Commissioned by St. Marks Catholic Church in Birmingham, Browne’s “Madonna and Child” depicts the Virgin Mary alongside an approximately 4-year-old Jesus. The marble piece, sculpted in about six months’ time, will sit at the church’s columbarium.
“It has been an interesting journey, spiritually, sculpting a piece of this nature with so much religious symbolism and emotion throughout it,” Browne said.
A twist on the classic image of Mary holding her infant son, Browne said he opted for a slightly older Jesus to allow a deeper emotion to be conveyed through his positioning and facial expression.
In the sculpture, Jesus stands behind his mother’s side with his hand clutching her flowing garment. Looking downward slightly, Mary holds one hand over her heart and the other on Jesus’ back, as if to nudge him forward.
“In the Catholic faith, it is believed that through Mary, you get to Jesus and through Jesus to Heaven,” Browne explained. “Pope John Paul II wrote about how when Jesus was on the cross, Mary felt a lot of what Jesus felt. With this gesture, she has the sign of the Trinity with her fingers over her heart. With the other hand, she is offering him up, but he is still behind her because it’s through her to Jesus and then to Heaven. As he grabs her clothing, he is pointing up with his thumb and forefinger as if he were giving the sign of the cross.”
In addition, the draping of Mary’s clothing follows the natural veining of the marble while leading the eye toward Jesus, who was actually modeled after local 5-year-old Payton Ernest, son of Lance and Summer Ernest.
A number of triangles are hidden throughout the piece to signify the Holy Trinity. Along that same theme, the sleeve of Mary’s cloak forms the silhouette of half of a heart, while the shaping of Jesus forms the other half of the heart to represent that the two are of the same heart, Browne said. Much meaning is derived from the facial expressions given to the figures as well.
“They both know his fate,” Browne said, “and this is the expression of a mother. It’s sort of a blank stare, a distraught look, and this will be raised from the ground, so she’ll really be looking at you as you’re walking up. Then you have Jesus, who knows his fate, but has a look of contentment that says, ‘It’s OK.’”
While exemplifying the same difficult skill level, “Madonna and Child” stands in stark contrast stylistically to Browne’s “Sylacauga Emerging” that sits on the front lawn of City Hall. The latter, which was officially donated to the city just this month, portrays a marble quarry worker carving himself out of stone and is meant to represent Sylacauga’s reemergence in stone through marble’s artistic and industrial purposes.
“These sculptures required two completely different approaches in the sense that ‘Madonna’ is so much more about emotion, where ‘Sylacauga Emerging’ was more about a concept,” Browne said. “There’s also a huge difference in terms of the angular lines in ‘Emerging’ where you have a masculine figure, and the other is very feminine and has a lot of curves and flowing lines.”
One thing both pieces needed was physically taxing work to make them come to life, Browne said. The roughly 8-foot tall “Sylacauga Emerging” required him to balance on scaffolding to carve, while with “Madonna,” he often had to squat down for 8 to 12 hours a day.
“It’s hard,” he said. “And as an artist, you’re never done with your work, but I am pleased with how this turned out. It took some convincing for the church to let me do something different, but I didn’t want just another generic ‘Madonna and Child.’”
As for what is next, Browne plans to take a short break from large-scale projects after nearly two years of solid sculpting. He intends to make some retailer-friendly marble products, like cardholders and bookends, for Sylacauga businesses to stock and will participate in the upcoming Marble Festival on April 9-20.
Contact Emily Adams at email@example.com.