There are moments when you know you are witnessing something special like the antique olive oil press that still functions in Bethlehem, Israel, or the prancing Lipizzaner stallions in Vienna, Austria or the changing of the Guard at the WWII Memorial in “Red Square” Moscow, Russia. Today was one of those moments in Ortisei Italy.
The Val Gardena region of the Italian Alps is home to the most famous wood carving artists in all of Europe and you can’t “swing a cat” (sorry PETA) without hitting a store that has “original wood carvings” displayed in its windows. A large percentage of the carvings are of religious figures such as Jesus on the Cross, Madonna and Child, Padre Pio, the patron saint of Val gardena, St. Elizabeth "Feeding the Beggar", St. Joseph the Carpenter and endless pieces of Roman Catholic and Christian statuary that helps chronicle 2000+ years of religious history.
Since I was a small boy I was taught to observe and respect the artisan. It is so rare indeed that one gets to watch something be transformed from one form, in this case a tree, into something awe-inspiring like a 7ft tall Blessed Mother. You know it’s going to be special the second the door opens to the Stuflesser Shop as the bells clang to alert the staff there is a visitor and the whiff of the fresh linden and pine wood rushes into your nostrils. SC Johnson, the household products company and maker of Glade air fresheners, has been trying to reproduce this magnificent smell for years in its chemistry lab but nothing is capable of replacing the olfactory sensation that is made as a craftsman splits wood with his century old chisels. This isn’t a Stanley tool workshop and nothing in the entire shop says “Made in China” or can be purchased at a Wal-Mart.
The wood carving shop is almost 7 generations young and has been in the same Ferdinand Stuflesser Family since its inception. Our guide today was Filip Stuflesser and his love for the family business and its history was so genuine that even our 9 year old, Pearse, raised an eyebrow when Filip said “That carving is over 100 years old done by carvers with my grandfather.” At home we live in a fast paced and oft quoted “throw away society” but as we look around this wonderful shop the kids see amazing works of art waiting to grace the walls and sacristy of Churches in Armenia, Naples Italy, Florida. There are pictures of Stuflesser’s with past Pope’s and recent Pope’s, Bishop’s and Monsignor’s. The shop walls have Church history literally etched into them.
The boys move from room to room and learn the “process of wood carving.” We see it start from a drawing and then to a soft clay rendering. The customer makes changes and approves it and then a 1:1 drawing is made. As Filip explains the process we see a nearly 7 ft tall and 2 1/2 foot wide Madonna with Child about 65% complete and beside her is yet another Blessed Mother close to completion. The block of wood is assembled, actually glued and then once cured it is hoisted to the carving station. There it sits with the middle wood hewn out and removed to make it lighter and easier to carry and less expensive to ship. It is breath taking.
The boys are snapping their heads back and forth from a bust of Jesus just after the “crowning of thorns” to a set of Angels in various stages of completion that includes Filip's quick lesson on gold leafing. There are a number of works already completed and sitting and waiting to be shipped to new customers or returning works that have to be restored. I gander towards Seamus and Pearse and they look confused, heads cocked to the side, looking at each other and pointing as Jesus lay down next to His Cross with wooden nails sitting on the floor and his right and left arms nestled next to the shipping container across the room, the ultimate human jigsaw puzzle. I suspect the boys will never look at Jesus on the Cross behind the Altar the same after today’s field trip.
Our guide answered many questions from the boys including “What do you do if the chisel slips and you knock off Jesus’ nose or something?” Filip smiled and responded calmly, “What would you do Pearse?” and Pearse said “Glue it back on before my dad sees it!” Filip laughed out loud and said “That’s exactly what we do too.” Eamon wondered “How does someone get a job here?” The response was “It is a small town and we know who has the talent as a wood carver.” He pointed to the 2 men in the shop and said “They are father and son.” It was apropos as the son lifted the big wooden mallet and a huge chisel to slice and knock off large pieces of pine wood while only 4 feet away the father was using a hand chisel that looked like a dental instrument making slight twists and turns to make feathers for the “wings of an angel.” It was poetry in motion.
It is rare that a “field trip” can interest 3 kids that are dramatically different in age but today was a rare moment where the Glavin boys are mesmerized by the talents of the craftsman. It’s not a “fan page” on Facebook or the latest video game, no it was old fashioned respect and appreciation for someone’s ability to make lasting beauty from a tree.
Click here to see the woodcarving video