SILOAM SPRINGS — Crystal Bridges Museum isn’t the only institution in northwest Arkansas that can claim one-of-a-kind art.
St. Mary Church in Siloam Springs now has three eye-catching pieces thanks to the pastor and supportive parishioners.
On Aug. 15, St. Mary Church dedicated three statues — the Blessed Mother holding the infant child Jesus and St. Joseph — in a holy day Mass for the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and commemorating the 33rd anniversary of the parish.
The life-size statues were commissioned works of art from renowned Spanish artist, Angel Pantoja, who traveled for the first time to the U.S. to see his works unveiled.
Except these sculptures are not the average wood and plaster ones commonly found in other churches. These stately sculptures flank both sides of the altar, adorned in clothing that would befit a king and queen. In this mission-like church, the distinction immediately catches the eye of visitors and parishioners alike who enter the doors.
Yet, what draws all eyes toward the altar is not the finery of the clothing, but the faces and the eyes of the statues. The mesmerizing realness and the expressions of the statues’ features impart that desire to “reach out and touch” them that visitors experience.
“I think the statues are really gorgeous,” said Caroline Buxton, 11, who was an altar server at the dedication Mass.
Buxton added, “I feel like Mary is looking at all of us. She’s not looking at Jesus.”
And so it seems. The eyes of all the statues have a captivating gaze that grabs parishioners’ attention. For the artist, this is intentional, as he hand-paints the eyes, using varnish, as if one could see a reflection in the eyes of the figure. He even gives the sculptures eyelashes.
“The eyes are the most important on a sculpture as a way to transmit faith,” said Pantoja, in an earlier interview after first arriving in Siloam Springs in August.
Nonetheless, what makes the story of the sculptures even more interesting, is how they happened to arrive at the tiny parish of St. Mary, not far from the Oklahoma state line.
The story began more than three years ago with a visit to Spain. Father Salvador Marquez-Munoz, the pastor of St. Mary since 2008, was traveling in the south of Spain and saw the religious work of the artist in churches and on floats celebrating the Passion of Christ. Taken in by the realism of the statues, he took pictures. When he returned to Siloam Springs and was sharing his vacation photos with some parishioners, the idea of acquiring a sculpture of the Blessed Mary and the child Jesus from the artist was introduced. Father Marquez-Munoz contacted the artist through Facebook and the project soon became a reality.
Within three weeks, enough money was raised to not only commission the sculpture of Mary and the child, Jesus, but also her earthly spouse, Joseph. Although the project took two years from start to arrival of the statues, parishioner David Lauderdale said it was all in God’s time.
“They arrived in time to celebrate the parish’s anniversary,” said Lauderdale, whose family was one of the several that contributed to the statue’s creation and journey to America.
However, the donations did not stop there, Lauderdale explained. Different individuals — electricians, carpenters and granite cutters — came forward to help create the lighted pedestals the sculptures are permanently displayed upon in the sanctuary.
Lauderdale agrees that the sculptures have a magnetism that others do not seem to possess.
“They are more elegant than usual statues,” he said. “A lot of grown women say they want to take the baby Jesus and just hold it.”
Father Marquez-Munoz points to an apostolic letter from St. John Paul II on the veneration of holy images as a way of understanding how sculptures can assist the faithful.
“The believer of today, like the one yesterday, must be helped in his prayer and spiritual life by seeing works that attempt to express the mystery [of faith] and never hide it,” said Pope John Paul II in his letter. “That is why today, as in the past, faith is the necessary inspiration of Church art…”
Thus far, the sculptures have fulfilled their mission, Father Marquez-Munoz said.
Parishioners, and even those outside of the parish, have stopped by and been amazed by the artist’s work, he said.
Speaking to their uniqueness, the pastor also likes to point out that these are the first sculptures in the New World created by the artist, whose faith is evident in his work. “These sculptures came from the port of Santa Maria in Spain and arrived at St. Mary Parish,” said Father Marquez-Munoz.
“When the artist works on a sculpture, no creation is ever the same. It comes from the artist’s imagination and from his heart.”
For now, the three sculptures will continue to be a point of interest for St. Mary Church. But, in two years, another sculpture will arrive at the church by the same artist and this one may garner even more attention.
Father Marquez-Munoz said once the installation of the three sculptures was in place in the sanctuary, a discussion about acquiring another sculpture of the crucifix was initiated by parishioners.
As before, the contributions were quickly raised for the project and approval from Bishop Anthony B. Taylor was granted.
While enjoying these newly installed sculptures, parishioners are waiting to receive the church’s next work of art.
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