Stations of The Cross

14 venues around New York City

February 14—April 1, 2018

Michael Takeo Magruder, Lamentation for the Forsaken (Face of Christ), 2017. Courtesy and © Michael Takeo Magruder.

The Reformation, beginning with the Lollards, has not been kind to religious art. The Lollards, a pre-Protestant fourteenth century movement, waged war on idolatry, removing statuary and images “dead stones and rotten sticks”from churches and destroying them. The Lollards also did not believe in the mystery of transubstantiation; bread and wine remained unchanged by consecration. Art since antiquity has been integral to religions based on the mysteries, and this two-pronged attack destroyed what had always linked art and psyche—transformational mystery rituals, the role art played in these rituals, and art’s relationship to the numinosum.

In Protestant countries, the Reformation made things worse. In 1538, most religious art was destroyed including stained glass, and religious statuary. Among the most tragic losses were the crosses ripped off rood screens. In 1957, the artist Gustav Metzger mounted an exhibition, Treasures from East Anglian Churches. The exhibition featured a selection of sacred artifacts that had been attacked during the period of iconoclasm between the English Reformation and the Commonwealth of 1649-1660 when Britain and Ireland were under the destructive boot of Oliver Cromwell. Since this landmark exhibition, many historians have begun to meditate on both the loss of this religious art, and on what was lost by removing art from liturgical practice.

It is affirming to see an exhibition like Stations of the Cross, based on a Catholic pilgrimage and devotional practice, in a world plagued by attacks on both Orthodox Christianity and Catholicism. Using the Stations as pilgrimage sites and incorporating works of art with a meditative practice reconnects an important tradition with its ancient roots. The destruction of Christianity’s earliest communities in Iraq and Syria, which have spoken Aramaic since the time of Christ, makes this seem all the more poignant. Pilgrimage sites like the Syrian monastery near Aleppo dedicated to St. Simeon Stylites, the fifth century monk who lived on top of a pillar, have been destroyed in Syria.

In the 20th century, beginning with the Russian Revolution, it was assumed by many that the atomization of religion would lead to a Marxist paradise on earth. Sadly, a divinity was replaced by a dictator; Lenin replaced the figure of Christ, even in paintings. In their anti-Christian furor, the Bolsheviks destroyed churches and icons, along with the 66 million mostly Orthodox Christians (including the clergy) who died in the gulags. In Germany, the Frankfurt School, taking up the Marxist banner, continued to demonize religion and Catholics in particular, while the mass genocide of the gulags was conveniently brushed aside. Their reductive argument that religion promoted fascism and authoritarianism acknowledged none of the positive Christian legacy and the influence Christianity has had on European culture. A facile tactic used to devalue Christianity today is to associate Christianity with the far right, a group that does not represent the majority of Christians.

When Wolfgang Laib brought forty-five Brahmin priests from South India to perform a Vedic fire ritual at the Fondazione Merz in 2009, this demonstrated not only the power of how religious rituals could address creation, destruction, and renewal, but also challenged the art world’s anti-religious stance. The fire priests took art and spirituality into a realm beyond the sterility of the ‘white cube’, and the dynamism of Laib’s fire priests made a powerful statement about what much of today’s art was missing. Hermann Nitsch, as hierophant, combined the Dionysian and Christian ritual in his Orgy Mystery Theater. Nitsch was influenced by Jung’s chapter on “Transformation Symbolism in the Mass”, which associated the Catholic ritual with the Visions of Zosimos, a third century alchemist from Alexandria. Nitsch’s rituals, beginning at Schloss Prinzendorf in the 60’s, and Laib’s fire priests showed us the numinous power of art grounded in dynamic rituals of transformation and creation.

Dua Abbas, Marsiya (still), 2018. Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine: Chapel of St. James. © Dua Abbas.

As mentioned above, it is telling Stations of the Cross, the third iteration of an ambitious public arts project should come along now, and combine art with a religious pilgrimage tradition. Stations of the Cross was initiated in London in 2016 by Aaron Rosen. The venues so far have been London (2016), Washington D.C. (2017) and New York (2018), with Amsterdam and Detroit to follow. Each iteration has coincided with the period of Lent, has used existing locations and monuments, and has asked contemporary artists to create contemporary art stations.

Stations of the Cross is meant to be a contemporary art meditation on the Via Dolorosa (Sorrowful Way) in Jerusalem, where pilgrims process what is believed to be the actual path Christ walked to Mount Calvary. The Via Dolorosa follows Christ’s journey from the first station where He is condemned to death by Pilate and takes up His cross through a series of events: He falls down for the first time; meets His mother Mary; Simon helps carry the cross; Veronica wipes His face; falls again; meets the Women of Jerusalem; falls; is stripped of His clothing; nailed to the cross; dies on the cross; is removed from the cross. The journey ends at the last Station where He is placed in the tomb. The stations’ practice has its roots at the time of the emperor Constantine around 313. Pilgrimages eventually followed a fixed route from the ruins of the Fortress Antonia, where Pilate had his judgment hall, to Christ’s tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Trump’s decision to shift the embassy and the current crisis in Jerusalem—including the closure of the Tomb of the Holy Sepulcher—makes this exhibition all the more poignant. Around 1686 Franciscans began to erect displays like the fourteen stations seen in Catholic churches today. Traditionally Catholics have read prayers corresponding to each station, which represent stages of suffering. Here Christ’s suffering is mirrored in the suffering of refugees in many of the artist’s installations.

