Volume 39, Issue 1 :: by Gwyneth Leech
Hanging on the wall of my painting studio in New York is a newspaper clipping of a hooded man, his arms outstretched, standing on a box in almost a pose of crucifixion. Wires run from his hands and from beneath the rough robe covering his body. Next to this clipping hangs a printout from the Internet of a terrified man threatened by snarling dogs straining at leashes held by American military personnel. These images came to be there in the spring of 2004 when I was working on a commission to paint the 14 Stations of the Cross for St. Paul’s on the Green, an Episcopal church in Norwalk, Connecticut. I knew from the start that in color and tone my paintings would relate to the stained-glass medallion windows and to the interior of St. Paul’s, but what about the setting of the Passion? I first looked at many works of art from the past depicting Christ’s final journey: paintings, sculpture, murals, stained glass, and tapestries. I found the most compelling images to be those that set the crucifixion in a place and dress that were contemporary to the artist. In the background of many Flemish crucifixions, for example, Jerusalem is portrayed as a contemporary fortress city set in a Northern European landscape. In these and in medieval paintings, the robes of the mourners and the soldiers at the foot of the cross were more contemporary than Biblical. My discussions with clergy and parishioners at St. Paul’s about setting the stations in today’s world were met with affirmation. Neither my patrons nor I knew exactly where that approach would lead, but the central question was: How could I make the Passion narrative real to a present-day congregation, how could I make it a story for our generation, for our time?
I began work in March, 2004, and it was after months of research and drawing that I had a moment of sudden clarity in front of a 16th-century Flemish painting at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art: the hooded and dark-robed women weeping at the foot of the cross bore an overwhelming similarity to the photos of Iraqi women grieving for a car-bomb victim I had seen that morning in the newspaper. Many parallels began to flow from that one moment of clarity.
When the photos from Abu Ghraib prison appeared, other parts of the Passion story had a new resonance for me. In the 10th station “Jesus is stripped of his garments.” The Romans stripped the condemned and crucified them naked as a way of humiliating them and utterly breaking their spirits. Here were dozens of images of modern prisoners stripped naked for the same reasons. I decided to compose the 10th station with the man threatened by dogs, echoing Psalm 22, sung each Good Friday: “Deliver me, Lord, from the mouth of the dog.”
I did not use the image of the hooded figure. It was so unforgettable, I concluded that no one would be able to see past its origin. Instead I hung it on the wall in the midst of my other visual material, where it played a more subliminal role. The Abu Ghraib image became part of a much larger mix as my overarching theme encompassed the innocent people who are caught up in war and violence: civilians, refugees, the unjustly accused who have died in detention, the grief-stricken families of hostages and bomb victims. To point up this theme, I drew upon a host of visual references. In one, Mary is a chador-clad Iraqi mother, standing outside Abu Ghraib prison, waiting for news of a missing son. In another, weeping Iraqi women grieve at the foot of the cross with an American father and son, bereft after receiving news that a family member has been killed in Iraq. In the eighth station, Jesus turns and speaks to grieving women; here they are refugee women of Darfur, Sudan.
When I began my drawings, I modeled the soldiers’ uniforms loosely on those of Italian colonial regiments from World War II, as an updated reference to the Roman occupying army, and to echo themes of imperialism and colonialism still present in the Middle East today. The final paintings go further, with the uniforms of the soldiers differing from one panel to the next. There are multiple references to occupying armies of the present and the past: Israel in the Palestinian territories, Nazi Germany in World War II, British colonial forces, the U.S. military today. In the finished stations Jesus is first seen as if in custody at Guantanamo, then carrying his cross along streets girded with barbed wire (a visual allusion to the crown of thorns), in the company of the rifle-bearing soldiers of different times and places.
In asking viewers to think about Jesus’ suffering today, I depict Jesus as a victim of torture, and that source image of the man in Abu Ghraib prison threatened by snarling dogs is discernible in the final version of the 10th station. It is also significant that Jesus is depicted as a contemporary man with short hair, sometimes bearded, sometimes clean shaven. His skin varies in color throughout the 14 stations, underscoring the idea that Christ is like any one of us.
The 14 paintings were finished, permanently installed, and dedicated in March, 2005. After their initial shock at the contemporary associations, the clergy and the great majority of the congregation embraced them. For some people who have served in the armed forces, however, there has been a difference of opinion on the modern military references. To some they are cathartic; to others, inappropriate.
As word of these paintings spread beyond St. Paul’s, that one Abu Ghraib image of the man stripped and threatened by the dog began to provoke angry responses. “What about innocent Americans who jumped from the World Trade Towers?” some have demanded by email and by phone. “Why keep bringing up Abu Ghraib when Saddam Hussein did so much worse?”
Debate about the stations continued, fueled by print articles, Web logs, and Internet discussions. Some Christians found much to offend them in the apparent equation of Christ’s great and sacred suffering with that of detainees in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and Afghanistan. I was scolded for updating imagery that was encoded and regulated by Church history, and for sullying religion with politics. One writer opined that I had managed to offend not only Christians, but Jews and Muslims as well.
Then a new wave of reactions began. I received a message from a Muslim man saying that he had wept as he looked at the paintings. Although he did not believe that Christ was crucified, he said, he was deeply moved by the “juxtaposition of the arrogance and power of the oppressor and the absolute helplessness of the oppressed.”
Other Christians applauded the paintings as a courageous stance against an unjust war. “How could an antiwar statement in a place devoted to the teachings of Christ ever be inappropriate?” wrote one man to a Connecticut paper. “I hope your Stations will remind a so-called Christian nation that the behavior engaged in at Abu Ghraib, Bagram Airport, etc., is unacceptable, and will remind a so-called democratic nation that these practices sully and debase us all,” came in an email message to me. In another: “I see in your art work a deep understanding of the pain that people on the edge experience in the present situation.”
Some of the scores of responses I and the church have received have alarmed me; all of them have fascinated me. They raise important questions about the role of religious art. Is it wrong for art to challenge a congregation? Sermons regularly raise divisive issues, but modern church-goers seem to expect that visual art should ornament and soothe. One response was that the best approach for church art is to embrace abstraction as a way to avoid controversy provoked by narrative content such as mine.
Others have seen me as disloyal and anti-American, for my willingness to create new connections and for my attempts to foster dialogue about America’s role in the world and how Christians respond to it. Making new connections is at the very heart of art-making. Should an artist’s work be censored to avoid offending a few who do not like the connections they make?
This commission has been a long, personal journey from my prior experience of Christ’s Passion as something remote and almost beautiful, to a new understanding that speaks directly to our time. The Passion of Christ has never seemed more terrible and more viscerally real to me than it does now, after having viewed it through the prism of our own difficult and frightening world.
As one viewer wrote, “the suffering of Christ is the suffering of humanity, and there is nothing really special about the abuse and violence visited upon Christ in his last hours. It is in truth the same suffering of all human beings who are subjected to torture, violence, and humiliation.”