FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 04/21/2009

Sacramental Stones: Sculpting As an Easter Metaphor

April 8, 2009                                            Volume 2 Issue 8
 . . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .

Faith + Ideas =  Sacramental Stones: Sculpting as an Easter Metaphor
By Jim Zingarelli

It’s supposed to ring when you strike it. That’s how you can tell it is sound.

It’s an old world sculptor’s approach that could make the difference between selecting a solid block of marble with enormous potential or one that makes a dull thud, crumbling like sugar under the hammer’s blow. Much depends upon the integrity of the stone’s veining. You see, veining can give the stone a complex strength that is iron concentrated or it can be corrupted by deep fault lines, weathered by water and soil over time. With the hammer, you get a first aural clue into the nature of the dense block you are unable to see inside of. But you must strike it to discover this.
As I tell my students, you want a stone that can hold the form of a sculpture, one that can endure the long process leading to what you hope will become something entirely new, something transformed, something “sacramental” in a sense.  
Still, you cannot carve the actual work unless something is first destroyed: the original sound block. I’m often reminded (usually by the stone) that it has existed for millions of years and due to enormous degrees of heat, pressure, and time, it has achieved its present perfect hardened state.
It has, in a way, been waiting for me, being in existence since before Constantine, before Cyrus of Persia, before Moses and the prophets. In fact, my studio is a kind of geological museum holding some of the earth’s finest raw antiquities quarried from around the world including Morocco, Italy, Egypt, China, Iran, Zimbabwe, Canada, and Vermont, to name a few of the places they’ve lived.  
Marcia Bjornerud, a structural geologist, wrote in her book, Reading the Rocks: The Autobiography of the Earth, that a Proterozoic (or younger rock) from the Cambrian Age might be dated at around 545 million years ago while something from the Archaen age (highly unsculptable gneisses) could go back as far as four billion years ago. You can understand why stone makes me feel young.
Each stone represents possibilities for transformation. But for anything to happen, I must take my hammer and chisel and essentially break the stone, destroy it, sacrifice the original block, hoping that, over time, a sculpture will ultimately result. No true beauty is ever made without sacrifice.  
It’s not just the stone that must give deference to the hammer, but the sculptor too must become the servant to the work. Everything I do in my studio takes large quantities of time, an investment of developed (and developing) skills, along with a vision that moves back and forth between hope and despair and (hopefully) back to hope again. I too must defer to the stone. I need to expend time, energy, and a part of my life if I am to be in dialogue with the block. I have to be willing to wear its dust, to wait out the form to emergence, and to keep listening.
Something must go. Something must yield to the hammer’s blows and the chisel’s cutting edge. As is true in the passion of our Lord, the culmination of the resurrection would not have been possible without his being broken, without his willing sacrifice for humanity. Pope Benedict reminds us of another metaphor in his Jesus of Nazareth, that of the seed, which points to the same notion of brokenness and sacrifice: “On Palm Sunday the Lord summarized the manifold seed parables and unveiled their full meaning, ‘Truly truly I say to you unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies it bears much fruit’ (John 12:24). He himself is the grain of wheat.”
Not long ago (in geological time), I started carving an abstracted marble series of  “seeds,” shoots, stems, roots, and leaves. Sometimes these forms resembled heads, eggs, fetal forms, and figures. Many of them are carved from scraps of stone that I’ve collected from builders who have considered these unusable, cut-offs from countertop and fascia. These stones, rejected by the builder--but sound stone for the sculptor--have now become the very substance of new work, and with hope and patience, some yield may yet come of it.  

With hammer in hand, the work continues. Something is broken. Some “sacramental” transformation is taking place. Something new is being made.

Jim Zingarelli is professor of visual arts and chair of the visual arts department at Gordon College in Wenham, MA.  He and his wife live in Amesbury, MA.


Jim Zingarelli