find more responsive to the touch than the less traditional plastilene (plasticene -type) modelling materials.
The following images show some of the stages in producing the figure
Designing the figure.
Sketches are an important part of helping the client see how the sculpture may look when finished. This older statue of St.Catherine shows how the proportions of the wheel had to change in order to make sense in three dimensions. (Note: The sword for this statue is missing.) To the right is a sketch combining elements of the flat back, and my interpretation of St. Catherine.
Building the figure Support
To support the weight of clay used to build the figure, David constructed a rotating platform and scaffolding jig. This would hold the armature which has to be shaped to fit the pose of the figure. It has to be strong enough to support the clay, in this case around 50 + kilos.
Modelling St. Catherine's face
Its helpful to have a live model from which to make notes when planning to sculpt a figure. Yet an artist will not always copy this slavishly, consideration is given to creating a more pleasing shape than would appear in reality. In the same way a portrait artist, may strive to bring out his subjects "best" features.
The head is sculpted separately, and added to the torso.
Moulding and casting
Once the clay model was completed, we made a mould for the figure.
and separate moulds for the hands, crown and dove. These were cast seperately and attached later to the plaster cast.
Once the plaster was fully dry, polychroming could begin.
Consideration was given to the colours of the clothing, the detail of the cloak clasp, and the dove. Fr. H asked that the dove be coloured like that of an African species which would have populated the Jordan in biblical times. The complexion, eye and hair colour were matched to that of his beloved granddaughter. Finally, the statue was complete and ready to display for the feast of St.Catherine on 25th of November.
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.
This 40 inch plaster nativity set needed some TLC. It had become rather grubby and damaged with years of handling.
As work began, we found a number of " shortcuts" had been taken in the past. The ends of this shepherds, bagpipes had broken, and the remaining stub painted over. The pipes were rather truncated and needed to be rebuilt.
So here are three stages of my re-building the missing "chanters" or pipes.
(fig 1.) the proposed correction far left,
(fig 2.) Supports fitted to rebuild the mouth of chanters and fingers,
(fig 3.) Shaping the fingers to match the originals.
Partial restoration requires that the restorer has to prioritise which areas need her attention most. Old repairs even if unsightly or poorly modeled, sometimes have to remain if they are sound.
However, this king's crown was too prominent a feature to over look.
Just as the bag pipes, the central point was broken and over painted in an attempt to disguise the break. It spoiled the king's regal appearance, and was a definite candidate for renewal!
So here are the stages of correcting the old repair;- I'm sure you will agree that the appearance is much improved.
And so, let us return to the "pipe-less" shepherd...
With the missing chanters re-built, The shepherd definitely appears to be playing a musical instrument - and not sucking orange juice through a large straw.
The following images show the areas which were missing, and the completed repairs.
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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