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How modern artists help you find the Way of the Cross.

The vestibule window overlooks the parish parking lot. Dark, cold, and forbidding on this mid-March evening, the empty lot punctuates the stark solemnity of the Lenten season. Inside San jose, California's Transfiguration Parish two dozen parishioners gather to express their solidarity with the suffering Christ by praying the Way of the Cross.

The group stands before the ninth station, "Christ falls the third time," as parish liturgy director Jeff Wild reads from a collection of psalms he chose specifically for the evening. "Out of the depth, God, I call you. Let me feel you in this darkness," Wild intones. "Take away my affliction and give me the strength to endure."

As they pause in a moment of reflection, Wild and the parishioners of Transfiguration do not look upon a traditional, lifelike image of Christ on his knees in the streets of Jerusalem. Instead, the ninth station is a black-bordered rectangle from which emanates three jagged lines reminiscent of cracks in the pavement.

Housed in such modern images, the other 13 pastel stations are just as abstract. Some vibrant with vivid purples and yellows, others, simple black and white, the pastels are a far cry from the images most Catholics associate with the Way of the Cross.

The Way of the Cross is an inveterate ritual with roots stretching in the deepest soils of the church. However, new forms of spirituality, such as the charismatic renewal and centering prayer, are displacing more traditional devotions such as the Stations of the Cross. Beginning to fade from the living faith of modern Catholics, many parishes have long since ceased praying the Way as a community, and in a growing number of churches, the traditional tableaux have even ceased to grace the walls.

Seeking to instill renewed vitality into the Way of the Cross, a number of modern artists and liturgists are turning to modern art to speak to new generations of Catholics. "They are not telling you what to see or hear," Wild explains. "Instead they challenge you to identify with the images and find your own meaning."

In the abstract art at Transfiguration, geometric shapes replace the usual scenes of Christ carrying his cross. The traditional image of Christ - with flowing hair and crown of thorns - has been transformed into a dark rectangle.

Present in all 14 stations, the rectangle changes minutely from station to station. In the three scenes depicting Christ's falls, for example, the rectangle is dark and alone. But when Jesus meets people, like the "women of Jerusalem" in the eighth station, the rectangle is accompanied by other shapes and takes on a lighter hue that seems to reflect a lighter mood.

Explaining her rationale for choosing a rectangle to represent Christ, Linda Brown, the artist who created Transfiguration's pastel stations, says she was looking for a simple yet solid form. "The rectangle is a stable figure, and to me, it's very masculine," she explains.

To Brown the stations are as much a means of self-exploration as a vehicle for popular devotion. The stations symbolize the struggle and growth of the soul. "The stations are not so much representative of Christ's crucifixion but of the crucifixions that we all go through in our everyday lives," Brown says.

Accordingly, she sees the rectangle as a masculine image of Christ, and as any individual praying the Way, regardless of gender.

Brown's 12th station is particularly striking. Traditionally the 12th station bears an image of Christ hanging from the cross; Brown's pastel portrays Christ's death with four sweeping black lines that frame a single black dot.

This abstract scene fires the imagination of Mike Cavera, who attended Transfiguration's stations ritual. Interpreting the dot as an eclipsed sun, Cavera sees it as symbolic of Christ on Calvary: "The Light of the World was temporarily blocked when Christ died. But," says Cavera, "in the drawing, light is stir breaking through around the dot, so you know the darkness is not permanent. In this way the Resurrection is in there as well."

Some of the first stations were erected in Northern Italy in the fifth century. The stations' popularity grew throughout the Middle Ages when the Franciscans cared for the shrines of the Holy Land. A westruck by their visits to the birthplace of Christianity, pilgrims were especially impressed by the Via Dolorosa - the "Road of Sorrows" - which Christ walked when condemned to death.

Upon their return home, some pilgrims erected tablets portraying the events that led to Christ's Passion. Varying in number from 5 to 30, the church ultimately set the official number of stations at 14.

To the medieval peasantry the stations became a means to visit the distant Holy Land - a journey that only the rich could afford. Moving from station to station, the made an imaginative pilgrimage to Jerusalem, walking with their Savior on his last, redemptive journey.

Often symbolized by simple wooden crosses, a style that continues to adorn church walls and cloister gardens to this day, the stations are also represented by sculptures and paintings reflecting the artistic traditions of the medieval, Renaissance, and modern eras.

Praying in front of the images, pious pilgrims through the ages have walked with Christ from the Roman court of Pontius Pilate, through the mocking crowds on the streets of Jerusalem, and up Calvary. The stations, ending with Christ's entombment, left worshipers in anticipation of the glorious Resurrection.

Some of the first stations depicted in modern art reside in the Dominican convent of Notre Dame du Rosare in Vence, France. Painted between 1949 and 1951, the stations of the late French painter Henri Matisse are among the artist's least characteristic work. Devoid of his usual vibrant colors and sensual imagery, Matisse's 14 minimalistic black images in the convent's Chapelle du Rosaire zigzag their way up a single wall of white tile.

Abrupt and scratchy, the austere outlines embody an agitation inherent to the trauma of a prolonged and torturous death. Rather than distinct scenes, the stations are jumbled together in a visual menagerie as dark and chaotic as Christ's struggle up Golgotha must have been.

Christ is shown condemned in the lower left-hand corner. The journey progresses to the right and then left and then right again - all the time rising as if worshipers today were actually accompanying the mocking throng up a winding path to the Mount of Skulls.

