Church's "Anti-War" Paintings Draw Fire

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New stations of the cross representing Christ in the midst of modern armed conflicts, including the Iraq war, have drawn angry denunciation and high praise.

Angry e-mailers and callers to Saint Paul's Episcopal church in Norwalk, Connecticut have repeatedly invoked 9-11 in response to articles about their new stations of the cross. Conservative Christians have denounced the paintings as a political statement inappropriate for a house of worship.

"They are not a political statement, but a theological statement about suffering in the world," responded Rev. Nicholas Lang, rector of Saint Paul's. "The reality is that war, no matter why it is being fought, has got to be viewed as tragic."

The paintings were commissioned by Saint Paul's in March 2004, from New York City artist Gwyneth Leech. "I was asked to combine the traditional stations iconography with elements of the world we live in. This brief eventually led to my vision of Christ as a prisoner of war, and as a hostage tortured by insurgents. The crowds are refugees. The people weeping at the foot of the cross are grieving Iraqis and Americans who have lost family members to bombs and to violence," Leech said.

At Saint Paul's the congregation has embraced the new stations of the cross, dedicated in Lent of 2005. "They were startling, but they were very moving," said Ann Watkins, a longtime parishioner. However, among those who have served in the military there has been a difference of opinion about the images of soldiers carrying rifles along streets girded with barbed-wire and references to the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

"My understanding of the teachings of Jesus is that we might want to love and forgive others rather than kill them," wrote David Gilroy in a recent letter published in the Hartford Courant, responding to an article about the paintings at St. Paul's. "Of course this is still a radical notion after 2,000 years, and many among us are not happy with the concept.

"However, to imply that an anti-war statement could be inappropriate in a place dedicated to the teachings of Jesus implies what must be a willful denial of what Jesus actually taught. Either that or maybe there was more than one Jesus."

The stations of the cross are now on permanent display at Saint Paul's, which is open to the public seven days a week.

About the Commission

New York Artist, Gwyneth Leech was commissioned in March 2004 to paint stations of the cross that blend traditional Christian iconography with contemporary elements. She found a vivid way of depicting Christ's journey to the cross for modern viewers, by incorporating the suffering and grief of people around the world who are caught in the midst of armed conflict.

The paintings combine Christian imagery with references to a year of turmoil in the Middle East and beyond, including the war in Iraq, the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, and genocide in Darfur, Sudan.

"The commission to paint stations of the cross for Saint Paul's gave me an extraordinary opportunity to explore crucifixion iconography in light of current events. The year that I worked on the commission, starting in March 2004 was dominated by conflict in the Middle East, especially the war in Iraq. The many photographs of the torture and humiliation of captives, whether by soldiers or by insurgents turned the Way of the Cross into a contemporary narrative.

The paintings are also my response to the seeming deluge of images of grief in the press - the grief of families around the world, as well as in the United States, who have lost loved ones to war and to terrorist attacks. I decided to reference these contemporary expressions of suffering and grief that come in the form of newspaper imagery, underlining the enduring message of the road to Calvary and the universal nature of its emotional force." – Gwyneth Leech

The stations of the cross were sponsored by 40 members of the congregation. Response, especially from outside the church, has been heated since the paintings were first unveiled during Lent.

"There are those who find them absolutely compelling and profoundly moving and some who find them very difficult to look at. They are reminders not only of the suffering of one person--Jesus, God's Son--but of the suffering that continues in our lives and the lives of people all over the globe. The events they depict are not meant to comfort us but to make us think deeply about why Jesus was hung on a cross to die and why people continue to be crucified in a variety of ways because of who they are. If when we walk station to station, we do not see the cross in the pain experienced in Iraq and in the Middle East and in Africa and in so many other parts of the globe--including the violence and oppression in our own cities--we have sadly missed the point." - Nicholas Lang, Rector of Saint Paul's

The church is pleased to announce that they are now open seven days a week for the public to view the artwork:

Mondays-Fridays 10-3, Saturdays 10-1, and Sundays before and after church services.

About the Artist

Gwyneth Leech is a painter and video artist based in New York City. A native of Philadelphia, she was educated at the University of Pennsylvania and Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland. She has exhibited widely in the United States and in Britain, including numerous solo exhibitions in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London. In New York City, she has exhibited at the Susan Teller Gallery and at La MaMa La Galleria.

Previous commissions include extensive murals for the interior of St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral, Glasgow, Scotland.

Oil studies for the commission are currently on view at Susan Teller Gallery, New York City, through August 26 as part of "the Family Business: 1877-2005", a group show of eight artist families.

The Norwalk stations of the cross paintings have been featured in press and on television. They were the subject of articles in the Hartford Courant (July 31), the Advocate (Norwalk ed. July 30), the Philadelphia Inquirer (May 15) and the Fairfield Weekly cover story on May 26th. The stations of the cross will be featured in the October issue of Art New England.

About Saint Paul's

Saint Paul's on the Green is a diverse, Anglo-Catholic parish church welcoming all. The church is located at 60 East Avenue, Norwalk, CT 06851.

