Sometimes it’s a joy to honor a commitment. This week, I had the privilege of “paying up” on the item I’d offered for our Gala Auction last month. I led a small group of parishioners on a guided tour of Barnett Newman’s Stations of the Cross paintings at the National Gallery of Art.
The significance of these abstract paintings isn’t always obvious. Newman titled the series “Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani.” The second part comes from one of Christ’s last words on the cross: “Why did you forsake me?” (Matthew 27:46). For Newman, this was the essence of the Passion – the unanswerable question that is part of every person’s existence. We don’t need to be Jesus of Nazareth to feel forsaken by God in our suffering. For most of us, it’s simply part of being human.
Rather than following closely the traditional narrative of the Stations from Jesus’ condemnation by Pilate to his burial in the tomb, Newman (in my view anyway) shows us a landscape of loss and grief. He limits himself to black, white, and a raw canvas background.
The paintings have no center. Our vision is always split between what’s happening about 5 inches from the left edge and 15 inches from the right. I liken it to the way we often have to divide our energies; for many of us, it’s between our personal and professional lives. Or maybe it’s between our spouse and our children, or our parents and our immediate family. It could even be between our own physical and spiritual health.
Just when we think we have one part of our lives under control and in its proper bounds, the other goes haywire. It expands or blurs or splinters in our vision. The first eight paintings express this in black.
At the Ninth Station, everything changes. What was black is now white, and the raw canvas in the background itself seems to change color. Just as a sonnet tends to turn at the ninth line, so this series turns – echoing (for me anyway) the way suffering or grief can change direction and alter how we see everything else in our lives. The black returns full force at the Twelfth Station (corresponding to Jesus’ death in the traditional Stations) only to shift again to white by the Fourteenth.
The final painting or “coda” in the series is entitled “Be II” and looks like this:
It offers the only vivid color in the entire series, and only then just a thin strip. (To me, it speaks of sunrise.) It seems to represent our daily lives. Most of us don’t live in the Stations every day, thank God. We witness others walking through them at times; sometimes, we walk through them ourselves and manage to re-emerge on the other side.
Many in Christian circles have amended the traditional 14 Stations to include a Fifteenth Station for Resurrection. Newman, as a Jew, didn’t view his final painting that way. For him, it was more about how we live now as survivors and witnesses – and perhaps, as some critics have suggested, how we can take responsibility for what we’ve seen and for any role we may have played in causing another’s suffering.
There’s more we can say about Christ’s Passion, of course. Newman’s interpretation doesn’t exhaust its meaning. But his work does help us to hear Jesus’ cry in a new way and decide for ourselves how we’ll respond. I’ll close with thoughts more eloquent than mine:
“There is never love without sorrow, never commitment without pain, never involvement without loss, never giving without suffering, never a ‘Yes’ to life without many deaths to die. Whenever we seek to avoid sorrow, we become unable to love. Whenever we choose to love, there will be many tears. When silence fell around the cross and all was accomplished, Mary’s sorrow reached out to all the ends of the earth. But all those who come to know that sorrow in their own hearts will come to know it as the mantle of God’s love and cherish it as the hidden mystery of life.” -Henri Nouwen, Walk with Jesus, p. 83