As I visited the Stations of the Cross D.C. 2017 exhibit, I kept returning to the question, “Who is this for?” Initially, this question was mostly logistical, as I tried to visit not just museums and outdoor installations, but also churches during hours when they were open to the public, but when I would not be disrupting services.
I felt the “Who is this for?” acutely when I talked to a janitor who suggested that I come back on Sunday morning to see the work of art on display in the church. “Won’t I be disrupting services?” I asked a bit gapingly. At that point, someone affiliated with the church walked by, and in the end, I was let in to the sanctuary. The object I sought to view was off to the side, requiring that I walk past all the row of pews and then cross in front of the altar. I am very glad they let me in when they did, because there is no way I could have looked at the piece on Sunday morning without disrupting services.
I sensed the “Who is this for?” at the Church of the Epiphany, where I peeked through a gate at the art while walking the labyrinth, surrounded by the watchful eyes of people sitting and lying in the pews. The downtown church’s function as a daytime refuge for the homeless has perhaps increased due to the three-year closure of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library just a few blocks away. While I was inside the church, I thought, Out of everyone in this room, I have the least greatest need to be here.
The “Who is this for?” question worked in my favor at the Washington National Cathedral, where a mention of “Station 14” at the visitors desk gets your $12 admission waived. Meanwhile, at one museum, I neglected to see in advance that it would be closed on the day I visited, but I still got to see the art through a window. And at one church, I wandered around the open, airy building until I found someone who could play the video for me.
The exhibit is made up of 14 stops (13 in DC and one in Virginia). There are four famous, secular memorials (MLK, FDR, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, and the Marine Corps War Memorial, all managed by the National Park Service) which, full disclosure, I did not take the time to visit again this month, since I had seen them plenty of times before.
The remaining five are inside churches: the Washington National Cathedral and Church of the Epiphany (both Episcopal), First Congregational United Church of Christ, Dahlgren Chapel of the Sacred Heart (Catholic) at Georgetown University, and St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral.
Out of those 14, two were sites of my Weekly Museum Visits (American University Museum and the MLK Memorial). One was at an alma mater of mine (Georgetown, though my recent visit to the chapel was maybe my fourth time ever on the main campus). Two were places where I’ve walked labyrinths.
The Works of Art
Keeping the nature of the different venues, and my own personal experiences (or lack thereof) with each of those locations in mind, I spent time this month visiting ten of the sites and listening to the website’s brief podcasts on all 14. I did not have a lot of prior knowledge of the Stations of the Cross tradition, beyond a pretty basic understanding of the story being told. As an outsider to the faith who celebrates a secular Christmas and Easter, I’m a bit of a Nativity scene fangirl, but I have never been particularly drawn to art portraying the crucifixion or surrounding events. While I recognize the great significance of the story to Christianity, the depictions I have seen at art museums and old churches have not been where my eyes or mind want to linger.
Some of the pieces in Stations are examples of those crucifixion-themed works of art that I would usually not look at for long: Hans Memling’s 1475 painting Saint Veronica, the spaces dedicated to Saint Joseph of Arimethea. Other installations address 20th and 21st century issues that many may not want to linger on as well: homelessness, poverty, racial segregation, genocide, forced migration, war, torture, and mass incarceration.
The exhibit’s website, in its description of the 14 works, uses phrases like “reminds us,” “encourages us,” “address us,” and “hardens us.” These words raise the question, who is “us”?
At one level, the exhibit is, as stated on the website, “a pilgrimage for art lovers.” Certainly the works of art, which take the form of painting and sculpture and video and larger-than-life monument and more, are interesting in their own right.
Yet it is clear that Stations is not merely an art tour, but also an experience to be understood through a religious lens.
The website catholic.org defines the Stations of the Cross as “a 14-step Catholic devotion that commemorates Jesus Christ’s last day on Earth as a man.” A United Methodist told me that she understands Stations of the Cross to be “a Catholic thing.” Indeed, two of the sites of the exhibit (Catholic Charities and Dahlgren Chapel) are Catholic.
Though Catholicism might be the particular denomination that first comes to mind – or to Internet search results – in response to the phrase “Stations of the Cross,” the participating sites in this exhibit also include Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches. I am not knowledgeable enough to speak to the relative importance of the artistic iconography to different sects within Christianity; however, the story itself is of course essential to the religion as a whole.
In a Huffington Post article on the exhibit, United Methodist writer Jeania Ree Moore asserts the role of Stations as a call to fellow Christians not just to reflect but also to take action: “As with the ancient Stations of the Cross, a straightforward accounting of what is transpiring in a situation of injustice does indeed shock and shame….As the Lenten theme of penance suggests, suffering and shame disclose truths (some about our own complicity) that should motivate us to act.”
But the exhibit is not intended solely for Christians. As stated on the website, Stations “resonates…for people of various faiths and backgrounds.” Moore writes, weaving in the words of Stations co-curator Rev. Dr. Catriona Lang, “Separate from Easter, Laing identifies the Lenten season as one of the ‘most Christian’ and, perhaps fittingly, also one of the most open and accessible to non-Christians.”
Laing’s fellow co-curator, Dr. Aaron Rosen, is Jewish and is a professor of art and religion. In his podcast on Barnett Newman’s series of paintings (itself known as Stations of the Cross), he remarks, “…it’s interesting that Newman, as a Jew, felt that…the best iconographic tradition in which to speak to these tragedies [the Holocaust and the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki] was a Christian one. In choosing the story of Jesus Christ, and particularly the episode of the Passion, Newman was following in the footsteps of a number of important Jewish artists in the modern period.”
Religious diversity can be found among the curators and artists of Stations as well as its visitors. Indeed, freedom of religion is a core theme of one of the displays: the Dahlgren Chapel’s cross was made by the earliest Catholic settlers in Maryland, representing their freedom to worship openly in their new land.
The organization that put it all together, Coexist House, first conceived of a modern Stations of the Cross art pilgrimage last year in London. Coexist House is a London-based effort to build a “landmark, which aims to become the leading global centre for transforming public understanding of the practices and perspectives of the world’s religions” – a museum of interfaith dialogue and learning.
When it comes to asking “Who is this for?” about Coexist House itself, the website states, “Our audience spans all ages, religions, and educational backgrounds. The house will be at once a reflective and spiritual space and an active learning institution, open and accessible to all – believers and non-believers.”
Was Stations accessible to all? The free admission to all 14 sites (including the waiving of the normal admission price at Washington National Cathedral) made for financial accessibility. Limited and/or unclear hours for some locations posed some logistical difficulty, but I did succeed in seeing everything I set out to see.
Accessibility in other senses may be harder to gage. People have varying comfort levels in museums, inside churches, on university campuses, and among crowds at monuments that are on every tourist’s checklist. Art with a religious theme is necessarily accessed in different ways by people within or outside the religion. Ultimately, I found Stations to be most accessible to me insofar as it draws attention to the sufferings of our world today, which call to everyone regardless of one’s faith.