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Marist Bulletin - Number 249

 

Saint Marcellin Champagnat: A dream scultured in marble
01/06/2006

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Jimťnez Deredia at the Vatican in the Basilica of Saint Peter



In 1976 a young Costa Rican sculptor is traveling in Italy. He is 21 years old and has a 7-month scholarship in his pocket. The workshops in Carrara are open to his desires to be an apprentice. He cannot erase from his memory the images of the pre-Colombian sculptures of his native country. When, for the first time, he crosses the threshold of Saint Peterís basilica and contemplates its statues, he dreams of putting one of his own works there. For anybody, this would be a dream of youth. For him, it is a matter of intuition. On 20 September 2000 this dream became a reality.

What does it mean to have one of your statues at the Vatican, more precisely that of Saint Marcellin Champagnat?
For me the sculpture of Saint Marcellin Champagnat represents an important moment in my personal and spiritual life. The fact that itís here in the Vatican signifies the possibility of concretizing Marcellinís thought so as to give it a wider diffusion. To discover the figure of Saint Marcellin with his spiritual dimension, his simplicity, and his idea of the world has helped me understand part of my interior and spiritual search. The most important thing every human being must understand in life is that he must search for truth with humility and then follow it. Unfortunately in our life we tend to see shadows, and we donít get used to searching for the truth of things. Saint Marcellinís simplicity has probably been the most important key to the search for truth in lifeÖ Marcellin the manís existential answer and his message coincided automatically with my spiritual evolution and conception. That Marcellin is at the Vatican is neither cause for pride nor honor for me, but it does signify the concretization of an existential and personal answer which coincides with Marcellinís existential answer.

How was your vocation as sculptor born?
I began to sculpture when I was very young. I was 5 when I made my first public sculpture in Costa Rica. With all the unconsciousness of my age, I represented a Costa Rican educator. From that moment on, I understood that I was born to be a sculptor. I could do many things in life, but what made me really happy was sculpture. Besides, I understood that I would be able to project my spiritual dimension through art, that is to say my subconscious which is, as we say, our interior beingÖ Through sculpture I would be able to express what goes beyond the rational. Each one of us finds a means to express oneís spiritual dimension through a religious structure: music, poetry, environmentalism, etc. All of us, human beings, are called, interiorly, to find the right channel; in my case, it was sculpture. I sense that Iím a sculptor because thatís the path God has given me to find my own spiritual dimension and to express this whole interior ocean which exists in me, as in every human being. To be able to express this through matter is an enormous privilege because it allows me to translate this spirituality into something concrete. Thatís the way I think I discovered my answer to existence: to why I am here, to what must I do, to where Iím goingÖall these big questions which are in us and which have their answers in each oneís spiritual dimension. In my case, they find their indispensable channel in sculpture.

What happened that one of your works like this statue was put in the Vatican, since thatís not really easy?
Itís a long story. A magical and fascinating story. Here it is in a few words: this can sound strange, but I feel in my heart that we are not the ones who have chosen Marcellin, but in fact he who has chosen us. We understand that to place a sculpture in St. Peterís Basilica is a very complicated operation and that in 99% of the cases we have to be very familiar with Church structure and have good connections inside the Vatican. My wife and I, on the other hand, had dreamed of doing something very important for the Vatican. Little by little we let ourselves be imbued by this message, stronger and stronger in our hearts, and we explored all the means which could become available to us, waiting for that little light at the end of the tunnel which would point out the road to take. Thus, little by little, things materialized, until the opportunity and the possibility of discovering Saint Marcellin appeared with what was to be our participation in the Jubilee at the Vatican. Gradually, things took shape; people liked the project and the Marist Congregation arrived on the scene to support this project with love, giving us its spiritual and moral backing, and the courage we needed to go forward. Thus we were able to concretize our dream and produce this sculpture for St. Peterís Basilica.

Nevertheless a year before you still knew nothing about St. Marcellin Champgnat.
I have to admit I didnít know that a St. Marcellin Champagnat even existed.

