A visit to the virgin-maker

Virgins are a vanishing lot, especially if one is to judge by the lack of native sisters entering the hundreds of convents still in operation on the Iberian continent. (To fill this gap, Spain now actually needs to ‘import’ virgins from Africa, Asia and South America, but that is another story…)

Historically and culturally, however, virgins are big in Spain. Every village has it’s own virgin and most holidays seems to be virgin-based. You more often hear people being congratulated on their saint’s day than on their birthday. During Franco’s dictatorship, it was an unwritten rule that  female babies should be named after a virgin. Therefore most Spanish woman born before 1975 has María as one of her names. If not, her parents would be shunned as communists, separatists or worse still, republicans!

Spanish virgins of the not flesh and bone kind are everywhere. From vast cathedrals to the smallest, most humble chapel, virgin figures fill every alcove with her demure look, pale skin and teary eyes cast at the heavens. In the past, virgin making and carving of religious statues must have been a respected and much-needed profession. But like most classic handicrafts, I doubt that many Spanish youngsters have ‘virgin maker’ in their future career plans nowadays.

Thankfully there are still exceptions, such as the talented Sevilla sculptor and image-maker Dario Fernandez. We were lucky to visit his studio together with a keen group of amateur carvers from my husband’s wood carving class, and all came out with newfound inspiration. Dario’s studio in Sevilla’s historic quarter is filled with tear-sheets of virgins, Christ figures, carved hands in progress and rows of heads of biblical figures sculpted in wood or clay. (Not very Middle Eastern looking, but the convention of virgin making does not take such details as geography and ethnic origin into account) And then, of course his specialty: virgins.

Dario comes from a city that is renown for its Easter processions, where sculptures of heavenly virgins clad in rich brocade propped up on heavy gilded thrones pass through the streets. Growing up amongst all this religious imagery, the virgins, he claims, where almost like his dolls.

Clearly, being a virgin-maker is not a common profession. It is a skill that may take a lifetime to master. After studying art with specialty in ceramic, wood and stone-carving, Dario became an apprentice and disciple to the famed D. Antonio Dubé de Luque for seven years. Today, at the relatively young age of forty, he has his own apprentices from the Academy of Fine Arts learning the same art from him.

“You cannot learn this is school”, Dario says. Of course you can learn anatomy and brush use etc. in class, but when it comes to the actual art of virgin making, understanding it, seeing it, and believing it, you could almost say it is a calling. It is certainly a labor of love and of faith.

Virgin making is a most painstaking job. Dario uses only the best of cedar (no point even trying cheaper woods, such as pine, he says), traditional hand tools, classic tints, resins and glues, as well as an infinite amount of patience. Unless he uses an existing statue as reference, he will first work out the facial features in terra cotta clay, before he starts the carving.

The virgins are usually actual size, about 1.60 cm, to give them that special connection with the mortal admirer. While Jesus statues are still carved in full, virgins now have secrets under their skirts.  In the 17-18 century, the carvers stopped making full female figures. As their lower bodies were to be covered in cloth, the carvers made a open bell-shaped lower part, to save on material, money and carving hours. As the virgin figures are given costume changes for special religious holidays, articulated arms were also added. Common for all full figure statues, whether virgins or Christ statues, are that they are carved in sections and then glued together, before the last sanding and painting takes place. Finally Dario uses several layers of lacquer to give his figures that desired, or should I say divine shine.

Like all known Sevilla sculptors, Dario only makes sculptures to order, serving both the church and more often these days, wealthy private clients. A full sized virgin will take some 3-4 months to carve, depending on the detail and the look of the finished product. The price tag starts at about 20.000 euro for a basic virgin, going into the thirty thousands for more advanced figures and special requests.

Should you be interested, Dario will make your very own virgin to order. For more information, visit Dario’s web site www.dariofernandez.com

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