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Stonemason laments future of his craft

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With experience restoring majestic cathedrals and churches in Europe and Australia, Christian Frenzel’s specialist skills are in high demand, however he worries about who will continue to look after these centuries-old buildings in the future.

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Born in East Germany, Christian undertook his apprenticeship as a stonemason and stone carver in his home country, specialising in the restoration of churches such as the “beautiful” Dresden Cathedral ‘Frauenkirche’.

Now based in the Barossa Valley, he has worked on some of Adelaide’s oldest landmarks including the old Adelaide Gaol and Carrick Hill, but it is the restoration of churches and cathedrals – mainly Catholic – that really touches his heart. Recently completing stone repairs to Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Stirling East, Christian was also responsible for creating the ‘new’ crosses and grotesques that proudly adorn the rejuvenated Smyth Memorial Chapel in the West Terrace Cemetery.

As the only specialised cathedral stonemason in Australia, the 41-year-old worries about who will follow in his footsteps and continue this much needed work.

“The neglect of cathedrals is concerning and the heartbreak is knowing that we don’t train the necessary people and the interest from the younger generation isn’t there to learn these artisan trades,” he told The Southern Cross.

“I would love to pass my skills on to a younger person. I try to do as much as I can and educate people about what is involved, to get an interest in it… but I understand the world has changed and there are technological advancements.”

Not that Christian’s line of work excludes the use of technology but at its core is the need to stay true to the intent of the original stonemason.

“Everybody could carve a sculpture but only very few can make it seem alive – like Michelangelo, Bernini or Cellini. A lot of our work is copying it as to our best ability to what was there and to honour what the person before us has created,” he explained.

“You have to be interested in history. I’m very much for technology, it has its place, but it’s also the understanding of what you are working with.

“For me it’s always about what is best for the structure of the building, because the client won’t necessarily be there in a hundred years, but the building will be and my name will be on that.”

When making the new heads and wings for the grotesques on the Smyth Chapel, Christian’s attention to detail came to the fore as it quickly became apparent there were slight differences between the original pieces.

“You could tell that six of the eight grotesques had a different carver as there were very minute differences – sometimes the eye is a bit more open than the others, the eyelid is a bit further out.”

After using a special compass to transfer details from the original grotesques, he created a plaster mould and together with the project architect, a representative from the Adelaide Cemeteries Authority, the principal builder and a heritage consultant they agreed on what would be the ‘perfect’ copy.

A grotesque and cross he created for the Smyth Chapel.

Using his carving skills he then went about ensuring each individual grotesque maintained its ‘uniqueness’ and was as accurate as possible to the original.

Reflecting on the exercise he said one of the funnier aspects would have been the sight of him transporting the grotesques to their new home, with all eight sitting next to him on the front seat of his ute. It may have been a disturbing experience for someone parked next to him at the lights!

While he has worked in the Barossa Valley for the past eight years, Christian maintains a strong interest in European cathedrals and when Notre Dame was ravaged by fire last year he quickly offered his services, if needed, to work on the restoration.

He said he wasn’t surprised when he heard news of the fire as he believed the building, like many others in Europe, had been “neglected” for hundreds of years.

“Notre Dame is not more or less important than any heritage building because they are all equally aged and need attention,” he said.

“The sad thing in France…and other European countries is that cathedrals have to be demolished every year because they are dilapidated… and they are not sufficiently maintained and then you lose that history over many hundreds of years.”

As for St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral in Adelaide, Christian said while it is not as old as the ones he has worked on in Europe, maintaining it in a good condition was vital for future generations to enjoy.

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