Then how were you able to grasp so much of him in so little time? What was it that drew your attention? What did you do to be filled so fast with his spirit?
I felt that Marcellin, his story and my personal story, had common elements, with all due respect for Marcellin needless to say. I come from a poor family, a poor country where grand aspirations abound. Iím a great dreamer and I believe I have the interior strength to fight for those things that I believe in, and I sense a very strong spiritual call. When I knew St. Marcellin, an expression captured my attention which was to become a fundamental pillar during that year. It said that if we put our trust in God, our faith in Him, nothing is impossible. That is to say, we feel that Marcellin was a man who created nothing theoretically, but who struggled to realize his dream with his hands and faith. We felt in some way that, though we were poor economically and without great resources, everything was possible if we had great faith and if God was with us. That was our almost total identification with St. Marcellin. A man who cut stones to build the Hermitage, a man who slaved with his hands, who measured up to the task, who didnít wait for things to fall from heaven. In my life it has happened that Iíve have to fight with my hands and my grand dreams and to see how God little by little answers and enlightens us for the fight. Marcellin gave me the strength, because with few resources but lots of faith he succeeded in building a kingdom, a kingdom of faith and love. Thatís why I wanted to call my sculpture ďA Giant of Love.Ē In Marcellin I found a real giant of love in whom great spiritual values could be translated into concrete things. Marcellinís statue is an example of a great ideal which can be expressed very concretely by a block of marble: a dream realized.

Didnít the innovative character of your sculpture present a certain difficulty for the Vaticanís artistic Commission which had to approve the project?
Itís always difficult to accept new things. When I was working the project out, I listened to my heart, what I felt in me and what must have been Marcellinís feeling. I believe St. Marcellin must have deeply loved people in many ways, with their weaknesses and limitations. The same is true for children. I was to translate this human aspect through the point of view of children. The big challenge for me was to not do a rhetorical work: a work which would describe the anecdotal elements of the saint, but one which would reveal his soul, namely, the profound feeling which called him to love children. This corresponded with the conception Marcellin had of a simple world, not collapsing. To put aside superficial things in order to pursue the search for truth. This has also been my strongest motto during these recent years of my life. To pursue the search for truth and set aside everything superficial has led me to produce a sculpture which is relatively revolutionary in the context of those works which have a Baroque historical origin and are situated between 1700 A.D. and the beginning of 1900 A.D. My work had a precise date and the cultural and artistic expression of the moment. For me, a sculpture of the year 2000 had to be a sculpture which, besides representing Marcellinís truth and essence, had to represent the language of a culture of the year 2000, without falling into styles, without falling into excesses of estheticism, but which had to respect the cultural language of the year 2000. Thatís why the work was profoundly revolutionary and difficult to accept at first. It was evident that people would have loved a more traditional work, more in harmony with the sculpture of the years 1700-1800. My sculpture appeared the way it is because it had to be that way; people had to respect my interior world and Marcellinís as well. I believe that this world had to be expressed in a simple manner and in a contemporary language.

You say that your statue is an essential statue. What do you mean precisely by that?
For me, essentialism is the final stage of a thing. Something is essential when we remove everything artificial in order to get to the heart of a thought. It is therefore the last stage of every thought. In general, we all feel this when we want to do something. We then have many stimuli and we confront a complex idea because it has many layers. What we have to do is eliminate those layers in order to arrive at the heart of the idea. Itís when the idea will be completely stripped of all its layers that weíll arrive at its essential character, its purity. Essentialism corresponds, according to me, to the last stage of a thought when it has been purified to the point of becoming entirely clean and we arrive at its truth. I arrive, therefore, at the first step of all philosophers: the search for truth. Unfortunately, as Plato said in the famous myth of the cave, everything we see before us are shadows of reality. We must have the courage to shed our chains and turn our head to see the truth which is hiding behind the images we see. These images are only the shadows of truth. For me, essentialism is one of the paths given us to turn us away and enable us to see the truth of things in order not to confuse it with its shadows in front of us or in front of the cave.

