Stations of the Cross
Around 2000, Father Robert Quinn, pastor of St. Columbkill Church in Boyertown, PA asked me to look at blue prints for the new church. ( Fr. Quinn passed away at age 78 in 2014). I had offered to donate a landscape to help raise funds, instead the art-loving priest offered me the commission to paint the 14 Stations of the Cross for the 14 niches in the blueprint. I was taken aback as he had not seen my work. How did he know I could pull this off? He wanted something ordinary, not modernist, and not too stylistic. I said I would present sketches and a sample for him to consider. We agreed on a price below his budget allotment for that project.
That was around October, 2000 as the new church was yet under construction. For the next three months I spent many hours looking at earlier renderings of the iconic Stations. I studied the Gospel accounts in detail, looking for clues and discrepencies. I filled a binder with loose sketches. Toward Christmas, I began to doubt my ability. This was to be not only a permanent installation, but also a vehicle for worship. Children would have these images as representing their religion. It felt like too much for me to handle.
I went to mass in January 2001 with the intention of telling Fr. Quinn that I would beg off the project. His homily was based on the Gospel reading of the day about the Marriage at Cana when Jesus changed water into fine wine, his first recorded miracle. Mary's words in John's gospel chapter 2:1-12 to the servant in charge of the wine were, "Go, do as he says." Those words struck me as a personal challenge to get to work and let my limited talent, whatever it was worth, to carry me through. Below you can see images. Fr. Quinn and the parishioners were happy with the result.
(forgive the poor quality of my photos). I wrote the notes for Fr. Quinn in 2002.
1. Jesus is condemned to death.
Pilate holds a towel and is about to wash his hands of thi matter. Jesus, already bloody from severe scourging and a crown of thorns wears a soldier's scarlet cape (Matthew 27:28, but John 19:2 states that Jesus wore a purple robe). I chose scarlet for both compositional and symbolic reasons. My composition reflects both tunnel and tomb passages, the way to Jesus's resurrection or to be born again from the womb of death. Jesus stands on marks carved by soldiers, presaging a game used by soldiers for casting lots for his garments. Jesus holds a reed given him by soldiers who mock him as a king with a fake scepter, thorny crown, and common cape. The horse's head is severed by the column, a symbol of a real death to come.
2. Jesus accepts his cross.
Traditional iconography portrays a complete cross, but research suggests that Romans forced some of the condemned to carry a rough-hewn beam that weighed upwards of 125 pounds. The stakes or trees were already in place at sites of crucifixion. This cross-beam was then hoisted and secured with the victim affixed by ropes and/or spikes onto the stake. Jesus had to struggle around 600 yards to the place of execution.
This composition includes three steps or "falls" that Jesus will suffer, the Roman auhtority that binds him, and a jewish man and woman ho react with differing emotions. Jesus faces us, those for who he took up his cross.
3. Jesus falls for the first time.
Seeing a man stumble is never pretty, and with a heavy cross tied to his arms the fall is horriby awkard and jagged. The composition reflects this as Jesus seems to spill forward out of the picture. Jesus is held up and back by the authority of the soldier. His disciples are helpless to assist and fear to appear to know him.
4. Jesus meets his afflicted mother.
Here I represent Mary as an active figure in Jesus's life walking with him to the end and beyond, closer to him than any other. Mary meets her condemned son as a mother, suffers as a mother, and remains in pace with his mission, encouraging Jesus without interfering with God. She is not conflicted but afflicted, knowing in her heart that God's work is being done despite the degrading appearance and experience of the via delorosa. Mary suffers with Jesus who is dazed and losing strength.
5. Simon helps Jesus carry the cross.
Simon's race is not mentioned, but I chose to represent a dark-skinned man. He was from in Cryrene, modern Libya, where many Egyptian Jews had settled, but it is not clear whether Simon was a Jew or a disciple or merely a travelling merchant observing a spectacle. I envisioned him as a large man who stood out so that Roman soldiers saw him as an obvious candidate to carry a heavy beam. Although he was not a volunteer, he could have nevertheless been transformed by his experience. We often find satisfaction and reward when taking on a task forced upon us, though we resist at first. Jesus is relieved, but he will fall again.
6. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
From a sixth century apocryphal text [Acts of Pilate) comes the story of a woman who wiped sweat and blood from Jesus's face with her veil which was imprinted with an "authentic image" (ver-icona) of the Lord. This gave rise to her name, Veronica. In this painting I try to show an image of Christ that is messy as one might expect. Veronic was not seeking a miracle; she merely wanted to be kind to her Lord whose grace earlier stopped her issue of blood (Mark 5:25-34; Matthew 8:20-22). Yet people become fascinated with the miraculous image, and legends embellish how true is looked. The danger comes from too much attention to miracles and losing sight of the Lord's true message, which remains to take up your cross and follow him. Veronica already senses this as Christ fades into the background while people are focused more on her and an image of Jesus.
7. Jesus falls the second time
Jesus is very weak and stumbles again even without the cross as he begins the journey uphill toward Golgotha. The entire trek was around 600 yards--a short walk under normal circumstances. Here I try to show Jesus staring at the earth on his hands and knees. The values of color and shadow appears to absorb Jesus. Again, the authority of the Roman on horseback holds Jesus by the rope to his purpose, reminding Jesus that this sacrifice is by the will of God. The soldier would have no authority except "it be given thee from above" (John 20:11), as Jesus stated to Pilate. The bowed horse appears to recognize that Jesus must move on as the composition turns counter clockwise back to the cross Simon now carries toward the stakes on the hill.
8. Jesus meets the women of Israel
"Weep not for me--weep for yourselves and for you children," Jesus said. On the way to Golgotha (the skull) Jesus pauses with a few seconds of time to comfort the women of Jerusalem. The future generations will suffer, especially in their quest to follow the Lord's comandments. but Jesus is the Prince of peace and justice. In this composition, Jesus stands firmly as both teacher and Lord, yet the zigsag path to the cross remains before him. The women represent the people of the world, not that four women could possibly represent all the races, and they huddle with their children who yet in their innocence cannot appreciate the meaning of Jesus's words.
9. Jesus falls for the third time.
I struggled with this composition--not that any of these came easily--more than most. I finally sketched it in a few minutes on the canvas the evening of the terrotist attack on America September 11, 2001. I used the incomprehesibly real evil of of the moment to try to grasp what evil requires God to die for us on a cross? Jesus is nearly spent as he approaches the stake. The soldier roughly pulls on the fallen prisoner to get the execution over as quickly as possibly. The picture pattern again zigzags from left to right and ends at the foot of the cross.
As a man falsly condemned by men, Jesus rises up one more time to face his crucifixion and death. yet in three days, the Gospel reports, Jesus rises up for all eternity with the grace and life of God. By that same grace we too can rise up after tragedy.
10. Jesus is stripped of his garments.
No one knows exactly what Jesus wore of what he looked like. We imagine he looked and dressed like his Jewish peers. I chose to represent Jesus's sandals, a common tunic, a sash, and a blanket like robe. No one knows if he wore white. The robe I chose to represent the "seamless garment" that the soldiers did not want to tear apart, so they cast lots for it. Typically, soldiers took any property and clothing from those executed. In this composition I painted soldiers holding the robe almost as a curtain, partially hiding the cross. To me, this is symbolic of the mystery soon to be revealed through the ages. It is the mystery of God's sacrifice through His death on a cross through Jesus, a death he conquered and through which gives us eternal life.
This is a cosmic mystery with scientific merit, symbolic of how the universe actually works. Something (God) must eternally empty itself for anything to emerge and live. Death is a return or total emptying back to that source. For Christians, this source is utterly a personal being in whose image we were made.
The composition moves again twice from left to right and ends with the ladder leading to the top of the cross. Jesus contemplates the final painful drama of this day about to resolve as he is nailed to the cross.
