Stations of the Cross – Two Views

Anne Gardom looks at two very different representations

A well-organized picture exhibition is more than just a series of paintings, and the same is even more true of a Stations of the Cross. They are an aid to devotion and an intrinsic part of the church where they hang, not just an artistic interpretation of the Passion Story.

EASTBOURNE

The Stations of the Cross painted by Beverley Barr for Christ Church Eastbourne are very distinctive. On first seeing them it is disconcerting to see that they are all different sizes and shapes. We are used to seeing Stations uniform in size and format, which gives coherence to the differing images. However, the way the subject is treated in the fifteen (not the usual fourteen) Stations makes essential sense of the varying sizes.

Changing Faces

Beverley Barr treats each of the Stations as a separate icon. The face of Christ is not the same in each picture and is not intended to be, but each facet of our Lord is interpreted in a different way. The first picture shows a scourged and bruised Jesus in a brilliant red robe, painted against a vivid blue background, behind him a frowning, perturbed Pilate, the grey lines of his face and clothes in startling contrast to the brilliant luminosity of the suffering Jesus.

Christ carrying his cross, by contrast, is clear, white, undefiled and undamaged, firmly and freely embracing his cross and all that means. Where Christ falls for the first and second times, his hair is painted very expressively – wild, unkempt, falling over his exhausted, anguished face. The hair is disturbing, almost surreal, with a wild life and dramatic tangle all of its own.

Christ meets his Mother, and gazing into her eyes holds her head in his tender hands. As their eyes lock together, her profile outlined by the blue of her cloak is expressive of the anguish of all who love and suffer – here is no restraint, no understanding, no comfort – yet Christ is here.

In Simon of Cyrene we see something quite different, a full-blooded, young, beautiful African man who has seen God, carried the Cross, and who will never be the same again, even though he cannot comprehend what is happening. Unexpectedly when Veronica wipes the face of Christ, all you see is the back of his head, all the expressiveness is in Veronica’s puzzled, sorrowful face, and the brilliant, alive, vivid impression on her napkin. The same device is used when Jesus meets the mourning women of Jerusalem. With tragic faces and dawning wonder they see the face of Christ, while we see only his bloodstained back and trailing locks of matted hair. Do they recognize him? Do we?

The third time Jesus falls it is with a whirling violent crash, his hair flying, his white robe fluttering against a vivid blue sky. The feeling of this picture contrasts strongly with the following one, where Christ is stripped of his garments. He stands, eyes closed, expressionless, as the white robe is lifted from his shoulders – the exposed part of his chest echoes the shape of a chalice, his pale halo the Host.

Blood-stained snowdrop

The smallest painting is where Christ is nailed to the Cross – only his feet are portrayed, one nailed to the wood, the other still unblemished with a savage nail about to be hammered in. Where the blood falls on the spiky green grass it pools round a snowdrop – the first sign of spring. This is followed by the Crucifixion – a painting shaped in the manner of the huge fifteenth century crucifixes. Here we have an athlete, hands raised, head back as he triumphantly breasts the finishing tape – yet his hands are roped and nailed, the head crowned with thorns. At his feet are a skull and bones, on his right a dove; the former vicar of the parish in whose memory the Stations were given is on his left. Though this stands in a long tradition it does strikes an odd and disconcerting note as he gazes at Christ and holds the chalice to catch the Precious Blood – are we ready to be disconcerted?

A sorrowful Virgin holds her dead son in her lap, in a swirl of blues and cold greys. The painting of the tomb, the stone still in place over the entrance, but with an unearthly light illuminating the sky, is followed by the final icon of the glorious risen Christ, glowing, vibrant, wonderfully alive, his haloed head set in front of the fluttering red and white banner, familiar from many resurrection pictures.

Christ Church is a magnificent Victorian Gothic church and the iconic style of these modern Stations is most powerful in such a setting.

Reproductions of the Eastbourne Stations of the Cross will shortly be available at the Walsingham Bookshop.

 

LONDON BRIDGE

St Magnus the Martyr is an historic Wren-with-additions Church rebuilt by Wren 1671–76. It has occupied a site just north of London Bridge for many hundreds of years and has a new set of Stations of the Cross in which traditional and modern styles blend very successfully. They are the work of two young carvers, Robert Randall and Ashley Sands, who have carved the fourteen stations from honey-coloured Japanese oak. The carving is broad and unfussy, with very expressive use of drapery, the only painted detail being the simple gilding of the haloes. Though the stations are quite small, 2 ft by 1 ft, they have a monumental quality that is associated with much larger works.

Serene awareness

Christ seems to move through the scenes with a sense of isolation and acceptance, and with a serene awareness of what is to come, which is palpably not shared by the other characters. They are violent, grief-stricken, brutal, roughly compassionate by turns, but Christ goes to his death knowing he is fulfilling his Father’s will. This is conveyed by the static quality of his poses compared with the more energetic and lively gestures of the other figures. It is especially so in the Stations were Christ falls under the Cross, and in the scene with St Veronica. This isolation is emphasized in the Crucifixion scene by the thieves who were crucified on either side of him being moved into the background, their little crosses and bodies a long way off. Christ is in the foreground, arms outstretched on the Cross, with two weeping women at its foot.

The Stations are linked together in the way the landscape is conveyed – the rocky foreground with the occasional stunted tree, or the low clouds, the small buildings (including representations of the Church) bring continuity and coherence to the sequence of images. The golden oak from which they are carved stands out against the dark oak panelling, and allows the stations to hold their own in an interior of remarkable richness and variety.

There are some reproductions available of the stations and more are due to be printed.

Ann Gardom is art critic of New Directions.

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