Roberto Santo is a world-renowned, award winning Italian artist and sculptor whose has now created two widely praised Renaissance-styled sculptures for The Cloister at St. Patrick’s in Anchorage.
In 2012, he was in Anchorage for the unveiling of a 350-pound bronze sculpture of Our Lady of Grace. This Good Friday, he and his wife, Duggan Peak, returned to St. Patrick’s where his most recent sculpture, a Pieta that is meant to address questions of the modern world, was unveiled and blessed during the Good Friday Liturgy.
The bronze sculpture is 25 percent larger than life-size, and weighs 1,984 pounds. It, along with all artwork for The Cloister is being funded through donations; no parish funds are being used for the project. The Pieta cost $235,000. The initial funding came from the estate of parishioner Gene Janusiewicz, who is now interred with his wife in The Cloister and held the project very close to his heart. This donation, along with several others, covered the cost of the clay model, which was presented last July. After viewing the model, the parish and Santo put their trust in Divine Providence that the remainder of the funding would be raised, though they were still $160,000 short. Then, last November, an anonymous donor from the parish came forward and donated $155,000, allowing completion of the project.
ENTERING THE PASSION
This is the second sculpture in what is anticipated to be a decade-long project to create a sacred space in which the faithful may meditate upon salvation history. When it is complete, there will be a total of ten courtyards depicting various moments in that history. St. Patrick’s pastor Father Scott Medlock explained to the Catholic Anchor that the new Pieta sculpture is part of The Court of Sorrow, a section of The Cloister where the faithful can meditate upon the Passion of our Lord.
“In the Pieta, we see the lifeless Jesus just after he has been taken down from the cross,” Father Medlock noted. “Such is God’s love for us.”
For Santo, the two years that he spent creating this sculpture in Italy changed his life. He said he worked in his studio on it for more than 12 hours a day, seven days a week, only taking time off for Sunday Mass. Of this experience, he told the Catholic Anchor, “Living through that for a two-year period — it was like starting to pray, but that time doesn’t end for two years. It’s like you’re a monk, isolated in a monastery, where the only thing you’re allowed to think about is the death of Christ. It was a real spiritual journey.”
The process of daily entering the Passion of Christ was so intense that he believes that if he had been trying to make this when he was younger, he would not have had the spiritual strength to do it.
ASKING THE QUESTION
For Santo, the journey to making this sculpture began when he was an altar boy at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, and the pastor showed him a photo of Michelangelo’s renowned Pieta. He remembers wondering why that would happen — why God would allow Mary to go through so much suffering because of her Son’s Passion and death. This question, he believes, is the essential difference between his Pieta and that of Michelangelo. He said that through the centuries, most artists have not wanted to make another Pieta, for fear that it would not measure up to Michelangelo’s masterpiece, often considered the greatest sculpture ever created. But, as Santo reflected upon Michelangelo’s rendition, he saw in it the moment of Mary’s assent to the suffering that the will of God for her Son had caused her. His sculpture depicts just a moment before that point of assent: Santo wanted to depict Mary as she struggled through the agony, wondering why it had to happen.
“I have Mary looking up,” Santo explained, “But her eyes are closed because after trying to understand what people go through in enormous amounts of internal pain, [I found that] normally they close their eyes, and they look deeply inside.” Santo also incorporated other deeply symbolic images into his sculpture. The crown of thorns is at the base of the sculpture, near Mary’s feet, to remind the viewer that Santo was not depicting “just the beautiful body that’s sitting there in the arms of Mary; it’s a body that went through a really gruesome crucifixion.”
On the back of the sculpture, there is a small tree with three leaves — one for each person of the Holy Trinity — that reminds the faithful of the hope of the new life promised by the Resurrection.
The unveiling and blessing of the statue by Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz during the Good Friday liturgy was seamless. For the traditional veneration of the cross, the archbishop, other clergy and the choir led a procession of the faithful out to The Cloister. After the clergy had venerated the cross, the artist and his wife unveiled the statue, whereupon Archbishop Schwietz immediately blessed it. After this, parishioners venerated the cross, and were able to pause and gaze upon the statue on their way back indoors. To further facilitate prayerful contemplation of the Passion, death, and Resurrection of Christ the parish organized a continuous prayer vigil where parishioners came to The Cloister for hour-long shifts of prayer before the statue from the end of the Good Friday service until the beginning of the Holy Saturday Easter Vigil.
As Santo saw the reaction of Alaskans, and reflected upon his work sculpting the sacred artwork for a parish in Alaska, he felt blessed.
“I feel like I did the right job, and portrayed it correctly, because I saw people approach it in tears and fall onto their knees, experiencing what I did: realizing that Jesus actually died for our sins, knowing that Mary was there the entire time,” he said. “To do this for a place so far away from me — to see that touch so many people in the farthest corner of the world from [where I live and work], was a real gift.”