11. Jesus is nailed to the cross.
This composition is more static as the hired man drives the final spike through the feet of Jesus to secure him to the cross. Clouds gather and the day is waning. Jesus is already nailed through his wrists (also translates as 'palms' or 'hands' in Biblical texts). Mary, who is with John, weeps in the background. I chose to use a conventional abbreviation I.R.N.I. for the titulus or sign that Romans sometimes posted on a cross. It named the criminal and his crime. jesus's titulus stated in greek, Latin, and hebrew his name and his crime: "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews." Some Jewish leaders protested, asking the Romans to state that Jesus merely claimed to be King (John 20:21). Pilate refused to change it saying, I wrote what I wrote." Apparently, the Roman not only wanted to mock Jesus to the end, but also wanted to show disdain for Jewish culture as well.
12. Jesus dies on the cross.
Central to Roman Catholic iconography is the dead savior crucified. This image, gruesome in reality, remains the primary symbol of the Christian faith, although most Christians prefer to display an empty cross. In this scene the wind howls, lightning strikes, and thunder roars. "The veil of the temple sanctuary was rent in twain." At the time of Jesus's death Matthew 27:51 states that, through the mystery of the Lord's death, God's presence in the Holy of Holies is opened to every person, no longer only to the high priests. The composition is based on a cross with the spike in the Lord's feet at the center. The drama moves around this fulcrum, symbolizing the power and central theme of Christ as the eternal sacrifice and gift from God to save us from our unworthiness.
In this scene his mother Mary s with two other Marys. She comforts one of them, perhaps Mary Magdelene. The two crucified men next to Jesus are yet alive, but only one recognized in Jesus the way to the Kingdom of God. In one Gospel (Luke 23:43) Jesus tells a revolutionary the "good thief" he will be with God in heaven "this day." The Mark gospel states that the men both kept taunting Jesus. The Roman centurion in my composition stands firm, holding his jittery horse by the reins. The centurion says in Mark 15:39 "Truly this man was the son of God."
13. Jesus is taken down from the cross.
For this scene (for all of them actually) I studied many versions doen by famous artisits, especially Rembrandt, Butinone, and Dore. The two themes I address are the deposition and the pieta or Mary in mourning. The former I illustrated with the possible mechanics of removing a limp corpse from a cross. mary is exhausted and begins her mourning. John, the beloved apostle appointed by Jesus from the cross to care for Mary, takes the hand of his adopted "mother." Her right hand remins limp on her lap. . Th centurion remains on guard. He enforces Pilate's decision to allow Jesus's friends to bury him before the sun goes down and Jews begin the Sabbath observance. The burial linens are folded in a basket near Mary and the three spikes and tongs used to remove them.
14. Jesus is buried.
Most artists illustrated this station with Jesus being carried to or lowered into a tomb. Here I painted the moment when the last of the burial linens is draped over Jesus whose body has alerady been dressed with spices and oils. Mary Magdelene and the "other Mary" sit outside to watch Joseph of Arimathea and his helper finish their task. No one knows the exact place of burial today although there are traditional designations accepted by believers. In any case, the tomb was not far from the site of crucifixion, so i chose to include the view of Golgotha with the three crosses and situate the rock-hewn tomb along the hillside.
The large, round stone used to seal the tomb is symbolic of the solar eclipse. As the moon "rolls" between the earth and the sun, so the stone eclipses Jesus from view for "three days," only to roll away and reveal the risen Christ. The sun shines again.
The next is a non-traditional station number 15, the Resurrection that I donated to the church.
This image borrows one version of several in the Gospel when Mary Magdelene (in red) with the other Mary go to visit the tomb, but are suprised to see the risen savior. At first they think he may be a gardner or caretaker. Jesus tells them not to touch him as he has not yet ascended to the Father. The earth is split, symbolizing both the quake that was said to occur (the earth shook in Matthew 27) and the line of separation between this world and the heavenly one.
Weeks later per John 20:24-29 Jesus appears miraculously to the hidden disciples in a room where he commands "doubting" Thomas to touch his wounds. There is no indication that Thomas did Touch him as he proclaims his remorse saying, "My Lord and my God."
I also painted the blessing bear for St Columbkill. The painted bear statues are a theme throughout Boyertown where the high school mascot is the bear. http://www.bearfever.org/
My pastel study of Father Quinn who passed away in 2014 at age 78. A great man.