I'm not Catholic.
But this weekend I was at the Smithsonian and I saw a series of paintings called the "Stations of the Cross" by Barnett Newman. It was by far the most fun and engaging series of paintings that I saw this weekend, and it was that way because I decided with my girlfriend that we were in a large room, in a very important museum, which had been dedicated exclusively to a series of 15 paintings that don't look like anything. And they may be nothing to you, or they may be something completely different, but they were to me something that did not exist before.
I have little interest in Christianity. Or any other religion. I get more from a walk in the woods or spray painting than I do from church. But I grew up in St. Louis where the influence of the Catholic church can not be denied or avoided. In spring, people will ask you what you're giving up for Lent. There are King's cakes, and a wonderful mix of German and French traditions so that Mardi Gras and beer go hand in hand. On Ash Wednesday, there will be people who proudly come into their otherwise professional place of business with a dirty smudge on their foreheads. The Tuesdays are Fat, the Fridays are Good, and there is a real sense of renewal in the springtime.
And because of this osmotic upbringing, I know about the stations of the cross. I know that they are a pilgrimage, be it mental or in Jerusalem, and that a pilgrim is to contemplate the personal doubt, sense of betrayal, and tragic pain that surrounded the death of Jesus. It's just something that you pick up because people walk the Via Dolorosa mentally from time to time.
I've attached some nobody's version of an interpretation for two reasons. Because one, it's as good as mine, and two, it has a list of the images at the end. And it's important that you see how much nothing is present in the 15 paintings.
When you walk into the room, you find a series of six foot-ish tall paintings. For those of you playing in the Old Country, that's 2 meters, probably. We didn't fight the Nazis to learn metric so you may want to double check that. These paintings have unhelpful titles, "Station 1", "Station 2" and so on until the 15th which is called "Be II". The 15th station is not 'technically' a station of the cross traditionally. It's the resurrection of Jesus after his time in the tomb so that title may be the only helpful one.
The different paintings have vertical black lines, and white lines, and sometimes black fields and white fields. Maybe a beige line here and there. And there is a single orange line later. Some of the lines are frayed, and pulled, or solid. Some drip up, or are brushed away. It's a very stark and confusing presentation if indeed someone did want to say something.
So I tried to see if Newman was saying something. I looked up the stations, I read the scripture attached to each one, I learned that the stations were re-worked after the paintings were made by the Pope in 1991, and in 2007. So I had to find an older version that was contemporary with the paintings. So then I looked up the scriptural passages for each, and learned that not all of the stations even have an associated scripturre and are apocryphal. The sixth station, where Veronica wipes the face of Jesus, actually has no associated biblical passage. It's relatively made up and attached in the middle ages when Popes were, I would guess, pretty decked out and feeling powerful enough to alter the most important part of the New Testament with an apocryphal addition to a pilgrimage.
That's the point of these paintings for me. I looked up, and I learned, and I contemplated the stations of the cross in an attempt to understand these paintings, simply because they were presented as the stations of the cross. They made me an unwitting pilgrim, and I learned a lot about the story just to see if I could puzzle together the meaning or prove there wasn't one. I walked away thinking that I had a solid understanding of each painting, and a cohesive theory of the meaning of the colors and the shapes. It was an excellent puzzle and a fantastic use of my brain.
If the purpose of the pilgrimage is to contemplate the story of Jesus, then these paintings have accomplished that goal in me. I'm not going to church, but I do apreciate the existence of these paintings. A new way to tell a very old story. In a way that you don't read, or hear, but see and guess at. The paintings made me tell the story to myself, to create a pilgrimage in me that no one else will experience. I dig it.
The Stations - If you want to do this yourself. New Pope and then Old Version. The New Pope version more closely aligns with scripture and actually follows the paintings better if you ask me.
Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane;
Jesus is betrayed by Judas and arrested;
Jesus is condemned by the Sanhedrin;
Jesus is denied by Peter;
Jesus is judged by Pilate;
Jesus is scourged and crowned with thorns;
Jesus takes up his cross;
Jesus is helped by Simon of Cyrene to carry his cross;
Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem;
Jesus is crucified;
Jesus promises his kingdom to the repentant thief;
Jesus entrusts Mary and John to each other;
Jesus dies on the cross; and
Jesus is laid in the tomb.
1. Pilate condemns Jesus to die
2. Jesus accepts his cross
3. Jesus falls for the first time
4. Jesus meets his mother, Mary
5. Simon helps carry the cross
6. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
7. Jesus falls for the second time
8. Jesus meets the three women of Jerusalem
9. Jesus falls for the third time
10. Jesus is stripped of his clothes
11. Jesus is nailed to the cross
12. Jesus dies on the cross
13. Jesus is taken down from the cross
14. Jesus is placed in the tomb