THOSE who think they have to travel to Europe to see classical marble figures looming larger than life will think differently if they visit the small but growing town of Ave Maria, Florida, located about 25 miles east of Naples. What was ten years ago a field of tomato plants may seem an unlikely setting for a 35-by-31-foot marble depiction of Mary and the Archangel Gabriel, but not to the people who envisioned the project and made it happen.

In March 2011, Ave Maria University unveiled a marble depiction of the Annunciation – the biblical scene where Gabriel visits Mary and she agrees to be the mother of Jesus – as an addition to the university’s Oratory, a large chapel that is the centerpiece of the Catholic university. Carved by Hungarian-born artist Márton Váró, the bas-relief statuary took three years to complete, weighs more than 54 tons, and caused a dedicated team of engineers a lot of head-scratching and careful calculations to install.

“It really is an extraordinary depiction of the Annunciation,” said Deacon Forrest Wallace, a staff member at Ave Maria University. “You just don’t see artists working in those kinds of sizes.”
But Márton Váró does. Váró is an internationally recognized artist with sculptures in museums and other buildings in Amsterdam, Budapest, Finland, and California. Before the Ave Maria project, he was best known in this country for the 48-foot limestone angels adorning the Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, Texas.

Váró studied sculpture at Ion Andreescu Institute of Arts in Romania from 1960 to 1966 then moved to Debrecen, Hungary, in 1970 where he completed several public sculptures and was awarded the Munkacsy Prize in 1984.

“I always wanted to be a sculptor since I was six years old and saw the movie Pinocchio,” Váró said. “I saw Geppetto carving Pinocchio from wood and I decided that was what I wanted to be and I did it. I have stuck with carving marble because I have always felt it was my forte and it is what I most like to do.”

Váró’s work is reminiscent of the Greek carving style prominent in the mid-fifth century B.C., and he says he is inspired by sculptures associated with the Parthenon and similar buildings. Like Michelangelo, he is the type of sculptor who chips away at stone to find the sculpture inside. The process is similar to how Cicero described Greek sculptor Praxiteles’ work in the middle of the first century B.C.:
“For his masterpieces were made by chipping away the marble, not by adding anything to it; and when, after much chipping, the lineaments of a face were reached, one then realized that the work now polished and complete had always been inside the block.”

The Annunciation sculpture at Ave Maria has been Váró’s most challenging so far, he said, but also his most rewarding. The story of his involvement with the project starts about ten years ago when Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino’s Pizza and former owner of the Detroit Tigers, had the idea to build a town centered on a Catholic university. Land was purchased and designs drawn, and in 2007 Ave Maria University opened its doors and the 5,000-acre town began to grow around it. Currently the university has about 800 undergraduate and 100 graduate students.

The centerpiece of the university is the Oratory, which literally means “house of prayer.” It is the home of the Quasi-parish of Ave Maria, which provides pastoral care to the students and faculty of the university and to the residents of the town. The Gothic-inspired structure is constructed of concrete and 1,270 tons of fabricated structural steel, much of which is exposed externally and internally. The building received an Innovative Design in Engineering and Architecture with Structural Steel award from the American Institute of Steel Construction in 2008.

Always part of the design was the idea for a sculpture of the Annunciation to rest above the front doors of the building. When Váró’s representative, Michael Gene Winfeldt, owner of Galerie du Soleil in Naples, learned of the project, he knew Váró would be the one artist who could pull it off. Several ideas from prominent sculptors were presented as possibilities, but Márton Váró’s bas-relief depiction was accepted. Ave Maria’s Foundation for the Arts began the process of raising $3 million for the project from private donors, and Váró began his work.

The statuary is made from 15 blocks of Carrara marble, which Váró personally picked from the same Italian quarry that provided the stone for Michelangelo’s David. Váró said he wanted to use this particular pure white stone because of its high, consistent quality. Each block of stone weighed 15,000 pounds or more. The main elements of the sculpture – Mary and Gabriel – were carved from one stone weighing more than 80 metric tons.
The stones were cut in Italy then transported to Ave Maria University, where Váró lived and worked doing all the carving himself. He worked for more than two years, some of the time in Italy and the majority of the time in Ave Maria. He used angle and die grinders with diamond blades, a pointed chisel, and hammer and steel burrs. He gets all his tools from Italy, where they are made especially for the stone carver.

“I go regularly to Carrara,” Váró said. “Most of the sculptors who work in marble go there. They have 2,000 years of history.”

While he was carving the sculpture pieces at Ave Maria University, students and visitors to the school were able to watch him work.

“To watch him work was extraordinary,” said Wallace. “It was important that the students got to see such a fine artist up close doing his work. Students and faculty would walk by every day to see what type of progress he’d made. Actually, I miss the sound of his grinder.”

Eventually the university had to put up signs explaining to the public what was happening so the artist would not keep getting interrupted with questions about the project.
“People liked to talk with him,” Wallace said. “He’s such a likable guy.”

The final piece of the process was the installation. Fifteen blocks had to be placed in exactly the right spot with only 3/8ths of an inch gap leeway.

“We had to use systems that hadn’t been used before,” Wallace said. “That is a lot of weight to be putting on the outside of a building. There was a lot of head scratching and careful calculating going on to make sure that it is absolutely safe and secure. We didn’t use crazy glue.”

Wallace added that in the end, the building was strong enough to support much more weight than this stature and it is very secure. A team of ten workers, including stonemasons, engineers, and a crane operator worked for more than a month to mount the pieces. The installation was headed by engineer Skip Doyle.

“The whole town was holding their breath and praying as the pieces were put into place,” said Váró, who watched the whole process. “If the pieces touched each other they would chip, but that didn’t happen. It was teamwork and they did an incredible job.”

After the pieces were in place, Váró spent more time on top of the cranes finishing up the carving. He wanted to make the final changes once he saw how the light played off the sculpture.

On March 25, 2011, the sculpture was unveiled before a crowd of 1,200 students, faculty, community members, Tom Monaghan, and Márton Váró. There was a lot of music, including “Ave Maria” sung by a student choir, and the sculpture was blessed by the local bishop, Rev. Frank J. Dewane.

“The Oratory has always inspired students, residents, and visitors in Ave Maria, but now with the addition of Márton’s signature piece, it is truly breathtaking,” said Monaghan.

Váró agreed: “It was a blessing to be able to sculpt such an important piece in such an amazing community,” he said. “It was a great opportunity to create something that was a symbol of the university and of the city. This was an artist’s dream. I was lucky to be able to do it.”

A documentary following Váró’s Annunciation project  is currently under production. For more information on Márton Váró’s work, please visit his website or visit his YouTube channel to see a preview trailer of this project, the unveiling, and commentary from Márton Váró.