Via Crucis in the Garden State

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The 2011 Venice Biennale was flooded with non-representational works that were, as The New York Times reviewer put it, engaged in “an unforgiving contest between the memorable and the forgettable.” As an art historian, my own response to the exhibition was to wonder why contemporary art has detached itself so thoroughly from the precepts of Western aesthetics that have persisted for more than two millennia, precepts that have privileged recognizable form and narration over all other types of visual expression. One exception to this somewhat dispiriting trend was a single work in a collateral exhibition at the Biennale by the New York artist, Leonard Porter. This painting, on display at the Abbazia di San Gregorio in the exhibition “Future Pass,” offered an eloquent and memorable interpretation of the myth of “Tai-Yu Burying the Flower Petals,” a subject taken from an eighteenth-century Chinese novel.

Readers of Sacred Architecture now have the opportunity to see an even more ambitious effort by Porter permanently installed in a Catholic church in New Vernon, New Jersey. The church is Christ the King, and the paintings represent the Fourteen Stations of the Cross, each marking a significant moment in the Passion of Christ that began with Christ before Pilate and ended with his Entombment. During the Middle Ages, the venerable Via Crucis or Via Dolorosa, as it was originally known, was reenacted in actual pilgrimages to Jerusalem during the Lenten season. By the fifteenth century, as the Holy Land became increasingly inhospitable to pilgrims, a number of outdoor shrines were constructed in Europe as guides for the faithful who wished to undertake the spiritual journey alone. The devotion to the “Stations”—as the imaginary pilgrimage came to be called—was initiated by the Franciscan Order, and it was only under their patronage in the late seventeenth century that the practice was moved indoors. Half a century later, Clement XII both extended the privilege to all churches, and, true to the spirit of the Enlightenment, fixed the number of Stations—which previously had fluctuated between eleven and thirty—to the fourteen that remain conventional today.

The new Stations of the Cross commissioned for the Church of Christ the King in New Vernon, NJ

Few sacred narratives have been the subject of so unswerving an iconography. Individual scenes of the Passion proliferated in medieval devotional imagery, but only in the early fourteenth century did the hand of Giotto transform the highly stylized icons of Byzantine art into more naturalistic depictions of human events. And it was not until 1747—sixteen years after Clement XII’s decree—that a major artist undertook the depiction the Stations as a coherent set. The artist was Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo and his series can still be seen in the church of San Polo in Venice. Apart from Matisse, modern painters have rarely been moved to take up the challenge.

Leonard Porter’s Stations in New Vernon envision the iconographical program in a traditional representational manner. Walking in the footsteps of canonical Bolognese Masters like Annibale Carracci, Domenichino, and Guido Reni, the artist begins with detailed and crisply delineated preparatory drawings that impose clarity upon the clamor of Christ’s final hours. Porter’s aesthetic instincts are uncompromisingly classical. Compositions recede in parallel planes as if on a stage; in each case with a shallow foreground, the principal action in the near middle distance, with, in some instances, a backdrop of classical architecture. Despite the dramatic potential of the subject matter, the artist embraces neither the visceral realism of Caravaggio nor the operatic bravura of Rubens. The body and soul of these paintings aspires more to the idealized legacy of Raphael.

Station I: Christ before Pilate

The fourteen canvases, each measuring 16 x 12 inches and installed in aedicular frames of the artist’s own design, are hung on the nave walls, seven to a side. Chronologically, the sequence begins with Christ before Pilate which is located at the front of the church just to the left of the altar. From there the narrative unfolds from right to left with Christ taking up the cross in II and bearing his burden through IX. Station IV, Christ Meeting his Mother and Mary Magdalene typifies the eventful journey with Christ Falling the Second Time (VII) being the final representation on the left side of the nave. The story then crosses to the right wall with Christ Meeting the Women of Jerusalem (VIII) and returns in the direction of the altar with Station XIV, The Entombment concluding the series. Although Porter’s paintings constitute independent vignettes in a continuous narrative, the individual depictions are related to one another in a variety of ingenious ways.

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Following the age-old tradition of commissions calling for works to be viewed in situ (that is, in predetermined locations), Porter’s Stations were conceived as site-specific. Their small scale and relatively high placement above the floor precluded—as a purely practical matter—the unification of the viewer’s sightlines with the pictorial perspectives, but the illumination and purposeful directionality of the compositions engage the devotee compellingly. Light has always carried a metaphysical meaning in the sacred art of the West, whether conflated with the natural illumination of the church or as a purely spiritual force emanating from an altar. Porter chose the latter in New Vernon, for the illumination of the seven Stations on the left aisle enters from the right while those on the right aisle come from the left.

Station IV: Christ meets His Mother

The directional impulses begin at Station I with Pilate’s sharp left-ward gesture energizing the symmetrical composition, and they continue moving to the left with the angling of both Christ and the cross in II-VII. At VII and VIII—the juncture between the two aisles—the centurion’s agitated horse redirects our attention across the nave. The progression then continues the leftward path until, in Christ’s final hours at X-XIV, it regains a symmetrical stasis. The expressive energy rises and falls in keeping with the dramatic intensity of the individual vignettes. Thus the cruelest moments of the Passion are marked by the most excited gestures while the Crucifixion (XII) and Entombment (XIV) are the calmest.

Station XIV: The Entombment

The artist’s use of color brings focus to the movement of his compositions. Christ is depicted in the first Station wearing a claret-colored tunic that visually defers to Pilate’s white robe. After this initial appearance, he then appears in vivid red and blue vestments that stand out sharply against the dark setting and earthy-toned accessory figures. From X-XIII, he appears in a white loincloth and has a lighter complexion than do his adversaries. Finally in Station XIV, he is fully wrapped in a luminous white shroud while his extended right arm echoes Pilate’s gesture in Station I but points now toward the high altar, the source of the illumination for the entire cycle. Color also plays a role in drawing our attention to the Virgin Mary—garbed in dark blue in IV, XIII, and XIV—and Mary Magdalene—in red, yellow, and green in IV, XII, and XIII. Finally, the color of the sky reflects the accelerating sense of tumult and tragedy as it turns from blue to partially cloudy, to darkly stormy, before concluding with the blackness that attends the Crucifixion, Deposition, and Entombment (XII-XIV).

Viewed altogether, Porter’s Stations are characterized by a rational and disciplined energy that, on the one hand, couples an empirical eye—capable, for example, of capturing the increasing graininess of the cross as it weathers abuses of its own—and on the other, a predisposition to long-standing principles of classical art that include the quotation of earlier works of architecture and sculpture. The artist’s style has strong affinities to the late Renaissance and early seventeenth-century expressive mode known to an earlier generation of art historians as the Classic-Baroque. Porter’s work is certainly historically informed, but it is neither mindlessly derivative nor sentimentally nostalgic. His Stations breathe new life into a seemingly forgotten idiom, and do so with a unique sense of thoughtful and spirited grandeur.

John Varriano is Emmeritus Professor of Art History at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA.