Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Cornelius Sullivan on the Annunciation Sculpture by Marton Varo, Ave Maria, FL

The Annunciation, with Sculptor Marton Varo, Ave Maria, Florida
Cornelius Sullivan

The church is in the center of the town of Ave Maria in Florida. It dominates the main piazza like a European Cathedral, a Duomo, and it faces Ave Maria University. The church, the town, and the university are all dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

The facade of the church, the Oratory, highlights a monumental high relief marble sculpture of the Annunciation by internationally renowned sculptor Marton Varo. The archangel Gabriel kneels respectfully before the striding Virgin emerging from the white marble. The art is both traditional and innovative and it signifies that the building is a Roman Catholic Church.
The sculpture saves the odd Post Modern building that kids call a space ship and that has been compared to an airplane hanger. Its silhouette, front and back, resembles a Bishop's mitre. Being Post Modern means that its identity, its function, can be known by how it looks. Strictly Modern architects did not care if you knew if their building was an apartment building, or a bank, or a church, it was all about their edifying geometry. The architectural vocabulary of the Oratory, employing both masonry and steel, is not of a particular style but the building is recognizable now as a church because of the Annunciation sculpture. 

The monumental marble sculpture may be the most important religious art on a church in this country. It is remarkable because the sculpture takes up such a large percentage of the facade.  It was designed for the space of the pediment as classical relief sculptures were and it is now part of the architecture. In our age of replication, mass production, and cheap mass media, it is important to understand how this art was created.  How it was made can help to explain its uniqueness and its significance. Every inch of the marble was formed by the hands of the sculptor.  

Before going into detail about the unique significance of the sculpture allow me to address some criticisms of the art which will help to define what it is not. It is not a sterile stick figure representation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is not a bloodless academic study of the two figures. 

I have heard of an objection to the fact that the Virgin looks like a woman. We know from the Gospel that she was a woman. Is it not reasonable to assume that she had hips that would allow her to carry and bear the Christ child? It is insulting to common sense and to the Mother of God to insist that she be represented as a neutered stick figure. A personal Puritanism has no place in Catholic theology or art. Remember the bad art from previous decades, felt banners saying "peace" and faceless cut out figures holding hands? This is so much more than that. The sculptor has an understanding of feminine beauty. "Blessed is the womb that bore thee, the breast which thou has sucked" -Luke 11:27. 

Another critique came from a sculptor who does ecorche. That is the practice of making a sculpture of a figure by first making the skeleton and then laying the muscles over it to learn internal structure. This is a restrictive academic approach to sculpture and plodding academic sculptors never have enough art in their art. They prize correctness over beauty. A quote from Fr. John Saward comments on correctness and beauty.  

Robbed of the beauty of sacred art, the Christian can become blind to the beauty of Divine Revelation. And that is disastrous, for, when sundered from beauty, truth becomes correctness without splendour and goodness a value of no delight. -The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty, Art, Sanctity & The Truth of Catholicism, Ignatius, 1997.  

Picking up on Saward's concept of beauty, it is clear to see that Marton Varo is a sculptor who understands beauty. He does not make political art, he does not make decorator art to match design schemes. 

Lest anyone think art like this is extravagant I remind them of a sentence by Pope Benedict that reifies the truth that art is not superficial but essential to the Church.  
"The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb."-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, The Ratzinger Report, Messori, 1988. 
I have suggested that the Annunciation is significant because it is a unique grand monumental architectural religious work of art and further that it is about beauty. The beauty of the message and the beauty of the sculptural form are combined and work together. 

Marton Varo is a "Direct Carver". That is significant. Contemporary Direct Carvers are as connected personally with their work as were Greek and Renaissance carvers who also worked directly on the stone by hand.  

Direct carvers began in the Twentieth century to reject the industrialization of sculptural practice. They insisted on carving themselves and they preferred that stone look like stone. Nineteenth Century American neo-classical marble figures that grace museums were carved by artisan copyists in Rome around 1900. Sculptors like Hiram Powers and Thomas Crawford made the clay sculpture that was cast in plaster and then sent to a workshop. The sculptors would sign the completed copy. This was also the practice of Auguste Rodin who was a modeler in clay.  

The normal procedure for a work the size of the Annunciation would be for a committee to approve a small model that would be sent to Cararra or PietrasantaItaly to be enlarged in marble. With some luck in a few years one could expect at least a decent copy. There would be no guarantee that what looked good at three feet high would work at thirty feet high on the building.  

I did mention that Varo knows how to sculpt figures. He has completed very large scale figures in high relief and has understood the necessary engineering to also fasten them to a building. 

I have imagined that as Archangel Gabriel left on his mission he may have asked, "Should I kneel?" God might have said, "Artists might show you kneeling, or on your toes, or in the air. Don't worry you will know what to do." He is kneeling and the Blessed Virgin looks both humble and daring enough to say yes to God's plan. Varo's Virgin is a substantial figure who is strong and active. That is an innovative interpretation because many historical representations show her as passive or surprised, perhaps reading or praying. We must remember that upon hearing this news she was immediately decisive and active in journeying to help her cousin Elizabeth. We may read the expression of the Virgin not as startled, or puzzled, or contemplative, before her decision, but as inspired after the fact of her "fiat", after her yes. 

On any given day you can see small groups of people in the remote location on the edge of the Florida Everglades taking pictures of the Annunciation of The Blessed Virgin Mary. Those photographs will subsequently go around the world.   
Marton Varo worked for long hours each day in public before the whole community. Covered with white marble dust, (and "looking like a baker" as Leonardo da Vinci said of Michelangelo) he would stop and answer questions for students and pilgrims. When asked at a discussion forum, when the work was nearing completion, if the Virgin Mary had communicated anything special to him, he responded, "Yes, she said keep working."  

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