The Studio for Art, Faith & History sponsored an installation of the Stations of the Cross by artist Gay Cox at SoulFest, New England’s largest outdoor Christian music festival.
Cox evokes the traditional 14 stages of Christ’s journey to Golgotha solely through images of Jesus’s face filling 6-foot high canvases placed slalom-like across the bottom of one of the ski slopes at Gunstock resort, home of SoulFest.
This Via Crucis, or Way of the Cross, marks SoulFest’s first major visual arts element – not simply an exhibit but an outdoor installation large enough to shape the landscape and give the field of folk a common shared visual experience. Six hundred or more SoulFest’ers made their deliberate way through the Way of the Cross.
Several volunteers for the Studio kept an eye on the paintings, handed out fliers about the Stations of the Cross, and answered questions. One of them, Nathaniel Youndt (an alumnus of Gordon arts-oriented semester program in Orvieto), prepared this account of his experience of The Way of the Cross at SoulFest.
Knowing what to do with art is often a foreign idea to Evangelical Christians, let alone knowing what to do when art is used as a liturgical worship tool. The Studio for Art, Faith, and History wanted to show that art can and should be used as a medium of meditation and prayer within the church, and planting Gay Cox’s Way of the Cross canvases at SoulFest challenged the pervasive notion that art belongs in galleries and museums, and can't be understood by the lay person.
The exhibit opened on Thursday afternoon and ran until Saturday evening. During those three days, I saw Christians approach the paintings of Christ with eagerness, timidity, confusion, and some with discomfort. Several viewers were familiar with the practice of the Stations of the Cross and came with intention and reverence. One couple came through and spent 30-40 minutes carefully seeing each of the fourteen paintings. They returned, the man in tears, requesting that I thank the artist and noting that this exhibit could help so many people.
Another man came through with his daughter, an art student, and we began a discussion about art in context. I relayed my experience in the Duomo of Orvieto, Italy—how the architecture enables you to engage in physical worship. Walking across the front of the cathedral, reading the carved panels depicting the biblical story from Creation to Revelation has the viewer literally walking through God’s story; the windows in the San Brizio Chapel are placed by the risen Christ’s face, forcing you to raise your hand to view his face, thereby taking the stance of viewing one who is majestic. Following this explanation, the man said: “I get it now. I didn’t understand how important the actual place of art was until now.”
Another woman reported to me that she found her experience with the Stations somewhat unnerving. The exhibit was next to the main stage, where worship music boomed all day. The band was singing the chorus “Hallelujah! He reigns!” while she stared into the huge eyes of the bleeding, beaten, and despised Christ. She said it felt so wrong, but, at the same time, the contrast was appropriate. Praise mingled with grief; tasting goodness and hope amidst the reality of sin and death.
These are the kind of encounters we had dared hope people would have with Gay’s work. Well over 600 people passed through The Way of the Cross that weekend and their responses were overwhelmingly positive, filled with emotion and the pain of being confronted with the image of the suffering Christ, 5 and 6 feet tall in front of them, knowing that it was for them that he endured such a death. Even tearing down the exhibit had a surprising effect on me. As I dragged the paint-thickened canvases, like blood-encrusted rags, across the field I felt like I was somehow participating in the Crucifixion.
There are powerful experiences available to us if only we are offered the genuine encounter. Art communicates Truth to humanity in ways written theology and rhetoric cannot access. We need only reach a place where we, as Christians, do not fear art, but see it as an opportunity to redeem and recreate. It is our task to see the unfiltered layers of reality as beautiful, though broken, and Gay’s artwork, planted like a maze through the field, provided so many Christians the chance to offer themselves to encounter the Face of Christ in a new way.