The Sculptor

Albin Polasek, Sculptor 

 

Albin Polasek worked with Carrara marble from the same quarry near Pietra Santa, Italy that was used by Michelangelo. Critics consider his carving worthy of being placed in the tradition of that greatest of sculptors of the Renaissance.

With that, there is almost no need to say more of Albin Polasek, the carver of the sculptures in Saint Cecilia Cathedral. Of course we want to know more, for he was a fascinating artist, and our Omaha Cathedral becomes even more wonderful in its beauty when we realize that a man of such great achievement fills it with his works.

Polasek was born in Frenstat, Moravia, February 14, 1879. At eighteen, he carved an amazing wooden nativity scene in his hometown. He came to American in 1901; his two immigrant brothers became priests here, while he was noticed for his artistic talent. He entered the Pennsylvania Academy of Art in Philadelphia, and 1911, won the coveted Prix de Rome, which enabled him to study at the American Academy in Rome, the premier European center for American artists, musicians, writers, and scholars. There he was asked to sculpt a bust of one of its founders, Francis D. Millet, an American millionaire and Academy trustee. Another Academy trustee was the enormously rich and powerful J.P. Morgan. Morgan died suddenly while visiting Rome, and Polasek was summoned in the middle of the night to make Morgan's death mask. The mask was later used, along with photographs, when Polasek made a bust of the financier.

The sculptor traveled to France and Greece to improve his craft, and soon the demand for his work was great. His statue, The Sower, inspired by one of Jesus' parables, was placed in front of the Art Institute of Chicago. His Daniel Boone stands in the Hall of Fame at New York University. In 1924 he carved a memorial to Theodore Thomas, the founder of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and in 1926 a statue of President Woodrow Wilson for the city of Prague in his native Czechoslovakia. Tragically, that statue was destroyed in 1938. He was given that government's highest award, the Diploma of the National Council of Czechoslovakia.

His career was a long one. In 1949, Polasek was invited to carve a statue of Thomas G. Mazaryk, first President of the Republic of Czechoslovakia; in 1956 he used sculpture to protest the Communist domination of Hungary; in 1964 he sculpted a heroic statue of an Indian character in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha.

But of course his greatest works are in Saint Cecilia Cathedral. The 1970 book, Carving His Own Destiny, written by his wife, Emily, recognizes his great achievement at Saint Cecilia Cathedral. She relates that at the age of seventy he moved to Winter Park, Florida, and built a house, studio, and gallery on Lake Osceola. Soon after his arrival, he suffered a severe stroke and lost the use of half of his body. He struggled to recover his ability to carve, and at the age of eighty was working again. Polasek still had works in progress when he died in Florida in 1965. A charitable foundation preserves his legacy. His legacy is displayed at Saint Cecilia with his magnificent state of Christ crucified, his brilliantly evocative Stations of the Cross, and his apostles and doctors of the Church.

 

~The Beauty of Thy House, 2005

 

    Cathedral Interior