THE WAY OF THE CROSS IN MODERN ART

Updated: Feb 4


Most tourists visiting Israel are Christians. The Catholics and Orthodox among them are looking forward to walking this special, one and only path within the Old City of Jerusalem, for which they have come: the Via Crucis or the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows). According to tradition, this is the path Jesus carried the cross on which he was executed, from the moment he was tried by Pontius Pilate, the Roman commissioner, to the hill of the skull (Golgotha, in Aramaic), which then stood outside the city walls, and according to the Christian faith was resurrected, three days later.


Due to the fact that I guide mainly French and Italians, Catholics or who grew up in the Catholic religion, I often guide in this route in Jerusalem. Recently, I have been guiding Israeli tourists there who are getting to know Christianity and the tour has been very fascinating to them.


Recently, while on vacation in Sicily, in the city of Noto, to which I traveled almost by chance, I became aware of the paintings of a young and modern Italian painter for this prayer cycle, which has evoked in me reflections on how artists through the ages, and particularly modern and postmodern artists had related to Via Dolorosa.


The Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) is a Catholic devotion, a cycle of prayers, which follows Jesus' journey, tormented by carrying the cross onto the hill on which he would eventually be crucified, at the end of a biased trial and bizarre sentence by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. For a more in-depth article on the subject, please see here. The subject of this devotion is the moment of private suffering, as a metaphor of human suffering: the burden of the heavy cross, the pain of the mother, the physical torments, help from fellow human beings, empathy, the drop of sweat, the drop of blood, the weakness of the body. Jesus faces the meanness of the heart and perversion of justice on the way to a scandalous and horrifying encounter with a cruel death. For the believing Christians - the atrocities committed by mankind on God Himself, who came down to to be among humanity, to save it.


The journey is divided by the Catholic Church into fourteen "stations of the cross." At each of the stations, Jesus encounters a moment of dealing with emotion or with the surrounding reality. The pilgrim prays and focuses on the sufferings of his Lord, and conducts a self-examination, a reflection of faith, to purify his own soul. In every Catholic Church, you will find the markings of the Way of the Cross on the walls or in statues in the courtyard or on the streets of the city, as well as in famous pilgrimage centers, such as Lourdes in France, or in Fatima, Portugal. The Christian believer can make this emotional journey even in his own parish church. The wording of the prayer may vary, and the markings of the stations are sometimes figurative, and sometimes they may be indicated by a mere Latin number for the believer to mark the prayer in the cycle at this point. The pilgrims and Franciscans of medieval Jerusalem, created the devotion in the original location, which assumedly recreates the way Jesus walked within the city, to the site of the crucifixion, which in his time was outside its walls.


For generations, many artists have displayed their artistic interpretation of these fourteen spiritual stations, usually commissioned by a church, which has sought design for prayer stations along its walls. The stations typically describe the occurrence in a realistic, but sometimes also abstract, way, depending on the artistic spirit of the period.


Roberto Ferri

Born 1978

The rebuilt Cathedral of Noto, Sicily, Italy.


Recently, the stations were commissioned by the cathedral in the city of Noto in Sicily. It had collapsed in 1996, due to the earthquake of 1990. The cathedral was renovated and and for the Way of the Cross cycle, they approached Italian contemporary artist Roberto Ferri, who is inspired by Caravaggio and French painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau, the late 19th-century academic painter. In 2013, he presented his own interpretation of the fourteen Stations of the Cross.


Ferri's representation of the stations is nontraditional. He emphasizes the body, the physicality of Jesus. Although he is a classic inspired by masters like Caravaggio, David, Ingres, and Bouguereau, he is also connected to modernist hyperrealism, and to surrealism. There is an emphasis on homoerotic elements and and graphic violent brutality. Although it had received rave reviews from secular critics, the church was not over-enthused about this interpretation. There was talk of removing the paintings, but the artistic critical praise was so great that the pictures have so far remained, as of 2021, in the cathedral.


Station I Judgement and flagellation Station II Acceptance of the cross


Station III Jesus falls for the first time Station IV Jesus meets his mother

Station V Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus Station IV Veronica wipes Jesus's face


Station VII Jesus falls for the second time Station VIII Jesus consoles the women


Station IX Jesus falls for the third time Station X Jesus is stripped of his clothes


Station XI Jesus is nailed to the cross Station XII Jesus dies on the cross


Station XIII Descent from the cross. Pietà. Station XIV Jesus is laid in the grave.



Jean Paul Bonduau

Born 1956

Cathedral of Notre Dame de la Treille, in Lille, France.

