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Catholic church statuary: a craft in danger
Statues of saints are a feature of every Catholic church but many of the moulds from which they were cast have been destroyed. One of Australia's last sets of moulds belongs to a Melbourne sacred art studio and the owner is hoping someone will help him preserve them.
A collection of unique moulds used by craftsmen for the manufacture of that enduring object of Catholic popular devotion, the plaster holy statue, is at risk of being lost forever. The owner, Joseph Giansiracusa, who has a church supplies business in Melbourne's northern suburbs, has so far been unable to find anyone interested in helping him preserve them for posterity.
For generations holy statues have been a distinctive feature in every Catholic church. Their numbers might have been thinned out in some places after the Second Vatican Council but they have never disappeared. And today, with a growing trend worldwide towards the restoration of churches damaged or denuded by some of the iconoclastic excesses of the post-conciliar era, statues are back in demand. Even contemporary churches have at least one or two. Which makes Mr Giansiracusa's problem something of a paradox.
"These moulds go back to the early years of the last century and are all in working condition and fit to be used," he says. "But even if no craftsman wants them they should be preserved as important in their own right in the history of popular Catholic art. I see the statues that were cast from them as the communal expression of an era."
Mr Giansiracusa would like to establish a museum of what he calls "Catholic sacramental art" in which the moulds could be preserved. Such a museum would be on the lines of other museums of industrial history. People could see how the statues and other artefacts were designed and cast and painted.
But setting up such an enterprise is not something he can do single-handed. He is hoping to find an individual or group who will "cooperate, assist and share" in the venture. He says he has broached the idea of a museum with various Catholic and secular contacts and no one has so far shown any interest - certainly not to the extent of offering any practical support.
Mr Giansiracusa points out that a museum would be as much about preserving the craft of popular devotional art as about the moulds themselves. It could be run in conjunction with a training program to teach young craftsmen the art of making plaster figures and other techniques of religious art.
He believes that even if things in the retail world of church furnishings, as in the retail world of everything else, are not exactly rosy at the moment, there will always be a demand for distinctively Catholic church artefacts. And if they are well made, as in the past they not always were, so much the better.
If not exactly a museum itself, Mr Giansiracusa's warehouse is undoubtedly something of a compendium of popular religious craft of our time. Crammed into a lofty hangar-like space on an industrial estate, the volume of stock disguises the bare and basic character of the structure that contains it.
Not only moulds but finished statues rise high towards the un-ceiled steel roof. A blue and white Virgin, life-size, watches over the door. A vast crucifix with a somewhat disturbingly realistic figure rears up like a tall tree above a forest of smaller objects. Sacred Hearts and St Anthonys stand around. Candlesticks, including a rather handsome pair of Exposition candelabra awaiting restoration, jostle with pious images and booklets on the Mass. There are Christmas crib sets and confirmation cards, votive lights and vestments.
A particularly handsome if diminutive set of Stations of the Cross in lime wood carved by the venerable firm of Stuflesser in the Val Gardena in northern Italy hangs on a partition. Overall, you have the feeling of being in a crowded ecclesiastical cave. On shelves and tables there is not a square inch of empty surface visible, not even in the cramped office area from which Mr Giansiracusa emerged to meet me.
He has been in the ecclesiastical supplies business for more than 30 years and says he would like to "slow down the pace" of his work. But the fate of the moulds worries him. He originally acquired them to preserve them. They came from a manufacturer of statues who was closing down. "They would have been destroyed if I had not bought them, just as all the moulds owned by a once well-known Melbourne firm were smashed in the 1960s in the name of 'depreciation' of company assets."
Painted plaster statues of Our Lord and Our Lady and the saints might not be high art but they have had and still to some extent have a hold on the Catholic popular imagination which makes them of value not only as objects of piety but of culture. It would be pity if the art and the means of making them were lost.
Mr Giansiracusa can be contacted on (03) 9495 1109. Christopher Akehurst is a Melbourne writer who can be contacted at P.O. Box 1138, Windsor, Vic 3181, or tel: (03) 9534 0125; 0415 192 929.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 24 No 8 (September 2011), p. 11
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