Therefore, for you, what is St. Marcellin essentially? What is his essence? What was it of St. Marcellin that you wanted to transmit by your sculpture?
For me St. Marcellin was a man who had understood where the truth of things was and who struggled all his life to express it and communicate it to the world in the simplest manner. To understand things, one must often complicate them by adding all those layers which muddle the mind and make it lose the clarity of things. According to me, Marcellin had perfectly understood Jesusís message. With that key, he gave a profound and clear message to the world. He knew that only clear language would allow the world to understand. For me, St. Marcellin is the expression of all of this and if, as I believe, we open our heart to life and to God whom we seek, this truth of things can only coincide with what Marcellin discovered as the essence of life: the search for depths, for the great values which are neither money nor the exaltation of great things, but in the understanding itself of the human being and its relation with the cosmosÖ its harmony. This calls upon analytical psychology by going beyond the ďmeĒ phase, in order to go to the being, to harmonize existence and arrive at being. This means: ďIt is no longer I that live, but Christ Who lives in me.Ē That is precisely the harmony between me and my being in order to arrive at finding a space as human being in situation with the cosmos. For me, Marcellinís message is situated at this fundamental point: the search for being.

What role do the two children in your sculpture play?
The two children represent the emotional and intense relation St. Marcellin had as a human being. The child on his shoulders is our son, the child we all carry lovingly on our shoulders. I wanted to draw inspiration from something living and not theoretical. The child above is inspired by my own human experience with my son. I was sure that a man like St. Marcellin had loved children and must have had strong emotional relations with them. Consequently I didnít want to make this idea so theoretical that it appeared false, cold, and abstract. That would be a reading of shadows; truth passes through what we live profoundly. The experience of God is something you live or donít live. If itís just theory, itís dead; if itís lived, it then takes on existential meaning. The child on his shoulders is something living, like Marcellinís faith I tried to express in marble an existential experience common to all, that of perceiving with oneís skin, even the skin of oneís neck, the human quality that this child could feel. The child beneath (boy or girl, it doesnít matter, he stands for children in general) has one hand on the saintís foot, putting his entire trust in the figure of the paternal IMAGO which St. Marcellin represents in this sculpture, and which he represents for all who approach him: the perfect image of the paternal IMAGO. Itís not a question only of a person showing an emotional quality, but of a person showing also the possibility of believing intellectually, namely, reflecting on existence, on God, and having complete knowledge, both emotional and intellectual. Itís perhaps the figure which unites the two concepts in us: reason and emotion which, when well balanced, allow us to live our being fully.
The child below, then, experiences two fundamental moments of human nature: emotional understanding by contact with the saint and rational understanding which incorporates the emotional in order to complete the concept of being in this child.

Did it prove difficult to integrate in a single image of Marcellin his masculine strength, his firmness and tenderness?
No. I have to say there was no rational effort a priori. It happened in studying the figure of Marcellin, in trying to concretize in this image the values in which he believed profoundly, and I automatically had the image of St. Marcellin, that of the PATERNAL IMAGO. He had to be masculine, tall, strong, with an expression of character, but also soft, that is to say a man who both corrected and loved, able to tell you the kindest word and show you sternly the road you have to take. The tenderness came automatically, without having to look for it. I must admit I never looked to give him tenderness or sternness as a man; those were two images that lived in me as I was identifying myself with St. Marcellin and which in some way corresponded to my view of the world: on one side strength, and on the other tenderness, which is nothing but being human. When we understand the human being, tenderness comes automatically. Itís not something looked for or theoretical. Itís an existential experience, and I think the sculpture concretizes both as the answer of a deepened personality which has analyzed itself, which has been loved, and which, in a certain way, has been captured by the marble.

