.- When worshipers walk through the doors of St. Mary Church in Boise, Idaho, they are joining as allies of Good in a battle with Evil. It’s a reality sustained by art on a grand scale. Skip Armstrong, a wood carver from Sisters, Ore. was commissioned to create new church doors that stand 16 feet tall and 10 feet wide.
Carved into the broad-shouldered wood is a swirling scene — metaphor writ large in mahogany. A pregnant Virgin Mary figure stands above, backed by rays of sun as in the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Below, a sword-bearing St. Michael takes on a seven-headed dragon that is striking outward in three-dimensional fury.
The scene is based on metaphors found in the Book of Revelation, in which the dragon is knocking stars out of the sky and attacking the virgin queen. It evokes both Latino and Anglo archetypes, which makes sense at a parish that is growing in the way the entire Catholic Church is growing — a mix of cultures.
“It’s a multi-ethnic parish, and all the new art that is going to the church has to be art that has to be appreciated by all the different ethnicities in the parish,” Father Thomas Faucher, the pastor, told the Idaho Statesman. “There is a tremendous need for good art in religion. Bad art hurts religion; no art hurts religion. But good art helps people come to an awareness of God.”
On the inside of the doors is a Northwest version of Noah’s Ark. Regional animals like elk, deer, coyotes and bighorn sheep emerge from the vessel in a figure-eight symbol of infinity. In a salute to Native American images of creation and life force, the ark rests on the back of a giant sea turtle and at the top of the cascade of animals, an eagle takes flight. These animal images have been Armstrong’s stock-in-trade for decades.
But in recent years, he has combined the aura of local chain saw carver with high Christian art. In 2001, he completed a set of statues for a prayer garden at St. Edward Parish in Sisters. The statues represent the patron saints of the churches in the Diocese of Baker; the faces show the pains and joys of the path to sainthood.
Father Faucher was pastor of St. Edward’s at the time and admired Armstrong’s work.
The priest first approached the sculptor about the door project in spring 2007. A Boise donor funded the work.
Armstrong, who does make rough cuts with a chainsaw before taking up hand tools, says the Boise doors were the challenge of his lifetime.
He traveled to the Central American nation of Belize and entered the jungle to find mahogany that had been blown down by Hurricane Hugo. With the help of local Mayan tribesmen, he located a log the size of a railroad car.
Armstrong is not a stranger to Central America. In the early 1970s, he explored the region in a Volkswagen van. The artifacts and sculptures in Mayan temples inspired him to be a sculptor.
Using a scaffold placed over the massive log, Armstrong did the initial work on site before having the doors shipped to his workshop near Sisters and then to Boise for installation in December.
Cranes hoisted the doors into position. Each weighs several tons.
The dramatic imagery has caused a stir in the Idaho town.
“This is in essence the classic story of the battle of good and evil. The story is ageless and part of all of our history,” Armstrong says in comments recorded by the High Desert Gallery.
While some dragon heads are in the background, symbols of evils yet to come, several heads lurch out a foot or two at those who would walk through. The door handle is the dragon’s claw.
“You have to engage the battle to get through the door,” Armstrong says.
One of the dragon’s necks straddles the two doors, so when they swing open, one evil head is lopped off, in effect.
Armstrong planned it that way. When people go into church, they become soldiers in the great fight.
The artist points out that he created the Archangel Michael with a face at ease.
“He’s totally relaxed in his role of battling evil,” Armstrong explains. “As you can guess, he has God on his side.”
He calls Mary “the catalyst” in the battle: “She stands above saying, ‘This is alright. This is the process we live with.’ If we stay above and keep our hearts pure, we have essentially already won the battle.”
St. Mary’s in Boise has Spanish Mass and a food bank.
Under renovation for months, it now also has some of the most notable art in the region.
In addition to the new doors, the church commissioned a 10-foot-tall triptych painting of the adoration of the Christ Child and a life-size bronze sculpture of Mary seated in a pew.
Armstrong realizes that he is engaged in what he calls “a contemporary rendition of a Renaissance art form.” Some of the great artworks of western civilization are found in the churches of Europe.
“The artist’s role,” he says, “is to interpret, not regurgitate.”
Printed with permission from the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon.