Senior art and architecture critic

Installation view of Barnett Newman's “The Stations of the Cross” (1958-1966) in the National Gallery of Art’s East Building, Tower 1 galleries. (Rob Shelley/National Gallery of Art)

For more than 30 years, the Rev. Bruce Stewart has encouraged people to gather at the National Gallery of Art and contemplate the “Stations of the Cross” — a series of 14 deeply painful moments from the last day of Jesus, represented in painting and sculpture for centuries. But Stewart’s Good Friday gathering has focused not on the usual representations of those events — on the judgment of Jesus, or his walk to Calvary, or his crucifixion, death and entombment — but on a collection of 15 abstract modernist paintings by Barnett Newman, made between 1958 and 1966, known as “Stations of the Cross.”

“I give a little bit of background on Barnett Newman, and where these works came from, and I tell them a little about the history of what the stations are in worship and prayer,” says Stewart, an episcopal priest and founder of the Center for Liturgy and the Arts in Alexandria. “And then the rest of the time is in silence. They can bring their own version of the Way of the Cross.” Sometimes only a handful of people have come, sometimes there have been a few dozen. Since 2013, when the East Building was closed for renovation, the Good Friday gathering has focused on other works, but this year it returns to the Newman cycle, newly installed in a top-floor gallery space in one of gallery’s new Tower rooms.

Barnett Newman. “First Station,” 1958, Magna on canvas. (Collection of Robert and Jane Meyerhoff/National Gallery of Art)

Barnett Newman. “Second Station,” 1958, Magna on canvas. (Collection of Robert and Jane Meyerhoff/National Gallery of Art)

Only after Newman began what would become an eight-year cycle of paintings did he decide to call them “Stations of the Cross.” The images developed a central visual motif that had preoccupied the artist for a decade, the vertical line, gash or band, a gesture he called the “zip.” In “Stations of the Cross,” he eliminated color, painted directly on raw canvas with black and white, and produced a series of variations on the off-center zip that didn’t seem to have any direct correspondence to the actual events of what is known as the Via Dolorosa — the way of sorrow — as represented in Christian iconography. Rather then depict the usual stations — the condemnation of Jesus, the taking up of the cross — the vertical paintings were named simply, “First Station,” “Second Station” and so forth, with a 15th painting added as a “coda,” with its own peculiar name, “Be II,” and the only hint of color (a stripe of red-orange) in the room.

When they were shown together as a single, multipart work at the Guggenheim in 1966, critics and curators were puzzled, some hostile, others underwhelmed. The works were visually austere, yet the reference to Christian theology — by a Jewish artist — was disconcertingly specific. That wasn’t Newman’s intent, nor was this a conventional religious commission, as he assured the world in a statement published in Art Forum. “No one asked me to do these stations of the cross. They were not commissioned by any church.” Rather, he wanted the paintings to capture the fundamental emotional and philosophical essence of the Passion, the despairing question that Jesus asks just before his death: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

“Newman emphasized that it was not a narrative,” says Harry Cooper, head of modern art at the National Gallery. “He regarded it as a single subject, a single experience.” They are about the fundamental “Why?” of existence. “This is the Passion,” said Newman. “Not the terrible walk up the Via Dolorosa, but the question that has no answer.”

For centuries, Christians have used art and music to contemplate and intensify the sorrow associated with the death of Jesus. The Stations of the Cross aren’t simply about recalling 14 moments from the last day of Jesus’ life, they are meant to reanimate the trauma of these events, so that they become newly raw and searingly particular, no matter how familiar the scripture, or how distant the contemporary church from its moment of origin.

So there is something almost iconoclastic in Stewart’s Good Friday gathering, as many critics felt there may have been something ironic in the title of Newman’s series. When the National Gallery’s East Building closed for renovations in 2013, Newman’s cycle was taken off view, and Stewart looked for other places, or other works, that might serve as a focal point for the Good Friday gathering. Although in 2013, there was an exhibition of works by Pre-Raphaelite painters full of richly narrative and emotional religious imagery, Stewart turned instead to abstract colored paper works by Ellsworth Kelly.