Thatís the attitude of the statue, the sculpture, but what about Marcellinís visage?
The face is important in this sculpture. His crinkled eyes speak of the responsibility he had among people. He was not a man to absent himself from the world, nor a man who simply observed the exterior things of the world. He had this introspective look which gave him a complete view of the world. The face of Marcellin reflects somewhat his spiritual dimension which, in a way, coincides with the ideal, the effort of our search for and desire to attain the spiritual. In fact, I have always held that a sculpture must reflect this step towards truth, the true vision of oneself. That is to say, an image which has to respect the physiognomy of the person represented, but also a certain way of concretizing the sensibility of the artist. A portrait is always the reflection of an artist as creator and a psychological interpretation of the person represented. Itís a binomial, because if we represented only the exterior of the person, the fundamental dimension of every work of art would be missing: passing through the crucible of existence, of life lived. Once passed through life lived, this image contains the artist as well. The two things form a binomial; the artist must respect both the personality of the one whose image he makes and his own personality as an artist. In the case of Marcellin, thereís a correspondence between these two things; thatís why this image radiates magnetism. I think itís the one Marcellin had. Itís the magic which God had revealed to him in his heart.

From what Iíve been able to see in following the development of the statue all these months, I saw that it was your project, but that it was also shared, it seems to me, by your wife Giselle. Up to what point is it a family project?
Yes, it is a profoundly familial project. My wife was the first to have the impression that I had to produce something important. I think Marcellin heard her, revealed his will to her in her dreams, and gave me theA? possibility of realizing his message partially in this sculpture. I say this in all humility, without the least presumption, but itís a presentiment we have in our hearts, whence the desire and the will of my wife to defend this project. She sensed it like one of the missions God confided to her in her life. She struggled every moment to create the ideal conditions to realize the sculpture. At a certain moment, she arranged meetings without telling me; she did things that I didnít think were necessary because she felt that God was calling her to do them. Itís a project shared at the family level in a very intense way. I would be lying like someone not searching for truth, if I said that itís a project which I was the first to sense personally; itís my wife who felt it and who created the first conditions. Itís little by little that I entered the world into which she invited me. We feel this way because of our faith; God was pointing out to us part of our mission and destiny in this life.

What emotion did you feel when you had the opportunity to meet with the Pope, after the blessing of the statue?
For me, it was a very strong experience, like the realization of a dream we all took part in. Pope John Paul II was no doubt the first to offer us the possibility of placing this statue. When I approached this charismatic figure, with all the humility one can feel in front of such a personality, the only feeling I sensed was gratitude for having given us the possibility of taking part in this great project. That profoundly moved me. The few words he said to thank me for having made the sculpture signified a crowning for me, something I never imagined I would live to see.

What echoes did you receive after the inauguration of your statue?
In general, the reactions were positive. Thatís my impression. There will always be some people who wonít like the statue. There will be some whoíll criticize it, but that doesnít interest me because the sculpture is the expression of what I had to do. Many peoplA?e have seized the human message. The impressions of people who are not scholars or cultural specialists interest me a lot when they view it and feel something. Iíve been touched that people scarcely cultured identify with the figure of St. Marcellin and, in particular, by the fact that heís carrying a child on his shoulders. Not later than today, a person stopped me and said: ďI want to tell you that when I see the sculpture, it pleases me immensely because it reminds me of my little girl that I very often carry on my shoulders, in spite of my back pains, in spite of all the problems it can cause me. Iím very touched when I carry her on my shoulders. When I saw your sculpture, I automatically identified with the human contact I have with my daughter.Ē For me, that means more to me than all the sophisticated critiques in the world. That people do a rational analysis, an esthetic analysis, for me, these are valid things because theyíre true things. As I said before, if we move towards a sincere search for true things and a person touches our heart, that person communicates a true feeling which overwhelms every person with joy.

