Behold the Man of Sorrows
Exhibition for Holy WeekLaura Gascoigne
- 31 March 2012An original exhibition during Lent in a Welsh country church of the 14 Stations of the Cross each created by a different artist is drawing visitors from far and wide to the highly individual perspective of the story of the Crucifixion that they portray
Half a mile from Offa’s Dyke, in a hamlet called Discoed – Welsh for “under the wood” – stands the little Norman border church of St Michael. With its nearby spring, ancient yews and circular churchyard, the foundation may date back to the Welsh “Age of Saints” between the fifth and sixth centuries. Today its congregation numbers 15, a good turnout for a village of 10 houses. But during Lent, this former shepherds’ church in south Herefordshire has been drawing visitors from far beyond its parish boundaries.
Wales and its borders are well provided with artists’ studios, and last year the chairman of the Friends of Discoed Church, David Hiam, decided to tap into this creative potential. He teamed up with local artist Charles MacCarthy to commission an unusual series of the Stations of the Cross. The idea was for 14 different artists to paint one Station each, drawing their subjects from a hat. To attract good artists – there was no funding – it would be a selling exhibition, with a third of the proceeds going to Freedom from Torture.
Since the exhibition’s opening on Shrove Tuesday (until 15 April), the response from the local community has been extraordinary. Every Thursday during Lent, the vicar of St Michael’s, the Revd Steve Hollinghurst, has read a meditation before two of the paintings. An Anglican community has been visiting from a neighbouring parish, while the vicar of another has asked to borrow the Stations next year – a problem, as three have already sold.
But the strongest impact has been on the artists themselves. Although most of them have an interest in religion – four belong to a group called Art & the Spirit – doctrinally speaking, they’re a mixed bag. They include an atheist, a Buddhist and, somewhere in between, “a questioning Christian of the Anglican tradition, slightly itinerant”. In a parish that once prided itself on having no resident “Papist or reputed Papist”, they also include a Catholic, and have chosen to illustrate Pope John Paul II’s Scriptural Way of the Cross.
Artistically speaking, too, they are a broad church, drawing on sources from the Italian primitives to Pop. While Charles MacCarthy’s Second Station, Jesus is Betrayed by Judas, pays homage to Giotto, his son Dan MacCarthy has based his Eighth Station, Jesus is Helped by Simon the Cyrenian to Carry the Cross, on a 2010 news photograph of the arrest of Colton Harris-Moore, the “Barefoot Bandit”, whose two-year flight from American justice acquired the status of myth. The artist found a “messianic quality” in the bowed pose of the shackled, barefoot youth, and the addition of a small, surprisingly frail Simon the Cyrenian and the suggestion of a cross completed the picture.
A more convulsive news event provided the background for Susannah Fiennes’ Third Station, Jesus Is Condemned by the Sanhedrin. Fiennes was living in New York in 2001 when on a fine September morning she noticed a group of workmen in yellow hard hats on the roof opposite reacting with theatrical gestures of horror to something she couldn’t see. For a decade since 9/11, she has been exploring “the geometry of emotion” in her private work. Her cloth-capped Jesus, based on drawings of her forester husband carrying wood, passes so close to the picture plane that the crossbar of his crucifix might hit us: the triangle it forms with the vertical frames two small figures of the Sanhedrin in the distance. Their agitated gestures are insignificant; his quiet concentration is momentous. “I’m interested in the symbolism of carrying a weight: the bowed head and the raised arm,” says Fiennes. “It’s literally loaded.”
A different sense of being weighed down pervades Allison Neal’s interpretation of the Seventh Station, Jesus Bears the Cross. Instead of a live model, Neal based her Jesus on a life-sized Victorian lay figure, depicted plodding on through empty space, apparently shedding bits of broken limbs as it goes. In place of a cross, it carries a knapsack. A former convent schoolgirl, now an atheist, Neal was reminded of “all those hymns in assemblies saying ‘take up thy cross’. That seemed to me to be the hinge of the story, where he makes the decision.” The knapsack was for “all the things we carry about, physically and emotionally”.
