The saint, the Sisters, and the sculptor


Peter Schipperheyn is acknowledged as one of Australia’s finest sculptors of the human body… but he is also an artist who brings his considerable skills to what could be described as religious art.

Among his commissioned works for various churches and church entities are a baptismal font, altar, and bishop’s chair for Saint Stephen’s Cathedral in Brisbane – one the most significant religious works commissioned by the Catholic church in decades.

For Notre Dame University in Fremantle he produced fourteen Stations of the Cross in bronze.

In 1992, he was awarded one of the Australia’s most renowned awards, the Wynne Prize for Australian landscape painting or figure sculpture. For that, he sculpted two large heads in Carrara marble – Maschera Femina and Maschera Maschio – which are held at the Art Gallery of Sydney.

Ah, Carrara. That is where Peter will find himself again in January, on the hunt for a piece of marble for a asculpture with bas relief commissioned for St Vincent’s Private Hospital in Sydney. He has created a maquette (small preliminary model) in clay – “to work out the idea,” he said from Melbourne, where he lives.

He has already done some preliminary research for the maquette, visiting the Female Factory at Parramatta. From January 1839 the first Sisters of Charity in Australia lived at Parramatta and visited the Female Factory where many women convicts lived and worked.

The Sisters’ main concern was religious instruction and care of the sick poor. Parramatta and Sydney still had few good roads and the Sisters walked everywhere, going to government hospitals, orphanages, schools and gaols.

“The site and the story really impressed me,” said Peter. “Those poor women and girls!”  He was also impressed by the ministry of the Sisters at what would have been a desperate and difficult situation for both the inmates and the religious Sisters who had made the same voyage across the seas to care for the incarcerated women.


It is no hardship for Peter to go back to Carrara, where he spent time studying on an Italian government scholarship at the end of the 1970s.

“I wouldn’t trust anyone to pick a piece of marble for me,” he said. “I know the stone there, so I have to feel a piece of marble viscerally. It is a body reaction – sight, sound, its physicality.”

He is looking for a block of Statuario Carrar marble approximately 1200 ms wide, 900 mms high  and 500 mm deep.

On this trip, he will also spend some time in France, visiting sites associated with St Vincent de Paul – among them Toulouse where, 1597, he began his studies in the Faculty of Theology at the University of Toulouse.

The finished sculpture, which will sit in the foyer of St Vincent’s Private in Sydney, will be carved from the stone which speaks to him in Carrara. It will take about four to five months to complete the work – “more, perhaps, because of the detail,” Peter said.

He is clearly comfortable with working for the Church, having been educated by the Carmelite Fathers at Whitefriars College at Donvale in Melbourne. He spent six years there, and now lives across the road from the college which is the home of one of his sculptures. If he wanted to, he could just walk down the road a little to see it in situ.

This early contact with the Church has given him a broad understanding and appreciation of his subject matter and exposed him to the influence of the great Renaissance artists.

He spent a year at art college – the Caulfield Institute (now Monash University) –  in Melbourne before ditching it and going on the scholarship to Italy. It was a journey which  changed his life.  He was 20, and arrived in Roma Termini station in the middle of a violent student protest.

Six months into the scholarship, Cinzia Ruffilli often the model and muse for his Madonnas, travelled to Carrara to meet him, and they were married at the Commune di Carrara ( the Carrara City Council). They have two sons – Art and Amadeus.

Interestingly, he is largely self-taught, and continues the sculptural sensibilities of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, revived during the Renaissance. “I am a figurative sculptor ,” Peter said.  “I don’t know if I could be ironic in a piece even if I wanted to be… I think that art is a conversation between the artist and the person who sees the work on what it is to be human.”

In 1988, he expressed his belief that the language of Art is a collaborative process enjoined by countless generations – “Tradition is the conversation which stretches across time, it is a conversation about what it is to be a human being…”

Another of his seminal influences is the French sculptor Jean Robert Ipoustéguy, who died in 2006. The impact of the artist on the art student was so great that, after seeing his sculpture at the National Gallery of Victoria,  he decided to go to Carrara and carve.

So, 40 years later, we come to Peter and St Vincent de Paul. At the centre of Peter’s maquette for St Vincent’s Hospital  is a man who became a saint – he looks kindly and wide-eyed, a servant of humanity.  To one side are the five Sisters who came from Ireland to serve the poor; to the other, the sailing boat which delivered them to the land only one of them would ever leave.

They will be captured in marble in a way which none of them would ever have imagined, but one in which both  the subjects and their artist are celebrated.

Images: Peter Schipperheyn with the St Vincent maquette;  The artist with a monumental head;  detail of a Schipperheyn bronze
When we have so much to praise the Lord for, we must not complain.
True affection is to rejoice in the happiness of our dear ones. Never allow a sentiment of resentment to enter into our hearts.
Pray, reflect and consult – and may the divine spirit direct all to God’s greater glory.
May our dear Lord Jesus fill your hearts with His own love. Amen!
We must have patience with others as He has patience with us.
Under every difficulty try to pray fervently.
We have much to thank Him for, even for those little drawbacks on our comforts and conveniences.
Do pray that justice may be accomplished in peace and that truth may prevail.
Go on now as steadily as you can, relying on the Divine assistance and fear not.
What we do ought to be done well.

The Sisters of Charity acknowledge the First Peoples and traditional custodians of this land where we live. We respect, value and honour their history, culture and spirituality. We are committed to standing in solidarity and to actively working for justice, peace and harmony in this land.

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