Square, bronze Father Damien stands out

Editor’s note: Last week, Tales of Capitol Art featured the bust of Vice President James Sherman, one of two sculptures in the Capitol that has eyeglasses. Today The Hill highlights the second Capitol statue with glasses.

As rare as they are, glasses cut from metal are not the only feature grabbing tourists’ attention to the Father Damien statue.

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The broad, boxy bronze sculpture stands 7 feet tall and sticks out from the fluted columns and gleaming white statues that surround it on the Capitol’s first floor. That area may be called the Hall of Columns, but Father Damien makes his presence known.

The statue lives in the Capitol thanks to Hawaii.

In 1965, once the islands entered statehood and became eligible to donate to the collection, members of the state legislature passed a resolution to select Father Damien as one of the state’s two contributions, Architect of the Capitol Curator Barbara Wolanin said. (King Kamehameha I is the other.)

“It was the state’s decision in feeling that Father Damien was very significant in the history of Hawaii at the time,” she said. The work was commissioned shortly thereafter.

Father Damien was born in Belgium as Joseph de Veuster, and in 1873, at age 33, he voyaged with a shipload of lepers to the main Hawaiian island of Molokai.

The Catholic priest cared for the diseased for the remaining 16 years of his life. In 1884, he contracted the affliction and died a little more than four years later.

Sculptor Marisol Escobar was tapped to make the statue. Wolanin said Esobar is known for creating blockish frames when sculpting people, with the head and limbs looking like attachments to the larger frame.

“It is one of the most unusual ones in the National Statuary Hall Collection,” she said. “It’s the only one that has that kind of abstract quality that’s not realistic.”

Escobar’s depiction was inspired from a photograph she picked, Wolanin said.

The picture captured Father Damien near the end of his life when he suffered from leprosy.

“[Escobar] felt like that was the one that had the most character,” she said.

Wolanin said Escobar included Father Damien’s glasses – which he wore later in life – to stay true to his character.

Sculpting glasses is “usually a pretty tricky thing to do,” she said. “They’re very fragile.”

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Other key attributes, Wolanin said, include Father Damien’s broad-brimmed hat — traditionally worn by missionaries — and a cane held by his right hand that extends from a sling beneath his cloak.

Father Damien was elevated to sainthood in October 2009.

The statue is the only piece in the National Statuary Hall Collection representing a saint.