In Neal’s secular version of the story, the journeying figure is “choosing, deciding and moving forward; it’s about the decisions, the decisions we make or don’t make”. In the Christian version, its gradual shedding of life’s baggage is a process beginning in Gethsemane and ending on the Cross in Thomas Merton’s “point of nothingness … which belongs entirely to God”.
The idea of physical extinction is central to Lois Hopwood’s Fourteenth Station, Jesus is Placed in the Tomb: “It’s that Saturday of nothing: that sort of death.” For Hopwood, the references in Matthew to clean linen and a stone tomb evoked visual memories of a dismantled tomb in the crypt of Hereford Cathedral with a hollow where the sculpted body had been, and of terracotta-stained sheets from her husband’s pottery hanging on a line. The recollections came together in her Rothkoesque painting of a long, narrow strip of translucent white, frayed red at the edges, floating inside a black and blue frame.
“I wanted to express the sadness and stillness of the white cloth covering a broken body in the darkness of the stone tomb,” says Hopwood. Yet the picture’s vertical axis could also suggest something else: a dark doorway lit by a blinding white light as a shrouded, transfigured form emerges.
For stained glass artist Nicola Hopwood (no relation), the verbal stimulus lay in the simple words, “Jesus Is Crucified”. The immediacy of their present tense prompted her pared-down image of a tiny crucified Christ in a glowing colour-field of darkening poppy-red glass, apparently suspended in space and time. She omitted the two thieves from the Tenth Station because “something in me wanted to maintain the sense of immense aloneness”.
That solitude is still more keenly felt in the darkness of Richard Bavin’s Thirteenth Station, Jesus Dies on the Cross. For Bavin, too, rereading the text was a revelation – he had never previously thought about the eclipse. To get around the problem of an all-black painting, he hit on the dramatic solution of making the temple curtain a backdrop to the Crucifixion. It’s the sliver of golden light shining through a tear in the curtain that makes Christ’s body dimly visible to us, while offering a glimpse of the glory ahead. Standing before the curtain with his arms raised, Christ seems to be delivering a prologue to the real action. “I didn’t think consciously about the idea that when the curtain was open there’d be a whole new world,” says Bavin.
Light at the end of the tunnel is also the message of exhibition’s most dynamic and unsettling image. Julienne Braham’s Eleventh Station, Jesus Promises His Kingdom to the Good Thief, places us cheek by jowl with the Penitent Thief as a bruised and bloodied Jesus twists around with wide open arms to confront him – and us – with the enormity of his promise, “Today you will be with me in Paradise”. Behind him, the wood of the Cross puts out green shoots and white doves fly across the breaking light of an egg-yellow sun. The effect is cathartic.
In 2007, the artist’s 25-year-old daughter was brutally murdered by a schizophrenic neighbour. Braham had previously avoided meditating on the Crucifixion, but having to paint it, “I came to see the message of the Resurrection through and throughout the pain on the Cross … Up to now I have seen the Crucifixion and Resurrection as two separate events. But now I can meditate on the death of Christ … with a new perspective and new hope, with the mind firmly fixed on the promise of Heaven, rather like walking through a dark corridor with eyes fixed on the well-lit room ahead.”
The catalogue opens with a warning from Matisse: “The Stations of the Cross are not a procession. This work is the deepest drama of mankind. Faced with this drama, the artist cannot remain a spectator. He is obliged to take part in it.” For all the artists, this has been a voyage of emotional discovery. The fact that everyone was happy with their lot, thinks Nicola Hopwood, testifies to the sustained imaginative power of the Stations’ narrative. “When mine came out of the hat I thought, ‘Wow! That’s a wonderful one’. But then I realised they were all wonderful.”
To view more of the Stations and find out about related events visit www.thetablet.co.uk/texts