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story.lead_photo.caption This sculpture of the Virgin Mary is an example of the work of Angel Pantoja of El Puerto de Santa Maria in the Andalucian area of Spain. Pantoja was commissioned to create three works — St. Joseph, Mary and an infant Jesus — for St. Mary Catholic Church in Siloam Springs. The art will be unveiled and blessed during a Mass on Tuesday.

Members of St. Mary Catholic Church in Siloam Springs might feel just a little bit closer to their Christ this week. The church unveils three sculptures that will be dear to the hearts of members.

Life-size likenesses of the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph and Jesus as an infant were commissioned by the church with Angel Pantoja of Spain. A Mass for revealing and blessing the pieces starts at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, to be followed by a reception.


Who: St. Mary Catholic Church

What: Unveiling and blessing sculptures by Angel Pantoja of Spain

When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday

Where: 1998 U.S. 412, Siloam Springs

Information: 524-8526,

The faces — especially the eyes — are most important on a sculpture as a way to transmit faith, said artist Angel Pantoja. The artist hand-paints the eyes of his pieces to add sparkling points with varnish, as if one could see a reflection in the eyes of the figure, he detailed.

The day is special for the congregation. That day, Catholics celebrate the Assumption of the Virgin Mary (into heaven), and it also is the 33rd anniversary of the local church, said Melanie Maldonado, a church member who served as an interpreter for Pantoja. Jesus died when he was 33, and that number also has become important to the Catholic faithful, Maldonado said.

"This project came about on the interest of some people from our church who saw some pictures of religious art that I personally took in Spain," said the Rev. Salvador Marquez-Munoz. The project was announced about two years ago, and money to pay for it was raised in just three weeks, he said.

The sculptures will stand on permanent display in the church sanctuary, replacing current statues. "The present religious statues would go in our cry room until we are able to raise enough money to build a larger church," Marquez-Munoz said.

The art can "enhance the devotional dimension" of one's Christian faith, Marquez-Munoz said. Members might stop by the sculptures and pray.

Catholics relate to the saints in an affectionate way, Maldonado said, and touching holy items -- such as the sculptures once they have been blessed -- can be an intercession. "If you believe in the saints, you believe they are more alive than we are because they have eternal life," she explained. "If you are sick, you ask the saints to pray for you because they are closer to Jesus."

"Faith as God is invisible," Pantoja said. "A way to believe in God is touching the objects to believe he is touching you, not just watching.

"In a way, it's people paying their respects," he continued. "I think they are going to get peacefulness inside, a quietness."


After seeing Pantoja's work in Spain, Marquez-Munoz contacted the artist via Facebook. "He liked the realistic way I made the statues," Pantoja said.

The commission is a "dream come true," Pantoja said. Prior to the Siloam Springs pieces, all of Pantoja's work remained in Spain. He did get requests for pricing from other places, but St. Mary's was the first to give him "a go ahead," he said.

It also is a dream to travel to the United States to see the work he created and signed be unveiled, he said.

The bulk of Pantoja's work -- which he completes with his wife, Ana Rey, who also is a sculptor -- is religious art, he explained. Members of brotherhood and sisterhood religious organizations in Spain carry his work through the streets and on floats to celebrate the Passion of Christ during Holy Week.

Pantoja began his craft in kindergarten with children's dough for modeling. His father -- who paints as a hobby -- gave him a sheet of clay for Christmas when he was 10. He got his first job for a wood carving of the Madonna when he was 20, the now-38-year-old said. He holds a fine arts degree from the University of Seville.

For any piece, Pantoja starts by making a plaster model, often for the approval of his client. Then he uses a chisel to cut the wood. Next, he sands the piece and applies a plaster because the wood is porous. He paints the features in oils and applies a piece of animal skin to eliminate brush strokes.

While other artists use premade crystals for the eyes of their figures, Pantoja insists on painting them, to draw in the viewer. He adds sparkling points with varnish, as if one could see a reflection in the eyes of the figure. He explained the faces -- especially the eyes -- are most important on a sculpture as a way to transmit faith.

The figures to be unveiled Tuesday will be dressed in real garments made by other artists. The Virgin's crown and Joseph's staff also were made by others.

Pantoja explained he uses no models for his sculptures. "It's not an earthly face. You will not find anybody who looks like that."

"Every piece is unique, one of a kind, and will never be repeated," said Marquez-Munoz, who follows Pantoja's work. "He does not use a particular model. It comes from his imagination and from his heart."


Taking advantage of her role as interpreter, Maldonado got a peek of her church's art on Pantoja's cell phone Wednesday evening. She greeted each image with happy exclamations, and reacted to the baby Jesus as one might at seeing a cute picture of a beloved child. She said she is excited about the project for her five children.

Maldonado explained that the family moved to Siloam Springs three years ago after attending the ornate and historic St. Edward Catholic Church in Little Rock. "The kids view this church as kind of 'plain,'" she said. "It's very exciting to bring a lot of beauty to the church and, I hope, spiritual connection. Every week, my 5-year-old points out, 'There's Mary. And there's the baby Jesus.' They make the faith come alive."

"I feel very, very lucky doing my job," Pantoja said. "Me and my family are Catholic, so I am lucky doing this." He knows his work can lead others to God, and they might pray on the likenesses.

Pantoja explained he has a cousin, who is not "religious." The cousin had seen the artist at work and thought of it merely as, "OK, you have a cool job,'" Pantoja related.

Then, the cousin chanced into a chapel with some of Pantoja's work and was so impressed to see young people, an older lady with a cane, come to pray and look into the eyes of Mary.

"He said, 'Those are your sculptures, the ones I saw you carving.' He couldn't believe it works like magic."

Pantoja said he tries to make his pieces very realistic, "so it is very easy for people to feel in their heart, their faith and the call of their faith."

"We used to say in Spain, 'Image, visible. God, invisible,'" he said through Maldonado.

NAN Religion on 08/12/2017

Print Headline: Image, visible. God, invisible.

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