Statues of Pope John Paul II a hit ahead of beatification

by Maja Czarnecka, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Mar 23 2011 01:04 PM | Updated as of Mar 23 2011 09:04 PM

KRAKOW, Poland - Using a chisel, sculptor Czeslaw Dzwigaj works wet clay to shape a small fold in the robe on a statue of John Paul II ordered for the beatification of the late pope at the Vatican on May 1.

Ahead of the historic event, Dzwigaj's studio in the Rzaska suburb of the southern Polish city of Krakow has been flooded with orders for statues of the Polish-born pontiff.

"Orders continue to pour in," said Dzwigaj. "With the beatification, priests now want a statue in their church with a reliquary at the base so parishioners can practice the cult of devotion of John Paul II."

The artist is currently working on his 72nd statue of the pope, whom many Poles regard as having played a key role in toppling communism in their country and whom the Vatican has put on a fast-track to sainthood.

"We used more than one-and-a-half tonnes of clay for this pope which is three metres (nearly 10 feet) high. The model is ready for us to make a plaster cast. Then it will go to a foundry to be cast in bronze. The assembly must be completed by the end of April," the 61-year-old sculptor said.

The statue was commissioned by the parish of Kwaczala, just east of Krakow. Beside it lies another statue-in-the-making of the pope -- the 73rd commissioned by the city of Kaunas in Poland's northern neighbour Lithuania.

It depicts Karol Wojtyla as the pontiff standing on a globe-shaped pedestal, leaning on his pastoral staff and blessing the faithful with his right hand.

"Currently, there are over 640 statues of the late pontiff across Poland, 30 more will be erected before his beatification. Worldwide, there are about 300, mostly in Latin America," said Kazimierz Ozog, an art historian from the University of Opole in south-western Poland.

But Dzwigaj insists that the pope was never very fond of all these sculptures. "He was very modest, but also knew he couldn't do anything to stop this cult of devotion," he said.

Some statues that come out of his studio go as far abroad as the United States, Canada and Argentina.

"I also have ones in Liechtenstein, Australia and Germany. Recently, I was contacted by a city in Japan," he boasted.

"Shortly after the pope's death in 2005, orders peaked," added Zbyszek Karnas, himself a sculptor who has collaborated with Dzwigaj for the last 27 years.

"Every week we started a pope. It was crazy," he said, as he covered a new statue in a plastic sheet to prevent the clay from drying and cracking.

Twenty or so of the plaster models of Dzwigaj's statues of Jean Paul II are on display in a castle in Nowy Wisnicz, near Krakow.

They show the pope sitting, kneeling, standing or working at a desk, reciting the Angelus prayer from his window at the Vatican or blessing children.

But for art historian Ozog, most sculptures of the pope are kitsch.

Recently, there is even a trend to produce them using synthetic resins in workshops specialising in garden gnomes.

"They're cheap, about 2,000 euros (2,828 dollars) and are delivered in a few days," he said.

Although John Paul II forbade the removal of any of his bones for use in the cult of devotion, some of his relics have surfaced.

Dzwigaj's workshop has been commissioned to create a statue of the pope that will contain a lock of his hair, regarded as a relic of the first degree.

Relics of the second degree, or objects used by the pope, are more common and include pieces of cloth from his clothes.

Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the archbishop of Krakow and the late pope's long-time secretary, keeps the most precious relic: a vial of blood.

Recently, he gave a drop to Polish Formula 1 driver Robert Kubica who suffered serious injuries during an accident at a rally in Italy.