In Your Midst

To See the Face of Christ

Easter 2011

Exploring Joan Brand-Landkamer's Stations of the Cross 

Since last year, a new set of the Stations of the Cross has been hung in the Cathedral during the weeks of Lent.  These striking pieces are the work (and the gift) of Cathedral iconographer Joan Brand-Landkamer.

Joan began work on the Stations of the Cross many years ago, completing them in the fall of 2009.  She used “found objects” from the beach near her home in Ocean Shores—wood, rope, and wire—to create a completely contemporary interpretation of the centuries-old devotion of the Stations of the Cross.

“I always wanted to make something out of driftwood,” she remembers.  “I collected hinged planks, a door from a boat, paddles, pieces with large natural holes, a lot with large nails stuck in them.  Every day I found something that no one else would pick up.  My wood was not beautiful, but had lots of character.”

Joan’s previous work for the Cathedral, an extensive set of icons, drew on the tradition of Russian and Ethiopian iconography.  The Stations are quite different, and were inspired by the work of Georges Rouault, the 20th-century French artist, and in particular his series of engravings entitled Miserere.  In Joan’s words, “I stood on the shoulders of Rouault, the master.  Rouault told the truth!  I was completely stunned by his style, especially the sad, sad paintings of Christ and His mother, on His way to the cross.  I began to think about creating Stations of the Cross because I imagined them as I looked at page after page; and the ugly people Rouault loved to paint were all there.”

Rouault originally created the drawings that make up Miserere during World War I, but for various reasons their publication was delayed until 1947.  The series speaks powerfully of human suffering and betrayal, and includes a number of images of the suffering Christ, juxtaposed with images of suffering humanity:  corrupt judges and politicians, fools, prostitutes and prisoners.  “Form, colour, harmony… oasis or mirage for the eyes, the heart, or the spirit,” wrote Rouault in his preface to the volume; “Jesus on the cross will tell you better than I.”

Rouault’s drawings are dark, intense, emotional, thoroughly modern and thoroughly Catholic. Art critic Anthony Blunt wrote of Miserere, “That he is a fervent Catholic is obvious from some of his works and certainly deducible from all of them, even from the least evidently religious.  But he is a Catholic reacting to the peculiar conditions of the 20th century…. When he paints the crucified Christ it is not as a remote event in the past or as a traditional symbol, but as the expression of a faith which he believes can still move mountains.”  Rouault himself said, “My only ambition is to be able someday to paint a Christ so moving that those who see him will be converted.”  Rouault was deeply skeptical of science when it attempted to substitute for “truth.”  He once said:  “A wise man has said, ‘There is no more mystery.’ One can be very wise and very foolish at the same time.’”

Though Rouault never created a series of Stations of the Cross, his introspective style and focus on the suffering Christ blends perfectly with the traditional devotion, which challenges our complacency and calls us to contemplation—and to action.

Rouault might have been speaking of Joan Brand-Landkamer’s Stations when he said:  “To retire from the world, believing one will find peace—what a chancy thing, if you don’t carry within you another world, which transfigures the poorest materials, and gives them the fragrance of flowers of paradise.”

Above: An etching by Georges Rouault, above, inspired Station XII, Jesus Dies on the Cross.
Below: Two cruel faces from Georges Rouault’s Miserere are echoed in Station XI, Jesus is Nailed to the Cross.

Some details from the Stations of the Cross.  Upper left: In the Fifth Station, Mary reaches out to her Son as he carries his cross.  The tender images Rouault created of Christ and his Mother inspired Joan’s work.  Upper right:  Joan’s husband Leo loved the way the eye of Christ was painted on a hinge. Joan says of the distinctive blue background that unifies all the pieces:  “Leo was amused as I used all the old house paint in rusty cans.  The blue was from our doors.”  Below, left:  the Crown of thorns is made of different objects in the various stations—pieces of wood, wire, and here, a knotted leather cord.  Note the wheel which is also incorporated into the piece (Tenth Station).  Below, right:  Real nails seem to suspend a placard with the letters “IHS,” signifying the name of Christ, in the Eighth Station.

Corinna Laughlin is the Director of Liturgy at St. James Cathedral

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