Sculptural representations of Jesus’ lifeless body typically show him nailed to the cross, his head bowed down, or cradled in the arms of his mother, just after the crucifixion.
Far less common are statues that depict the expired Christ laid out on a stone slab – the way he would have appeared during his three days in the tomb.
One of those rarities, a life-size plaster work of art called “Jesus Entombed,” is undergoing a complete restoration inside St. Alphonsus Church in New Orleans.
The humidity-ravaged piece was hemorrhaging large shards of plaster and missing its right hand until the Friends of St. Alphonsus contracted the services of Gianna Salande, a Covington-based restoration artist.
Dates from circa 1940
“The plaster was rotting and the statue was filled with black mold – I was able to look inside because there was a large hole in Jesus’ leg,” said Salande, whose preliminary research leads her to think the sculpture was created in the early 1940s.
“I found an exact replica at a Presbyterian church in Ohio, and they began using their statue in 1944,” Salande said. Although she has yet to confirm the name of the statue’s maker, a light sanding has uncovered a clue: a monogram on the statue’s side bearing the initial “P.”
“Based on the monogram, there’s a possibility that it was a German company that may have had an American location later on,” Salande said. “That’s a hunch. It’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack.”
Poignant study of death
Measuring six feet from end to end, the supine statue reveals its subject’s pierced side and hands. The body is covered from the waist down in a burial cloth, but in the sculptor’s apparent wish to illustrate the full scope of Jesus’ injuries, punctured feet can be seen poking out from beneath the garment. Christ’s hair falls into the burial pillow in sweeping waves, while his partly opened mouth and eyes lend humanity and haunting realism to his face.
“It’s an unusual statue. You don’t see a lot of these,” said Friends of St. Alphonsus president Armand Bertin, who met Salande last fall as she was visiting St. Alphonsus Church with her fiancé after attending Mass at neighboring St. Mary’s Assumption. Salande said she instantly fell in love with the church’s vast treasure trove of statues, and told Bertin she would be happy to restore a small statue of St. Rita as a volunteer. Bertin accepted Salande’s offer, but kept taking her back to “Jesus Entombed,” which for years had lain on a side altar.
“Armand kept asking me, ‘What about taking on (the statue of) Jesus?’ One day I just gave in, because he was asking so nicely,” said Salande of the restoration process that began last February. The artist said her first order of business was to restore the statue’s lower half, the apparent victim of an ill-advised patch job at some point in its 70-year history.
“Someone had plastered over the folds of the fabric. Jesus’ legs were in hundreds of fragments and pieces and parts. You could literally lift his kneecap off,” said Salande, who uncovered the curves of the original statue and reunited the plaster puzzle pieces using needle-thin injections of glue.
The restoration is deliberately taking place just feet away from St. Alphonsus’ Constance Street entrance doors – in the section of the church called the narthex – so that visitors can watch it unfold.
“The statue could have been done months ago – I could have brought it into my studio,” Salande said, “but it’s more important for our patrons, our community and our members to see the progress of the restoration, to ask questions about it, to see that their donations are working toward the preservation of this church.”
A compelling prayer aid
One of the more surprising historical tidbits about “Jesus Entombed” is the fact that it was displayed just two days each year while ensconced at its original home of St. Mary’s Assumption Church: on Good Friday and Holy Saturday.
“I used to help schlep it to and from the attic,” recalls Bill Murphy, a Friends of St. Alphonsus tour guide who handled the statue as a St. Mary’s Assumption altar server in the early 1950s. Murphy said “Jesus Entombed” would be placed against a cave-like backdrop during the Good Friday Veneration of the Cross service – so worshipers could reflect on the image of Jesus in the tomb. The statue would be removed from this grotto and returned to the church’s attic before the first Easter Mass – to remind the faithful that the tomb was empty and Christ had risen.
“It really touches people spiritually. The overriding comment from people is, ‘He looks so real!’” said Bertin, noting that visitors occasionally will leave lucky beans and religious medals on the statue, and kneel next to it in prayer.
Next up for the restoration, scheduled for completion this summer, are new toes and the insertion of a metal armature into the chest cavity – to reinforce Jesus’ fragile torso. Salande will seal the entire sculpture with a moisture-resistant gel before painting it in its original earth tones – a palette that came to light after a gentle sanding and comprehensive microscopic analysis.
One feature that will not be receiving a major overhaul is Jesus’ eyes, which Salande says need only a few tiny brush strokes to fill in some missing pigment.
“One of the most important parts of any sculpture is the eyes,” Salande said. “We want to protect the eyes so that the people in our community will recognize their Jesus.”
The statue’s ongoing restoration can be viewed during St. Alphonsus Church’s regular opening hours of Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information, visit www.stalphonsusneworleans.org or call 524-8116.
Beth Donze can be reached at email@example.com.