A suffering Christ in contemporary art at SLU’s MoCRA
Since the beginning of Christianity, Christ has been a central figure in religious art. Contemporary religious art is no exception. Saint Louis University’s Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MoCRA) currently houses “Good Friday: The Suffering Christ in Contemporary Art.” Drawing from 39 individual works, the exhibition aims to appeal to both religious and non-religious viewers, allowing them to have a “conversation” with the artwork and the artist. The show is divided into six sections, each portraying a different episode of the Bible. The various components are mixed in with each other, permitting the viewers to wander among them as they please, and allowing them each to have a different experience within the exhibit.
The first section, titled “Agony in the Garden,” is the smallest of the six. This event takes place between the Last Supper and the arrest of Jesus by the Roman police forces in Judea. It consists of two works
of art, only one of which makes an explicit reference to Christ. “Prayer of the Faithful in Ordinary Time,” by Adrian Kellard, shows Christ alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, just before his arrest.
Kellard, an artist who had advanced AIDS while creating the piece, painted Christ as he knew him: isolated, in pain and waiting to be judged. A clock replaces the moon, an explicit reference to the fact that both Christ and Kellard were running out of time. Kellard takes solace in his connection with Christ, however, preventing him from being truly alone.
In the second element, “Trial,” a reference to Jesus’ tribunal, artists set their sights on the injustice of not just Christ’s case, but in legal systems in general. Douglas DePice paints a vibrant picture of the justice system in Central America with his picture “Jesus in Central America—The First Station of the Cross.” Its washed-out color and starkness seem to come from a newsworthy photograph. Complete with despondent civilians and a militaristic police figure, the piece draws viewers into the situation, making them empathize with the citizens and think about the injustices of our world.
“Veronica and Her Veil,” the next section, is absent from the Gospels. It is the story of an acheiropoieton Catholic relic, which carries the likeness of Christ’s face. This episode has four works of art, most notably “El Santo Sudario” by Luis González Palma. Along with DePice, Palma most successfully transcends the designation of religious art and makes something that, while inherently Christian, remains very secular. “El Santo Sudario” is a photo emulsion of a Mayan face on linen. The face is tired, world-weary and understanding—a direct reference to Christ at the end of his life. Palma, born and raised in Guatemala City, Guatemala, makes this explicit reference to draw attention to our uncomfortable history with pre-European American civilizations. The Mayan wears a crown of thorns, furthering the comparison of a Mayan Christ-like figure. Except, in this case, instead of one standing in for humanity’s sins, their entire civilization was decimated.
The fourth episode, “Crucifixion,” is the largest section up to this point, with seven works. “Morpheus I,” by Jim Morphesis, is the image of an enormous, gaping skull. Drawing heavily from artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, Morphesis layers huge swathes of paint on the canvas and uses materials as diverse as oil, wood, cloth, paper, cardboard and gold leaf. The skull is imbued with a sense of sorrow, as its empty mouth and eyesockets seem to droop down. Thus, a skull, often seen as an impersonal object, becomes saturated with personality. “Crucifixion of Dountes,” by Eleanor Dickinson, is a more literal version of Christ’s crucifixion.
In this work, the viewer looks up at Christ, and we see a man in agony. His chest is thrust forward, his feet are unnaturally large, and he appears to be writhing. This is tempered, however, by the medium: pastel on velvet. The velvet gives the picture a warmth that is otherwise lacking in other depictions of Christ’s crucifixion.
“Pietà,” the fifth section, is one of the most commonly depicted subjects in the Bible. The image of Mary holding the dead body of Christ is an enduring and well-known image of Christianity. In “Homage of the Pietà d’Avignon,” James Rosen gives credit to Enguerrand Quarton, a 15th-century French painter. Rosen creates a dimly lit version of the original with layers of wax and oil. This forces the viewer to scrutinize the painting, dampening the emotions that are usually felt at first blush. As with many Pietàs, all of the characters in the work are organized around Christ and lean in toward him. Next to this painting hangs the study for the work, a smaller-scale version of the picture.
The final section is simply titled “Burial.” Not surprisingly, many of the works associated with this episode, nine in all, are more somber in tone. “Fourteenth Station of the Cross: Jesus Laid in the Tomb,” by Bill Christman, looks like a metal safety deposit box surrounded by a chain. Formidable and sturdy, the work exudes a sense of finality or death. The box rests on top of a cross-shaped wedge of metal, another explicit reference to Christ. Overall, art within this section is rather brief, perhaps alluding to the conclusiveness of death.
With “Good Friday: The Suffering Christ in Contemporary Art,” MoCRA has managed to create an exhibit, drawn only from its permanent collection and works on long-term loan, that will appeal to all viewers.
Though it is based on the end of Christ’s life, it is not merely a religious exhibit. It is structured to allow everyone to individually journey through the exhibit and develop personal relationships with the artwork. All the works are worth seeing, and there is no singular correct interpretation of the exposition.