In Stations of the Cross (2018)—which processes from upper to lower Manhattan—traditional prayers have been replaced with recorded commentary, mostly by clergy but sometimes by artists, transforming the stations into sites of interfaith dialogue. The exhibition’s website (http://www.artstations.org/art/) and smartphone app (Alight: Art and the Sacred) moves in the direction of the political, replacing traditional Catholic Lenten rituals of personal penance. At times, this Catholic critic longed to find some small pamphlets at the venues with the original prayers printed out, like the cards found tucked in church pews for novenas.

The 2016 London Stations of the Cross featured some great works of art such as Bill Viola and Kira Perov’s Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) (2014) on video monitors set into a polyptych at Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Viola hoped these videos would become “practical objects of traditional contemplation and devotion.” Sadly, New York pilgrims will not see a version of this memorable piece in the 2018 version. Viola’s Room for St. John of the Cross, shown at MoMA and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, set a precedent. It was one of the most powerful contemporary works of art celebrating the writings of a Catholic saint, showing what could be possible when an artist embraced the best of the Catholic tradition.

One of the most successful New York stations addresses devotion, personal maternal devotion—in a heartfelt way. The video Marsiya (2018) and installation, Lullaby (2018) is by Dua Abbas, an artist from Pakistan who uses Shia family members observing mourning rites during the Islamic month of Muharram as stand-ins for the women mourning Jesus. Abbas comments: “I was interested in similarities between the figures of Mary (mother of Jesus) and Fatima (mother of Husayn) and the cultures of remembrance that have developed around the sufferings of their sons.” The artist’s actual family practices and the rites are brought across cultural divides, which is why the work resonates with such authenticity and moves beyond impersonal quotation.

Michael Takeo Magruder’s Lamentation for the Forsaken (2016) occupies Station Six (Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus) at New York’s Church of the Heavenly Rest on 5th Ave and 90th street. Magruder uses the Shroud of Turin, a relic Carl Jung thought was the most important image of Christ. This vera ikon (true image) is thought to have been transferred to the shroud by Christ’s body by a miraculous energetic process. It is moving to see the Shroud’s numinous energy, paired with the energy of an electronic video stream. The names and details of Syrians who have died in the conflict are woven photographically into the fabric of the Shroud, with a second layer comprised of an underlying video stream created from sets of curated media photographs. In Totality and Infinity (1961), Emmanuel Levinas writes about the importance of the face. This artwork’s final view shows the face of Christ blended with the actual faces of suffering Syrian men, women and children. In Orthodox Christianity, the icon of Christ is to be found in the faces of all living people. The layering, complex weaving of images, and references to a Christian miracle makes this one of the most successful pieces seen both in New York and in London. The suggestion of a numinosum makes the piece feel alive, and takes it out of the realm of mechanical reproduction using technology.

In New York, Rodney Leon’s African Burial Ground National Monument (2007) on lower Broadway, Gustav Kraitz’s Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Hope (1998) on East 47th street, and the National September 11 Memorial (2011) near Wall Street, reconfigure secular monuments into pilgrimage sites. Coming across Rodney Leon’s African Burial Ground National Monument in the context of a pilgrimage site when we are rethinking Confederate and colonial monuments of the past, is especially moving. In an eclipsed history that was accidentally unearthed, the Africans buried here are given a respect and dignity they were denied in life.

Not all of the stations are as successful. G. Roland Biermann’s Stations, (2016) at Trinity Church in lower Manhattan, is too reminiscent of Christo’s many installations using oil drums. Yes, we are seeing endless war and environmental destruction due to our addiction to oil; however comparisons of the red barrels to the blood of Christ and suggestions that oil relates to Christian anointing rituals seems like a bit of a stretch. Seeing this piece in the courtyard at Trinity Church near Wall Street brought thoughts of money that could have been spent on something more transformative. Teresa Murak’s Polish church runners using Lady’s smock— when planted on the first day of Lent blooms on Easter—would have been a more organic, bio-energetic, and spiritually alive solution than this monumental, recycled reminder of industrialization. Imagine seeing one of Murak’s runners carried aloft up the Trinity Church nave as a way of bringing agricultural and spiritual renewal together within a living liturgical practice.

In all of its 2016 through 2018 versions, Stations of the Cross breaks new ground by returning pilgrimage sites to the public sphere, while public sites are re-contextualized within an interfaith dialogue. We are all too used to discussions of the sacred in art shelved in safe historical exhibitions, or if addressed by contemporary art, placed in institutions like MOCRA at the Jesuit institution of St. Louis University, or in religious venues like Manhattan’s Trinity Church, or the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. A few museums, like the Aldrich in Ridgefield, Connecticut, have attempted to break the taboo with exhibitions like Faith: The Impact of Judeo-Christian Religion on Art at the Millennium (2000), but such exhibitions are rare.

Exhibitions dedicated to Christianity in any positive way are still the ultimate taboo, which is what makes Stations of the Cross such a ground breaking event. We are living in a time characterized by what Jung called a loss of soul, including the ‘World Soul.’ Exhibitions like Stations of the Cross, where the public sphere and the art world are brought together, are an important first step, which will hopefully foster new forums of discussion between artists of all faiths. Our time is too dark not to look to artists as harbingers of light who bridge traditions, and enact renewal and interfaith healing. The Via Dolorosa maps the suffering of Christ’s last day on earth followed by a resurrection and hope. Sadly, in our time both seem in short supply. 

Contributor

Ann McCoy

ANN MCCOY is an artist, writer, and frequent contributor to The Brooklyn Rail. She teaches in the Yale School of Drama, graduate design.

ADVERTISEMENTS