A Connecticut Yankee's Inspired Creation Finds a Home in the Papal Gardens

updated 06/06/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/06/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Have you ever visited the Vatican Gardens?" asks sculptor Frederick Shrady. The very thought of the place—a 58-acre fastness laid out in the 16th century and part of the private papal quarters since then—seems to shade his voice with awe. "It's where the limits of art have been reached. One's eye reviews the work of man as if God had created it."

Shrady speaks from fond memory. Once before, in 1975, he had been a guest at the gardens, which are open to the public only by special permission from the Vatican. But when Shrady was invited back three weeks ago, it was for a very special occasion: the unveiling of his statue of Our Lady of Fatima, the first work by an American artist to be commissioned for the Pontiff's retreat.

Dedication day for Shrady's work marked more than an artistic event. It was the anniversary of both assassination attempts on John Paul II and the 66th anniversary of Mary's apparition to three peasant children in Fatima, Portugal. (Vatican sources say that the Pope believes he survived the attacks—the first two years ago in Rome and the other last year at Fatima itself—because the Virgin was protecting him.)

The significance of the date struck Shrady in 1981. With the approval of Vatican Secretary of State Agostino Cardinal Casaroli, who was his house guest, he created a scale model of the Virgin and the three children and sent it to the Pope. "Almost immediately," recalls Shrady, "I received a message that he wanted the statue and would personally unveil it." During the 20-minute ceremony John Paul lauded the work, a six-foot-tall, 500-pound bronze.

For Shrady, 75, widely regarded as the foremost American religious sculptor, the unveiling was the summit of a 33-year career. He was born and raised in Elmsford, N.Y. His father, Henry Shrady, was a businessman turned self-taught sculptor who designed Washington, D.C.'s Grant Memorial; his mother, Harrie, was a pianist. Despite his parents' influence, Frederick's early artistic interests ran to painting. He sold his first work—for $25—while a 17-year-old student at Choate and recalls the experience, if not the painting, as "the most thrilling thing ever."

Shrady entered Oxford in 1929 but dropped out 18 months later to study painting in Paris, where he remained for the next eight years. During the early period of World War II Shrady served briefly with the French Resistance before returning to the U.S. to join the armed forces. Later he became an OSS officer. After the war he was stationed in Vienna, where he met his future wife, Maria Likar-Walters-dorff, a Catholic religious editor who was working at the time as a interpreter for the Allies. They married in 1946 and moved to Ridgefield, Conn. the following year. Soon afterward Shrady made two major life transitions: He switched from painting to sculpture, and he converted to Catholicism (raised an Episcopalian, he feels like he was "aesthetically already a Catholic" because of his many paintings with Catholic themes).

Since he became a full-time sculptor, Shrady has managed to do what almost no one in that field ever does—to chisel out a living from his art alone. Since 1959 the Shradys, the parents of six, have lived in Easton, Conn. in an 18-room mansion built by author Edna Ferber. Shrady's studio is a converted barn, and it is there, with Bach or Mozart as background music, that he worked 10-hour days for eight months to complete Our Lady of Fàtima. He hopes the $150,000 cost will be covered by private donations.

The 100 works Shrady has done so far include secular as well as religious pieces, including a statue of Saint Peter casting his net, which is permanently installed at Lincoln Center, and the massive bronze doors of the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. But the Vatican commission was, by Shrady's measure, the most demanding of all. "I attempted in no way to render lifelike portraits of the three children," he explains. Rather, he tried "to translate the tension of their experience into sculpture." Such an unpious approach to religion is characteristic of Shrady's art, which typically combines dramatic gestures with a cerebral, semiabstract style. "Faith is not a simple affair," wrote historian Paul Horgan of Shrady's work. "It has its terrors."

Age, on the other hand, seems to hold no particular fear for Shrady. Among future projects is a proposed work for the United Nations depicting human rights. "The one nice thing about being an artist," he says, "is that you never retire, and that's the way it should be."

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