Lenten Mysteries: Perspectives on the Passion in contemporary art
A distraught woman collapses in grief over the news of the deaths of five family members. An image from Haiti? Yes, but she cries out from a work of art entitled “Crucifixion—Haiti,” created in 1997 by Helen David Brancato, I.H.M., in response to a photograph of a woman whose loved ones were among 400 victims of a ferry boat accident in that country. Sister Helen’s scene is painted on scrap wood, as if on wreckage from the sunken boat. In the painting, the woman’s open arms echo Christ’s arms spread on the cross.
The capacity for art to transcend the particular circumstances of its creation and reinvigorate timeless themes and symbols is key to “Good Friday: The Suffering Christ in Contemporary Art,” a new exhibit now on display at Saint Louis University’s Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, the world’s first interfaith contemporary art museum. This marks an encore presentation of “Good Friday,” first shown in Lent 2009 (full disclosure: I am the museum’s director). The exhibition brings together works by 31 artists from diverse religious backgrounds, all from the museum’s collection or on long-term loan. These artists refer to the suffering Christ—some to address matters of faith, others to address significant social issues or more personal experiences of loss or suffering. Their works testify to the power of the image of the suffering Christ even in our multicultural world.
Given its mission, the museum sought to invite visitors to approach the works as doorways to prayer, to make art a part of their Lenten experience through active engagement of their imaginations—a hallmark of the Ignatian method of contemplation. The museum also ventured beyond the typical docent-guided exhibition tour. A booklet offered to visitors follows the exhibition’s thematic structure, which groups the works according to key moments of the Passion. The booklet also provides relevant passages from Scripture and questions for reflection. Undergraduate and graduate theology classes, members of the faculty and staff and area parishioners are among the many groups for whom “Good Friday” has opened another path to prayer, in which images can play an important role.
Among the works in “Good Friday” that consistently draw visitors into reflection is “Prayer of the Faithful in Ordinary Time,” by Adrian Kellard (1959–91), who reworked a popular image of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane to express the companionship he himself found in Christ when faced with the ordeal of H.I.V./AIDS. By incorporating a ticking clock into the work, Kellard acknowledges the inevitability of human mortality.
Like “Crucifixion—Haiti,” other works with specific references reach across the boundaries of time and geography. Douglas DePice’s 1987 drawing “Jesus in Central America—The First Station of the Cross” shows a man detained by a soldier in the midst of civil unrest in El Salvador. During a visit by a group of graduate students, both a Methodist minister from the Democratic Republic of Congo and a Nigerian Catholic priest told me that they responded strongly to this work, which recalled encounters with the military in their own countries.
More abstract works also may suggest connections to the Passion, such as “Icon Wall,” Craig Antrim’s vibrant 64-panel meditation on the cross, or Peter Ambrose’s “First Death,” a Cubist-inspired sculpture of roughly hewn wood blocks and cast-iron wedges that evokes Jesus’ flagellation. Michael David’s large inverted cross-shaped painting “Crowning With Thorns” alludes to the Nazi concentration camps but allows viewers to bring their own memories and associations.
“Good Friday” was organized both to explore the enduring power of the image of the suffering Christ for contemporary artists and audiences and to help visitors discover art as a potential gateway to prayer. Like Sister Helen’s Haitian crucifixion, many of the works in the exhibition invite a compassionate response by reaching out to others in need. As Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, S.J., notes in a reflection on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, “The beauty that will save the world is the love that shares the pain.”