Monday, January 14, 2013

The Anonymous Restoration of Mother Mary

You’ve probably passed this statue of the Blessed Virgin Mother countless time. Even people who attend St. Michael on 9thrarely remember to notice. The church, one of oldest in Jersey City, dates back to the 19th century and the street that turns into 9th, right in front of the statue, is named McWilliams Place, after Monsignor McWilliams, pastor of the church in the early to mid-20th century –his autobiography, a fascinating portrayal of Jersey City as a factory town of faithful immigrants, is available in the Jersey Historical Room at the Main Branch of the Jersey City Library. He was responsible for bringing some of the remarkable artwork in this historical landmark, such as the Seven Sorrows of Mary paintings, copies of icons from a Cathedral in Antwerp.

It is likely he is the one responsible for this bringing this outdoor statue to the church. From as far as I can gather, the statue has been here for half a century. I wish I had a before picture, it was so weather worn that I thought it was just a generic depiction, not Our Lady of Fatima. To say the statue was untouched for generations is not hyperbole.

Next time you pass by, take a moment to notice how “new” the statue looks. Here’s a story you will only read on Dislocations. An anonymous art-restorer restored the statue just before the Christmas holidays.
A man had saw the faded statute, went to the current pastor of St. Michael, which is part of downtown’s Parish of the Resurrection, and offered to restore the icon. Art restoration was his profession.
“We have no money to pay you,” said the Pastor. The church had only recently replaced its Sandy-damaged boiler.
The man did the work for free, as a donation, even supplying the materials. This included the gold detailing, along the edges of her robe, a distinguishing mark of the Fatima icon.
I wish I knew more about this restoration. The surface of the statue is now a smooth glowing alabaster. The details of her eyes, feet, hands, now clearly rendered. Her face is haunting and serene. The comprehensiveness of the restoration, the preciseness of the attention paid, is unmistakably attention. Outdoor statuary is by necessity less ornate, but the restorer turned that subtle plainness into strength. He’s brought out the sculpture in the statue. She shines like the apparition she represents, a sacred vision given to three peasant children in a Pourtugal village. I find it– both the transformation and the result –genuinely breathtaking.

Although rare, it is not uncommon, according to some priests I’ve spoken to, for an art restorer to do this kind of work, often for free. Art restoration is as much a job as a calling. They travel to different churches. About five years ago, the interior of the church – including the“Seven Sorrows” – underwent a major restoration. The ceiling above the altar is a copy of a Raphael depiction of heaven. Maybe the anonymous restorer was checking out that project, which has become known in restorer circles. Maybe he was just passing by and saw the weather-beaten statue and was inspired to bring her back to life.

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