Art: Gothic, with a Difference

  • Share
  • Read Later

I was in the spirit on the Lord's day,

and heard behind me a great voice, as of

a trumpet, saying, I am Alpha and Omega,

the first and the last: and what thou

seest, write in a book and send it unto the

seven churches which are in Asia. . . .

When the great voice trumpeted behind him, how must the Saint, on the verge of the Apocalypse, have looked? That was the question Sculptor John Angel has spent eight months trying to answer. Angel, one of the top church sculptors, had been commissioned to carve Saint John for the central doorpost of Manhattan's slowly building Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, which was originally designed to be Romanesque and is gradually growing up to be Gothic.

An Episcopalian himself, Angel has done sculpture for Manhattan's Roman Catholic St. Patrick's and Pittsburgh's East Liberty Presbyterian Church. Like most of his work, Angel's new eight-foot Saint John is 13th Century Gothic in style, but, says Angel, "I use all my knowledge of the human figure, so what we call Gothic is Gothic with a difference." The difference is sometimes too marked to miss. Like most attempts to recreate in one century what came naturally in another, Angel's work has more finish than feeling. It suffers from a kind of suavity which sometimes looks a little like soap carving; it lacks the hard energy of Gothic stone.

One reason is that Angel never carves his figures direct; he first models them in clay, lets professional stone-carvers copy them, then adds the final touches. Last week Saint John, in stone, was ready for Angel's chisel. A carver still labored on the pedestal, but the Saint stood clear, listening above the mallet.

At 65, white-mustached John Angel has been making statues for the unfinished Cathedral more than 20 years. One of a tailor's ten children, he grew up in the British cathedral town of Exeter, entered a Gothic studio as an apprentice ornament-carver when he was 14. Says Sculptor Angel: "I never went to school; I'm an ignoramus."