From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Wood carver developed love for art under Sisters’ tutelage

by Bonita Lawhead, Inland Register staff

(From the Jan. 18, 2001 edition of the Inland Register)

In St. Francis of Assisi Church in north central Spokane hangs a crucifix of San Damiano. The original crucifix of San Damiano, a 12th-century icon, played a significant role in the life of St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscans.

The original crucifix was most likely painted by a monk-artist who worked on cloth glued to four-inch-thick wood. The sculpture based on the Italian work, hanging in St. Francis of Assisi Church, is a six-foot by four-foot icon which contains 33 figures along with a wealth of detail and symbols that tell of Jesus’ resurrection.

The Spokane edition is a wood relief, carved last fall by Kevin Schibel of Spokane, a former parishioner.

In the center is Jesus, flanked by his mother, Mary, and his disciple, John, on the left, and Mary Magdalene, Mary, mother of James, and the Roman centurion on the right. Jesus’ eyes are open to signify that he is no longer dead. The box-like shape behind Jesus’ outstretched arms represents the open tomb.

Just above this, Christ is shown a second time, coming out of a circle to indicate his ascension into heaven where angels greet him. Above the circle is shown the hand of the Father, with two fingers extended as a benediction of the Holy Spirit. Even the loin cloth that Jesus wears, a symbol both of High Priest and victim, is carved into Schibel’s crucifix. “Father Brian (Father Brian Flynn, OFM, pastor at St. Francis) was surprised I could get in so much of the symbolism,” Schibel said.

The original icon features a border of seashells and one of vines, and Schibel carved a representation of these into the border of the crucifix. “I took some license here,” he said, by combining the two into one border.

Schibel’s crucifix, which is slightly smaller than the original, took about two months from start to finish. Schibel said it was “the most difficult piece I’ve done so far.” Translating the many elements from painted icon into carved wood “was very tricky.”

Schibel has carved wood full-time since since 1985. He begins a sculpture by making a pattern and then carves the wood into parts. A key element that Schibel keeps in mind are the shadows that will be formed by the many parts of the work when it is done.

He works in western red cedar, a wood which can be found in many different shades, from white to red to darkest brown.

The grain of each piece gives movement to the wood, and in that way, Schibel said the wood “limits what you can do.” What makes Schibel’s sculpture unique is that the wood is four inches thick.

When the pieces are glued together, Schibel coats the work six times with satin lacquer, lightly sanding it down with Scotchbrite® between coats. The lacquer strengthens the highlights and gives depth to the wood by bringing out the grain. The finish also adds a luminosity to the work, making it seem as if light is coming from deep inside.

The crucifix was not Schibel’s first work for the parish. The first was a 15th Station of the Cross. That work depicts the stone rolled away from the tomb, a cross in front and Jerusalem in the background.

Schibel also carved six plaques of the six different elements described in “The Canticle of Brother Sun,” a poem written by St. Francis. The plaques, which took about a year to carve, hang in the back of the church near the statue of St. Francis.

Schibel grew up in St. Francis of Assisi Parish and attended the parish school for eight years. He loved to draw and thought he might be a cartoonist, but discovered the world of wood sculpting in high school. “That’s when I got the idea that I could combine wood and drawing,” he said. He credits Shadle High School teachers in shop and art for encouraging him to develop his talent.

Schibel’s first wood carving was done in 1975. The work was called “Dancing Forest,” and it won first prize in a local contest.

But his years at St. Francis School shaped him, he said, offering a nurturing environment for his creativeness, plus giving him “a love of doing something like art. In my growing up years, it was a lot safer to be a cabinet maker,” which he was for 10 years after high school, “than an artist.”

He particularly remembers two Franciscan nuns who were his favorite teachers at St. Francis school: Sister Anne, the art teacher, and Sister Janet, who was the music teacher. Schibel said that the underlying message of their classes taught him to value his uniqueness. “Both (women) encouraged me to do things my way, that it was okay to be unique and not follow everyone else,” he said.

Schibel recognizes that his gift of wood sculpting should be given to others for their enjoyment and enrichment. But he knows that entails risk.

“You’re putting yourself on the line,” he said, “because you have to believe the things you’re doing. You have to live it.”

In that small way, a similarity can be seen between his work and that of St. Francis who also took risks in carrying out his mission for God.

Schibel said feels a strong kinship with St. Francis, who is perhaps one of the best-loved saints.

“When I think about religious history, he’s at the top of my list,” said Schibel. “Francis was one of the first environmentalists and related his spirituality to the most basic real things.”

Right now the crucifix hangs on the back wall in the sanctuary at St. Francis of Assisi Church, but it will be moved when a stained glass window of the Holy Spirit is installed this spring.

The crucifix will not be moved far, though; it will be placed at the right side of the altar, on a mahogany stand being made by parishioner Bernie Murphy. “It will be closer to the people there,” Schibel said.

The San Damiano Cross and other work can be viewed on Schibel’s web site.

Anyone wanting additional information can e-mail him. Or he can be reached by phone: 326-3966.


San Damiano Cross is powerful symbol for Franciscans

The crucifix of San Damiano is a powerful symbol for the Franciscans of their mission from God. In the 12th century, the crucifix hung in a neglected, abandoned church named for St. Damien a few miles from the city of Assisi in Italy, but it played an history-changing role in the life of their founder.

As St. Francis continued to seek direction for his life-work, he came to the San Damiano Church in 1205 to pray, renouncing the world and giving his life to God. It was there that the Christ on the cross spoke to the saint, telling him to “rebuild my church.” St. Francis took the words literally, and began to work on the small building, not realizing until later that Christ’s words meant the living Church. The saint did rebuild the church at San Damiano, and in his short life of 44 years, he had a profound effect on the Church, with his simple life, his love of nature and his complete dedication to serving the poor.

According to Schibel’s research, the San Damiano crucifix and others of that style are more widely used in Europe than in the United States. “Many of the churches there have them instead of the more traditional crosses,” he said.

The church of San Damiano was the first home of St. Clare and the women who followed her to form the Religious order called the Poor Clares. When the Poor Clares left San Damiano in 1257 to go to Assisi, they took the Crucifix of San Damiano with them, keeping it at their convent. The icon cross was restored to its original depiction in 1938, and in 1957, which was a Holy Year, it was displayed to the public for the first time since it left San Damiano.

The crucifix has its home now in the Church of St. Clare in Assisi, where it can be seen by visitors.

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