“The pre-Raphaelite works were biblical, and they were figurative, but they just didn’t resonate with me,” he said. But when he got to the small Kelly exhibition, he noted there were 14 works, and if seen in one sequence — but not in other orders — they seemed to relate the Christian passion.

“I thought this can’t be happening, but it was. This works,” he says. So Kelly stood in for Newman that year.

Abstraction isn’t an idea limited to discussion of art over the past century. It also has deep meaning when considering religious imagery. Cooper points out that some faith traditions have preferred to avoid figurative images, and thus spurred enormous creativity in other areas.

Barnett Newman. “Thirteenth Station,” 1965/1966, acrylic on canvas. (Collection of Robert and Jane Meyerhoff/National Gallery of Art)

Barnett Newman. “Be II,” 1961-1964, acrylic on canvas. (Robert and Jame Meyerhoff Collection/National Gallery of Art)

“In Jewish tradition there is a prohibition,” he says, with a consequent focus on text rather images. Islamic art has often avoided figuration, with creative energies released into calligraphy and pattern, and mandalas in Buddhism and Hinduism have included a dynamic tradition of nonfigurative imagery.

There is also a powerful tendency in democratic societies to encourage a generalizing of religious meaning, to move away from belief in specific texts and specific events with historical referents, in favor of broader themes and ecumenical emotional connections between religion and spirituality. In a 1948 essay, “The Sublime is Now,” Newman called for just that, a robust new spirituality in art that wasn’t specifically religious: “We do not need the obsolete props of an outmoded and antiquated legend,” he wrote. Modern artists, he said, should be making cathedrals “out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.”

The end point of that kind of spirituality, alas, is spiritual goop and meaningless soul-blather. But if Newman’s work seems to resist that kind of idle religious generalization, does it say anything at all about its putative subject? On one level, the austerity of Newman’s Stations seems to be the message.

“We don’t have the words to express the inexpressible,” says Stewart. “The way we know something is there is that we can’t completely describe it.”

A visit last week revealed this: On some of the canvases, there are tiny streaks of discoloration and rust-colored blotches. Cooper says these are particularly prevalent on the earlier stations, and are a result of the method with which Newman prepared the unprimed canvas for being painted. They are unintentional.

But they also seem to drag the paintings toward specificity, toward the woundedness and brokenness of the physical embodiment of Jesus. They invite a sense of the one thing everyone assures is not the case: that these works somehow represent the particulars of Jesus’ last day.

Of course, there is a more radical reading of the paintings: That in the moment we contemplate them, they change in nature and essence into representations of the death and agony of Jesus. Christianity is based on just such miracles, the changing of wine and bread into blood and flesh during the Eucharist. So no matter what Newman intended, they are in fact literal Stations of the Cross when encountered in this way.

But for that to happen, you would have to believe in God, the specifically Christian God, and his appearance on Earth as Jesus. Of course, not everyone does.

The Stations of the Cross

The Stations of the Cross, a series of 14 moments from Jesus’s last day, have been a staple of Christian iconography for centuries. Paintings and sculptures of the stations adorn many Christian churches, and, every year, in contemplation of the Passion of Christ, the faithful will walk from image to image and contemplate the sorrow associated with each station. The stations, traditionally, have included the following scenes:

1st Station: Jesus is condemned to death

2nd Station: Jesus carries His cross

3rd Station: Jesus falls the first time

4th Station: Jesus meets his mother

5th Station: Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry his cross

6th Station: Veronica wipes the face of Jesus

7th Station: Jesus falls the second time

8th Station: Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem

9th Station: Jesus falls a third time

10th Station: Jesus’ clothes are taken away

11th Station: Jesus is nailed to the cross

12th Station: Jesus dies on the cross

13th Station: The body of Jesus is taken down from the cross

14th Station: Jesus is laid in the tomb