When asked what the Stations of the Cross are, I think most people would say they are a set of pictures, or maybe statues... carvings... projected images... live actors. All of which are arranged in a way that helps present a retelling of Jesus’ last journey -- from Pilate’s presence to the tomb or occasionally beyond.
The Stations originated with pilgrims in Jerusalem. Since not all Christians could make pilgrimages to Jerusalem, however, the custom arose of replicating the devotion in congregational and individual settings, often with images or carvings on the walls of a church.
Conceiving of them as a physical object, though, comes with a negative effect attached. This effect is that it tends to package the stations into a sort of a little packet we can visit at our leisure. We can open it -- or shut it -- at any time. Hanging a set in a church tends to make them part of the woodwork and blend right in. As if it were putting the crucifixion into a museum.
I suppose I had the attitude of the typical person toward the stations when. Fr. Jim Adams asked me if I’d consider making a set. I think it was in 1982 or 1983. I gave the question quite a bit of consideration before answering. After all, the stations were a work that’s been held sacred by the biggest church since oh, Medieval times. Further, versions of the same thing had been done by some of the best artists, with some stations set to music by the greatest composers.
My reaction was a profound gulp.
In looking at different sets of stations, however, I had realized a few things.
The Good Friday event, of course, did not take place in a church, although it did take place outside. So, we have streets. And a hill. No sketch artist was on hand, no reporter jotted down notes. No dignitaries, no ‘beautiful people.’ During that procession, no one cared about the person standing next to him believed or didn’t believe. And there was no music. Only sounds you’d rather not hear.
Jesus is the center, of course. And virtually all preaching about that day tells us that Jesus’ death was not a loss for us but a gain.
But to those who watched the actual event -- whatever their degree of love for Jesus -- I submit that they could not see any gain, only the brutality and tragedy. And nothing but Loss. Everything they had come to believe in, teaching, prayers, friendship devotion -- the whole thing including the infant church, the experience of being physically with Jesus was going down the drain right before their eyes. They didn’t have our ability to put the book, the packet, back on the shelf and look the other way, perhaps imagining another outcome.
It is with more or less this background I designed these stations. I viewed the stations as a procession -- it was not a static event, it went somewhere, however painfully, to those involved. Not traveling through nicely paved and maintained streets but yucky and muddy ones. Foot-washing was more than a ceremony in those days.
There are certain characters that needed depiction, starting with an execution squad of six Roman soldiers, who stand in for however many there might have been. I felt it more authentic to portray these soldiers not as stiff-lipped robotic fellas but Roman GRUNTS, wisecrackers who have perhaps done so many crucifixions that they might have been bored by the “why” of what was going on, but, seeking a little fun and whatever else they could find on the side. Like bothering one of the Women of Jerusalem.
There are also two head executioners -- these are guys who value having things done by the book; in line for promotion, perhaps?
One other thing before going to the individual stations: in reading over the Gospels, I was impressed by how ordinary and every day the things that made up the various Gospel episodes are. No weird animals, no illustrious people, no fearsome warriors like perhaps Alexander the Great. Just ordinary people for the most part, and ordinary things and people.
To a Jesus-admiring onlooker viewing the procession, these things -- for instance, a woman at a well -- would probably give an added stab of pain. Or carpenters working on a building, masons working on a foundation, a sobbing man next to a rooster. There are several of these gospel ‘hints’ in this set of the stations. I won’t describe them all.
Now -- a few brief comments, station by station.
Station One -- Jesus strides purposefully toward his cross as Pilate says “go!” after his ceremonial hand-washing action well-known to politicians before and since. Small birds scrounge on the ground near the cross, as the two executioners wait. At right, a lady knocks on a door. A Vulture flies by above.
Station three: Jesus’ first fall occurs in the street as various people watch from windows. A man at left trims a vine. Another carries a fish while a third is lowered from a building at right with a sort of bosun’s chair. The Vulture flies overhead.
Station four: The Romans and Executioners show they are not devoid of humanity by giving Jesus space as he encounters his mother and disciple John. At left a woman stands near a well, with six pitchers as the Vulture flies by once again.
Station five: Exhausted, Jesus is allowed to walk as his cross is given to Simon of Cyrene. Carpenters work on a building at right, while a walking man and donkey-riding woman leave the scene at left. A child has his feet washed on a rooftop as the Vulture circles.
Station six: Veronica wipes Jesus’ face near a building site where a foundation is being finished. The executioners and Romans, suspicious, move to intervene as a man near a rooster sobs. The Vulture remains aloft.
Station seven: Jesus falls once again as the sobbing man’s anguish deepens. Pigs, a lamb, and a cow inhabit a building resembling a manger, while two onlookers watch from the roof under the watchful eye of the vulture.
Station eight: Jesus tells the women of Jerusalem not to weep near the same building as in the previous scene, only the onlookers have moved higher. Across the way, another onlooker watches from a tree. Romans, being soldiers, harass one of the women while animals look on, the vulture from above.
Station nine: Jesus falls again, sparking an outcry from onlookers which the romans move to quell, the rooftop onlookers move lower, the man in the tree higher. The vulture flies by as a donkey stands in a manger.
Station ten: Jesus is stripped of his robe and garments on a barren hillside as Romans form a defensive perimeter and the Vulture maintains his watch, circling above.
Station eleven: Some Romans look skyward a s the vulture circles overhead. He is nailed to the cross.
Station twelve: The Vulture makes a close approach to Jesus as the spear nears his side. The second of three crosses is visible at left. Jesus dies.
Station thirteen: Some of Jesus’ followers remove him from the cross, an awkward and difficult task, Romans throw dice for his garments at left while the Vulture resumes his watch from above.
Station fourteen: The vulture and a solitary Roman are well in the background as mourning begins inside Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb.
Station fifteen: Easter Day. Alive again, Jesus comforts the vulture, who, though popularly thought of then and now of as loathsome, ugly, unwanted, despised, dirty, obnoxious and untrustworthy, a scroungy beggar for the decaying scraps of humanity. An outcast who many would think doesn’t belong in view of many. Kind of like an artist, comic or social critic. An outcast despised by the masses.
But Jesus may not see things quite that way.
*** made of two-ply veneers, natural finish. Walnut, rosewood, padouk, zebra prima vera. Cut on scroll saw. Frames of redwood. Designing figures began with actual size frame outline and crude stick figures arranged more or less as finished product refined each figure into finished outline tracing could not cut the whole frame at time -- arranged figures on veneer-sized patterns before cutting to economize on wood. did not look anything like final xeroxed figures glued w rubber cement onto contact paper cut out figures from contact paper applied to 8-layer stack of double veneer cut them out. Took 3 days to cut out. Each figure was eight deep, like layer cake. Kept them in stacks. sanded them all. Glued them in frames following roughs drawn at start. Designing these stations was an extraordinarily special task. And when they came another: As I completed each station, it was the first time I actually saw the complete station. Later the complete set.