This artist was born in the town of Loos, near Lille, in the French province of Flanders. He, too, was commissioned to paint the Way of the Cross in Lille's Notre-Dame-de-la-Treille Cathedral, whose construction began in 1854 and was not completed until 1999, for various reasons, mainly financial. Finally, the church, which began its construction in the neo-Gothic style, was completed in modernistic style. Many local artists have contributed works in a variety of styles to this eclectic church. Bonduau was commissioned by the bishop to paint, and the series was ready for Easter 2004.


I was very touched by Bonduau's Way of the Cross. Instead of the multi-participant drama typical in the stations representations, the artist here has chosen to focus on the feelings of Jesus' human side, of the man who is being led to his death. The painting is expressionist: sketches, in several lines, of feelings, moments of disappointment, despair, suffering, fatigue, helplessness — precisely the human emotions that this therapeutic cycle of prayers seeks to alleviate. The artist selects here the essence of the moment of each of the stations, as if putting himself in the place of Jesus. Basically, this is the purpose of this devotion.

He also emphasizes the point that Jesus has many faces, to make this experience universal: Jesus could have been any one of us.


Station I Judgement and flagellation Station II Acceptance of the cross


Station III Jesus falls for the first time Station IV Jesus meets his mother


Station V Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus Station IV Veronica wipes Jesus's face


Station VII Jesus falls for the second time Station VIII Jesus consoles the women


Station IX Jesus falls for the third time Station X Jesus is stripped of his clothes


Station XI Jesus is nailed to the cross Station XII Jesus dies on the cross


Station XIII Descent from the cross. Pietà. Station XIV Jesus is laid in the grave


Jean Paul Bonduau



Henri Matisse

1869 – 1954

CHAPELLE DU ROSAIRE, Vence, France,


Way of the Cross


One of the most spectacular modern churches, consecrated in 1951 for the Dominican convent of the city of Vence, France, is called the Chapel of the Rosary, Chapelle du Rosaire. The church was built by architect August Perret, but the the interior design was done by the great artist Henri Matisse, who was already in his later years. He was at the peak of his colorful paper collages period, and the church was decorated in this spirit of only three clear colors on a white background.


In the church, the stations of the Way of the Cross are painted on one wall, crowded and scribbled in black on white ceramic tiles, as if they were preparations for a painting, or jottings of a madman on the walls of an asylum. They are drawn in very rough contours, with serial numbers next to them. However, the great painter's brush manages to convey in one line the moments of existential anxiety and fear.


Pictured below, Henri Matisse and sister Jacques-Marie, who was his nurse and model for some of his paintings (formerly Monique) and then took on nun's vows. A brave friendship developed between them, and together they designed the interior of the chapel for the Dominican convent she had joined.


He painted "The Way of the Cross" after years of research and countless sketches. The final version, it is said, was painted in enamel, with a brush attached to a fishing rod, all in one take, and with eyes closed.


Chapel interior

Wall of the Way of the cross, Chapel of the Rosary, Vence, France. By Henri Matisse, 1951

Wall of the Way of the Cross, Vence


1 The trial 2 Acceptance of the Cross 3 Jesus falls for the first time 4 Jesus meets his mother 5 Simon of Cyrene 6 Veronica's veil 7 Jesus falls for the second time 8 Jesus consoles the Women of Jerusalem 9 Jesus falls for the third time 10 Jesus is stripped from his clothes 11 The nailing to the cross 12 Crucifixion, Jesus dies on the cross 13 the descent from the cross. 14 Jesus is laid in the grave



Father Andrea Martini

1980

CHAPEL OF THE APPARITION, Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem.

Stations of the Cross


Stations I-VII of the cross


Stations VIII-XIV and resurrection of Jesus.


Even in the Holy of Holies of the Christian world, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the Catholic Church allowed a modernist and symbolic interpretation of the stations of Via Dolorosa, as shadow-like figurines, all concentrated in one wall. Matisse's minimalist influence is evident here. The first stop is the flagellation and here too, there are fifteen stops, according to the addition Pope John Paul II made: the resurrection station is the fifteenth. It was also done as an ecumenical - an inclusive inter-christian gesture, to include the rites of the Greek Orthodox, who call the Church of the Holy Sepulcher the Church of the Resurrection.


Religion is dynamic and changing, and it adapts itself to the spirit of the times. Sometimes it influences the artistic style, and sometimes it is influenced by it. From the minimalism of Matisse's modern art to the transition to Bonduau's personal and postmodernist subjective truth to Ferri's hyperrealism and neoclassicism.

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