Not a religious man by nature, Matisse was nonetheless moved by his experience painting the stations in Vence. He considered the tempestuous representation and ordering of the stations reflective of his ultimate involvement in the events he originally only set out to mirror. "Finding himself gripped by the pathos of so profound a tragedy, he [the artist] upset the order of his composition," Matisse writes in his essay "Chapelle du rosaire des Dominicaines de Vence."

Describing his experience in drawing the stations as a transformation from spectator to participant in Christ's Passion, Matisse writes that he "quite naturally became its principal actor" and that instead of reflecting the tragedy, he personally experienced it.

Matisse's experience of being caught up in Christ's Passion was precisely the effect Sister Terry Davis of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur sought to evoke when she was commissioned to paint a set of stations for San Jose, California's Santa Teresa Parish. "What I wanted to capture," says Davis, "was some way for people to bring their personal difficulties to this experience of Jesus' suffering, to be able to draw from his suffering some measure of comfort or help or courage.

"I really felt that keeping the Stations of the Cross locked into these literal vignettes was one of the central problems. How can people really relate to Veronica wiping the face of Jesus? It is a nice little myth, but what does that say to us?"

Davis, a graphic artist whose services are contracted by nonprofit organizations in Northern California, began her work by excerpting from each station the particular dimension of human suffering it most represents. Distilling each station down to a single word, Davis was left with themes of condemned, burdened, fallen, shamed, dying, comforted, and refreshed.

Accompanied by a scriptural quotation that further expands the dimension of suffering, Davis used calligraphy to write the thematic word on a watercolor background.

Having completed the art, Davis then faced the formidable task of soliciting the approval of the parish council.

She recalls that one committee member in particular remained dubious of her modern artwork, and she explained to him that one of the advantages of modern art lies in its ability to evoke different reactions from different people. Hearing this, the man thought for a moment and then remarked that the background of the "comforted" station, where Christ meets his mother, reminded him of fog that he had seen while serving on a submarine in World War II. He had experienced nothing more terrifying than trying to navigate his submarine in the fog but was always comforted when he came to a clearing.

"I was stunned," Davis recalls. "I said to him, "That's it. Bring your own story - what happened in your life in the midst of suffering."'

Father Patrick Browne, who commissioned Davis to paint the stations, sees similar value in the abstract art. Pointing out the contrasts between the fourth station's light, watercolored shades and stark, black letters, he encourages his parishioners to become personally involved in Christ's moment of comfort on his Way to the Cross. "Allow this background of competing colors and shapes and lines to bring out within you the subtle passion of this scene, as a guide to your vision of comfort in the midst of pain."

The effect that Brown and Davis seek to evoke with abstract imagery, other artists elicit with graphic realism. In the chapel of the University of Central America in San Salvador, El Salvador resides a set of stations that shatter any barriers separating Christ's Passion from modem human suffering.

Stretching the length of the chapel's back wall, the 14 black-and-white, line-art images depict the gruesome horror of suffering and death as experienced by El Salvador's faithful.

Scenes of peasants, tortured and killed during the course of El Salvador's 12-year civil war, strike worshipers, students, and tourists alike. Stripped of their clothes, the backs of some are scarred with whip marks. Others lie mutilated on the ground, drawn exactly as they were discovered-mangled, dead, barely recognizable.

By no means the product of some demented imagination, all the scenes are based on photographs of los desaparecidos - "the disappeared" - who mysteriously disappeared and were later found dead on the roadsides. They depict death not as a heroic act to be memorialized in sterile, whitewashed images but as ugly, painful, and loathsome.

"The art made the stations come alive in a way I had not experienced before," says Chris Stampolis, a graduate student in catechesis at California's Santa Clara University.

"Jesus'journey is often thought as one to be admired at a distance rather than one to be imitated by us directly," Stampolis observes. Stampolis sees these stations as forming a bridge that directly links the life and death of Jesus with our own experiences of living and dying. These stations reinforce Stampolis' belief that the Way of the Cross is a journey for every Christian, not just for Christ.

"The parallels between Jesus' journey and that of the Salvadoran people made my resolve all that much stronger," relates Stampolis. "Regardless of the consequences a radical faith entails, you just cannot keep Jesus on the wall."

Others who have visited the chapel see the stations less as universal images and more as a statement of the quality of life endured by Christians in Central America.

"Essentially they show the pain and suffering of Jesus as experienced by the people of El Salvador," says Patricia Narciso, a teacher of religious studies at Illinois Benedictine College in Lisle, Illinois.

Having led a group of students to the chapel two years ago when she taught an El Salvador practicum, Narciso explains that during El Salvador's civil war many of the country's peasants were being persecuted in much the same way that Christ was persecuted by his contemporaries.

El Salvador is a very Catholic country," Narciso says. "When the people suffer persecution, they are aware that they are suffering as Jesus suffered. In the experience of living their own Way of the Cross, Salvadorans realize that they are with Jesus."

A liturgical mirror of winter's gradual progression into spring, Lent recalls Christ's transformation of death into renewed life. Hoping to instill new life into a declining ritual, modern artists and open-minded liturgists are seeking new ways to express their devotions to and solidarity with Christ's Passion.

At the same time, the Stations of the Cross become a vehicle of exploring the darker side of human nature through the archetype of the suffering Christ. Rather than contradicting traditional approaches to the Way of the Cross, abstract stations complement a ritual that has spoken to the hearts and diverse temperaments of uncounted generations of Catholics.
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Author:Riggs, Brian
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Mar 1, 1995
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