By DEIRDRE C. MAYS
Be it alone or in a group, visitors to the Way of the Cross prayer garden at Christ Our King will find that they are present with Jesus and Mary in a touching and beautiful moment — the Transfiguration.
A new sculpture of that scene peacefully complements the landscape, Mary with a face shining with love and faith holds the body of her son who has returned to the Father. A blazing sun has been embedded into the beam of the wood above them, burning with glory and hope. They are one with the cross, complete in the reverence and fulfillment of his Word — the Pieta.
This gleaming stainless steel work of art was created especially for the garden at Christ Our King by Wiktor Szostalo, a Polish artist based in St. Louis, Mo.
Last year, while thumbing through Liturgy and Ministry magazine, Msgr. James A. Carter saw a display advertisement for Szostalo’s art. The Christ Our King pastor collects nativity scenes and saw a piece he liked. When he called about it, the priest spoke with the artist’s wife, Agnieszka. He commented on a statue of the torso of Jesus called “Way of the Cross” mentioning that was the theme of his garden. Mrs. Szostalo offered to put him in touch with the artist who was working in Poland at the time. Though it was not the monsignor’s intent, a turn of events resulted in an unexpected and generous donation to the parish for a memorial and his making contact with the artist who was keen on realizing a vision he shared with the priest.
Since the garden’s completion in 1991, Msgr. Carter has wanted to place an image of Michelangelo’s Pieta.
“The Way of the Cross garden deals with life, that is the whole theme,” Msgr. Carter explained. “Hurricane Hugo destroyed the property, and it was rebuilt with that in mind. At each station of the cross, an oak tree was planted denoting strength and endurance.”
He related this to the Polish sculptor.
“It was a challenge that I was very happy to tackle,” Szostalo said, “because people don’t think of any other idea than Michelangelo.”
Szostalo visited Christ Our King’s garden and put his inspiration into sketches. Over the next year and a half, Msgr. Carter and parishioners Marge and Vic Del Benes went to St. Louis to watch the progress. The Del Benes are active in liturgical aspects of Christ Our King and were eager to see the new Pieta make it to the parish.
The multifaceted sculpture is a contemporary piece. Colored resins were blended into the stainless steel giving it subtle glowing colors and stained glass pours additional spectrum onto the statue. Yet, Szostalo said he wanted to stay within the realm of tradition.
“I’m delighted with it,” Msgr. Carter said. “It’s certainly a contemporary piece, but it fits in well with the church because it is contemporary. It has the tradition of the Pieta behind it and simultaneously addresses a contemporary element.”
Szostalo’s signature mark is the sun — as a source of energy, life and Christ, especially the risen Christ.
“The sun is the Transfiguration,” he said. “It shows glory. The rays of light show this as a physical object. The cross runs through his body. They are all one with the cross.”
The faces are not grieving, Szostalo explained, because it is the Transfiguration. He does, however, hope that the image inspires people.
“I hope it will help them deal with their own grief,” he said. “At the same time, the glory of the resurrection transcends our pain, no matter how great it is. It shows Mary and Jesus’ human sides and how they had to deal with it.”
Creating a Pieta was a long-awaited challenge for the artist.
“It was something for me to come up with something close, but not quite, to Michelangelo,” he said. “Nobody really does the Pieta. People are sort of afraid of it. I took it very seriously. My father was a theologian; he used to read the lives of the saints to me and told beautiful stories about their lives. For me it’s all very personal, all very vivid.”
He approached it from a modern point of view, but with reverence.
“I try not to get too theatrical and too silly,” he said. “I try to be more subtle with the divine element.”
The 500-lb. sculpture is developed all the way around so that it can be appreciated from any angle.
“I can’t decide which view I like more,” Szostalo mused. “In the back you deal more with the light and the sun.”
His wife and assistant, Joe Papendick, also contributed to the making of the Pieta.
Having grown up with religion, Szostalo is fond of interpreting religious themes, but is varied in his art. He uses a variety of mediums including wood, glass, and metal. His work, as well as the progress of the Christ Our King Pieta, can be seen at www.szostalosculpture.com.
Szostalo graduated with a degree in fine arts from the Academy of Fine Art in Cracow, Poland, in 1978. He emigrated to the United States in 1983 as a political refugee — he was one of the 37 members of the National Committee of Solidarity with Lech Walesa — and settled in St. Louis. At first, he taught art, kindergarten through college. Now, his work can be seen all over the world.