1. Entombed Christ

Being commissioned to design and make an altar for St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney probably comes once in a lifetime to a sculptor.  Immediately an Entombed Christ relief seen from above came to mind and I remembered some medieval wall tombs in Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum, New York.  These had the effigies tipped up by 45 degrees for visibility.  I formed an idea to have the image of the dead Christ tipped further, vertical on the face of the Altar:  a long, horizontal, flat relief like an after-impression left on the stone.

The sculpture of St Cecilia by Stefano Maderno of 1600, beneath the altar in the Basilica di Santa Cecilia in Rome, showed me the powerful eloquence a single human figure can have in an altar, and gave me a shining beacon to follow.

The Shroud of Turin wasn’t my primary inspiration for the Christ but it was in the mix.  The altar figure was modelled from life with the arms crossed differently to the shroud image, more in keeping with the burial tradition of the First Century AD.  The Shroud however was a very good reference for the wounds and scourge marks: there are published measurements of size, number and placement and I transferred these onto the relief. 

The whole central block of the altar, contained within the separate slabs of the table and base, determined its construction.  Some sensitivity to the surrounding Gothic Revival architecture of St Mary’s was essential.  I found a way to include decorative elements with Australian motifs on the columns and echo the mouldings of the original high altar on the capitals, table and base of the new altar

It seemed to me the relief was a very medieval image, but something the Gothic sculptors had not used on an altar, which was surprising.  Altar symbolism is complex, it contains within it meanings for the table of the last supper, the stone of sacrifice as well as the tomb.  My hope was to somehow utilise all the meanings.

2. Risen Christ

H.E. Cardinal Pell commissioning the new altar said if he agreed to the Entombed Christ on the face of the altar, there would need to be Risen Christ.  This was to counteract any incorrect liturgical suggestion that the dead Christ was being worshipped.  Its position would be by a column at the front of the sanctuary, on the left hand side.  His Eminence then said there should be a Mary Magdalene on the other side.  So my brief became a marble triptych.

The statues would be nine metres apart in a triangular configuration with the altar.  The interesting sculptural problem was to make the three connect together, to make a narrative of the triptych. Rather than just have the statues conventionally facing outwards to the congregation, I followed St John’s Gospel 20:11-16 so they are looking at each other.  In this passage Mary Magdalene, in front of the empty tomb, asks the Risen Christ thinking he is the gardener, where he has taken the body of Jesus.  In the following verse no. 17, traditionally used in paintings and sculpture (e.g. Titian’s ‘Noli me Tangere’), Christ tells Magdalene not to touch him, but I wanted to express the actual moment of recognition before it.

The statues have been designed so that hopefully visitors to the Cathedral in Sydney will be able to participate in the viewpoint of either Christ or Magdalene: by standing behind one of the statues they will enter into the gaze of the other.

According to St John’s Gospel Jesus leaves all his burial clothes in the tomb, however Christ could not be nude in the sculpture for the Cathedral.  I had to come up with a convincing scenario for myself to rationalise why he is draped:  A naked Christ with gruesome wounds wandering about the tomb grounds must have frightened off the ‘Keeper of the Garden’ sleeping on duty at night there.  It is possible Christ borrowed the blankets to cover himself. 

The drapery restricts him and acts as a symbolic representation of the spiritual burden he is carrying from his Passion and The Harrowing of Hell.  Hence perhaps, his order to Magdalene not to touch him.  The dark shadowy cave formed by Christ’s legs and drapery represents the darkness he has walked through, while the top half of Christ is emerging in the light.

3. Mary Magdalene

Traditional iconography has the attributes of long, open hair and a jar of ointment.  However through both the expression on the face and the drapery there was a chance to express a real sense of the Magdalene.  Rt Rev Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, whom I asked advice on the Greek text of St John, told me she was the only one still there at the tomb, all the men were in hiding.  The love and devotion Mary Magdalene bore Jesus made her fearless for her own safety.

In St John’s Gospel Magdalene makes two turns toward the Risen Christ, but it is only when Christ speaks her name that she recognises him.  I wanted to capture that profound moment between the two.  The Magdalene’s face must have shown complex mixture of emotions: surprise maybe shock, incomprehension, devotion, utter relief and released love.

An actress helped me explore these emotions in my clay model for the head.  She agreed to stay up all night, bravely sitting through Mel Gibson’s grim film The Passion of the Christ, crying as much as possible, right up until she reached my studio. When she arrived we recreated the power of the recognition shining through the effects of grief. I wanted a glimpse of the transformation in Magdalene’s face wrecked by days of grief and the horrors that she had seen.

The expressive drapery came with the two turns that Magdalene takes, turning from the tomb to look at Christ.  Her head cloth is under her feet, trodden on in distress.  The twisted folds of it rising up give a narrative idea of the wringing emotions of Magdalene’s past few days, and as the cloth comes over the shoulder it opens out.  Held in her hand for wiping tears, it becomes like a beautiful bud about to flower.  Carving the finish on the face by hand, I discovered that the marble was so sensitive to the light I was able to put in much more emotion.  The appearance of a vein in the marble on her left cheek seemed appropriate, alluding to her stained past.

The St Mary’s Triptych is the first time I carved in marble and finishing the Magdalene completed my training.