But you managed to link felicitously not only simple folk but also important people in the world of criticism, for example those who gave you the prize ďAngťlico BťatĒ and the famous French critic Pierre Stanay who wrote a book on you.
Eh!Ö Letís say that itís a happy time in my life, as Iíve already said. Itís like when we finally finished the work intellectually. The search for the values to transform matter underpins all my work. If I say that we are the dust of stars, the fruit of the transformation of matter, the fruit of the miracle of mystical time, itís about the time for transforming matter. All religions have expressed this by different symbols. Itís a rather complicated thought which all religions, Egyptian, pre-Colombian, even Christian, etc., have analyzed and which has been manifested by various symbols.
Criticism, higher criticism, like that of Pierre SarnayA? and other critics in the international field, has appreciated this cultural and intellectual position and the glimmer of this reflection in my work generally. Iíve been happy to meet them. Theyíve helped me to stop thinking and, at the same time, maintain contact with the peasant in me who invites me to develop and grow in life. That means thereís immediate communication and another communication at a more elaborate level which incorporates everything: human phenomenology, anthropology, psychology, sociology, this entire group of values which mature in us and complete the cycle for understanding our participation in the cosmos. I dream in particular of Karl Gubstafson, the founder of analytical psychology, who has been fundamental for me. His work has been a key which has enabled me to come into contact with those great critics like Pierre Sarnay and others who, thanks to the influence of Jung, have understood this whole fundamental process of the transformation of matter to which we belong, this process in which we take part every day: the presence of God, or simply God, like the phenomenon which determines the transformation of matter and its cosmic participation or the opportunity given us to belong to the cosmos.

Jung talks of light and shadow in his writings. What are Marcellinís lights and shadows?
This is very complicated question, because the concept of shadow in Jung is very complicated. Sometimes he identifies it with evil, other times with the irrational in us. I canít answer that question authoritatively. One would have had to know Marcellin personally, to have spoken with him, to explore that concept. One thing is clear in Marcellin. Light predominated over shadow, and whatever might have been shadow or negative in him was transformed into something positive. His message is a positive message, a message of light. His shadows, if they existed, could have only secondary weight, and they have been obliterated by the light of his own existence. I think we have there one of the great A?messages of St. Marcellin: light, its spiritual dimension, by restraining and changing this shadow, extinguished or rather included (because we canít extinguish shadow in ourselves) so that the light by which he sensed himself penetrated by God could illumine also the shadow parts of his soul.

Have you read Marcellin Champagnatís letter 24 to Brother Bar-tolomew?
Somebody recently mentioned this letter to me, but I had never read it before making my sculpture.

Marcellin wrote to Bro. Bartholomew to have him tell the children that Jesus carried them on His shoulders so they wouldnít get tired. In making this sculpture you seem to have translated Marcellinís thought, though you didnít know the text.
Perfectly. Itís evident that that supposes a revelation in the framework of the unconscious. Itís what I call emotional consciousness, namely, gathering truth through the emotions. The famous message of Jesus remains very clear: ďI am the truth and the life, I am the light of the world.Ē

Hereís a very easy question. Many of us would like to know what technical difficulties there are in making a statue of gigantic dimensions in marble.
Thatís an interesting question. There are many technical difficulties: how to handle a block of marble weighing 32 tons, how to move it, work on it, make a feeling emanate from that rock? How to choose an appropriate material, beautiful and without cracks? You have to make a huge effort to go to a quarry, reserve it long before, cut into the wall of a mountain until you find the ideal marble out of which the sculpture will emerge. There are, also, the technical precision in transposing a small model into a large-scale one, the difficulty of giving the work a perfect finish, obtaining the lights and shadows with great technical ability which requires an interior effort. It was then that I understood St. Marcellin, his great strength in struggling without losing courage. My sculpture required all of that. When one gets towards the end, light caresses matter and detA?ermines the polishing. Itís a very technical operation which requires a huge effort because at any moment the sculpture could be ended, but itís not easy to determine when it will really be ended, because you have to arrive at the best possible technical result.

I think thereís a univocal effect between the sculptor and the sculpture. You modeled St. Marcellin and the result is visible at the Vatican. To what extent did Marcellin model you?
Thereís no doubt he modelled me greatly. Marcellinís figure, that I didnít know beforehand, arrived at an important moment of my life. I needed to finalize what I had begun many years before, perhaps from the age of 15. An entire cultural, intellectual, philosophical development through psychology, sociology and philosophy, that I loved immensely, but I realized it could not be found through philosophy which is too theoretical, or through psychology which is too technical, or through sociology or architecture which I studied for 6 years, or through all those things which didnít go through life lived profoundly. When all that grand soup of theoretical philosophical condiments was catalysed by a profound and lived experience, thatís when the figure of Marcellin appeared and automatically the key elements of all this closed reasoning began to fit together. For me, Marcellin arrived when I needed to buckle the buckle, at a crucial moment of my life. Not only did I model his sculpture, but he came to model my thinking and my existence. He helped me understand that truth passed through a strong, lived human experience, a very real experience and not theoretical, through a simple and true experience. Thatís the way we modelled each other and that Marcellin began to model me more than I modelled him.

And you, as a Costa Rican, backed by your country, how did you see the fact that you are the first non-European sculptor to have a statue in the Vatican? What does this work of our Founder in the Vatican mean for Latin America and Costa Rica?
I think it means a great dA?eal to them. Part of the Costa Rican pride comes not only from the fact that not only the sculptor, but also people who backed the project and helped me financially are Costa Rican. It was a Costa Rican effort that realized this work. I brought my part which was sculptural and creative; they brought moral and financial support. Finally, I believe that the Costa Ricans are proud that this work is in St. Peterís. Pride in the right sense of the word, without arrogance, pride in the joy of belonging to a people able to realize good things together, things which foster spiritual evolution.

What have you discovered in the Marist Brothers, for whom this statue was specially made? What have you found in them in the course of your work?
To know the Marist Brothers was for me a very beautiful experience. The human quality of the people I came in contact with helped me understand that Marcellin left a message which they have assimilated in depth and have managed to transmit by living simply, with few words, gadgets and fanfare, but which goes to the core. Iím as happy as a lark to have been able to come in contact with this group of Marist Brothers, because they have taught me by their lifestyle that you can say fundamental things without drum or trumpet.

You are now inscribed as sculptor in the Vaticanís permanent catalog in the Eternal City, for centuries to come. Your spiritual message, therefore, will also remain for the generations who will enter the courtyard of St. Martha to see this statue. Do you now have any new projects?
My great project is an important retrospective at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. To exhibit in this palace is an important goal for every artist. The organizers want to dedicate a hall of this exposition to the statue of St. Marcellin Champagnat; the process of elaboration of the sculpture, the models, the dreams, the disappointments, the struggles and the great spiritual satisfaction of that experience will be illustrated. Pierre Sarnayís book will be published also at A?that time in which this idea of thought transforming matter will be illustrated. For me, that is at the heart of existence itself, because we are the fruit of the transformation of matter and God is the One Who works this transformation. The mystical time celebrates what I call the time of transformation. The seed is one thing and the tree born of that seed is another. What happens between the seed and the tree, nobody can understand, itís the miracle of life, itís the presence of God in the universe.

Marcellin Champagnat had a great devotion to the Virgin Mary. To what extent do you think his statue reflects this aspect, though in fact Mary doesnít appear explicitly?
The maternal imago, the Virgin Mary, is one of our most important concepts. Analytical psychology, especially Jung, has spoken a lot about this maternal imago. The Virgin Mary, without a doubt, is identified with this maternal imago. In the figure of St. Marcellin Champagnat, this message is hidden. This maternal instinct which St. Marcellin has is to some extent the maternal imago which is in the paternal imago, that is to say, itís the conjunction of two fundamental images in every human being: the paternal imago with the firm figure of St. Marcellin and the maternal imago with his tenderness towards the children. Itís the Virgin who is behind all that. Thatís the image we sense and which gives us that feeling of security which St. Marcellin gains for us.

We will be very happy to admire your future works, knowing that many others are in progress. May your dreams never end!
Thank you.

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