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Station I - Jesus is Condemned to DeathStation I - Jesus is Condemned to DeathOil painting on wood, 19" x 21" Pilate washing his hands, Pilate's wife stands behind. Jesus is a prisoner held between two soldiers in a manner inconsistent with the physical threat he represents (based on photos from Guantanamo detention camp). The main action is set in a clear space surrounded by bales of barbed wire. An angry gesticulating crowd presses around the fence. Station II - Jesus Takes Up His CrossStation II - Jesus Takes Up His CrossOil painting on wood, 19" x 21" In a city street, Jesus struggles to lift the cross onto his shoulders. Two soldiers holding rifles stand guard. In the background a crowd jostles behind barriers. Station III - Jesus Falls for the First TimeStation III - Jesus Falls for the First TimeOil painting on wood, 19" x 21" A soldier prods him with the butt of his rifle to get up. In the background figures watch from behind barriers guarded by armed soldiers. Station IV - Jesus Meets His MotherStation IV - Jesus Meets His MotherOil painting on wood, 19" x 21" Mary is a peasant woman with dark robes pulled around her head (based on a photo of a mother standing vigil outside Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq). In the background a file of refugees walk along the horizon, carrying children and belongings. Station V - Simon of Cyrene Helps Carry the CrossStation V - Simon of Cyrene Helps Carry the CrossOil painting on wood, 19" x 21" Simon wears Tunisian clothing - long shirt, trousers and cap. He walks out of step with the Jesus who carries the front of the cross. The way Simon is holding his end of the cross it appears to press down on Jesus' back. In the background is a devastated townscape, people picking over a pile of rubble. A woman sits and weeps with her head in her hands. Station VI - Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus Station VI - Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus Oil painting on wood, 19" x 21" Jesus carries the cross towards the viewer, almost filling the frame. A young woman in Muslim dress stands half turned towards Jesus. She has unwrapped the veil from her head and reaches up with it to wipe Jesus’ face. In the background are smoking, skeletal ruins of buildings. Station VII - The Second FallStation VII - The Second FallOil painting on wood, 19" x 21" The cross is heavier and darker than the first time. The fall more jarring. There is a jostling crowd in the background, a pushing and shoving between angry men and soldiers. Station VIII - Jesus Speaks to the Weeping WomenStation VIII - Jesus Speaks to the Weeping WomenOil painting on wood, 19" x 21" Jesus turns to the weeping women that follow him on the road to Calvary with an expression of concern and sadness. Here they are depicted as refugee women of Darfur, Sudan hemmed in by a white thorn fence. Station IX - The Third FallStation IX - The Third FallOil painting on wood, 19" x 21" The cross is now overwhelmingly heavy. The fallen Jesus and cross fill the frame. "Station X - Jesus Is Stripped of His Garments"Station X - Jesus Is Stripped of His GarmentsOil painting on wood, 19" x 21" Jesus is naked and stands with arms up, hands behind his head. He is threatened by dogs on leashes held by soldiers (based on an Abu Ghraib photo). A soldier with his back to Jesus looks down at the red robe in his hands. The cross is being fixed into the ground in the background. Station XI - Jesus is Nailed to the CrossStation XI - Jesus is Nailed to the CrossOil painting on wood, 19" x 21" A contemporary reworking of a composition by Giovanni Baronzio (Italian, 14th Century) in which Jesus is made to climb the cross on a ladder. Soldiers stand at the bottom of two other ladders. At the top of these are two executioners, clad all in black, their faces covered. Dark clouds are beginning to move into the sky, a contemporary view of Jerusalem in the background. Station XII- Death on the CrossStation XII- Death on the CrossOil painting on wood, 19" x 21" Inspired by paintings of Gerard David (Flemish, 15th Century). Jesus’ head drops at the moment of death. Black sky fills the top half of the painting. At the foot of the cross are three grieving Mary's (based on a photo of women grieving a car bomb victim). Joseph of Arimathea and John support each other as they weep (based on a photo of an American father and son at the moment when they learn of the death of another son held in Iraq). A modern soldier looks up at the cross, representing the Centurion who recognized Jesus only at the moment of his death. Station XIII - Jesus Is Placed in His Mother's ArmsStation XIII - Jesus Is Placed in His Mother's ArmsOil painting on wood, 19" x 21" Inspired by Northern European sculptures of the Pièta. The Mary is the same Iraqi peasant woman from Station IV. Mary Magdalene kneels and holds Jesus' feet. Figures cluster around the foot of the cross. Barbed wire traces across the background. Station XIV- Jesus Is Laid in the TombStation XIV- Jesus Is Laid in the TombOil painting on wood, 19" x 21" Inspired by a 16th Century Flemish painting by Petrus Christus, Jesus' dead body fills the foreground about to be wrapped for burial. In the center, Mary reaches out to gently touch his shoulder as if he were asleep (based on a photo of a mother grieving her dead child from Beslan in Russia). Behind is the open mouth of the tomb with the wheel of stone waiting to be rolled into place. Interior View of Saint Paul'sInterior View of Saint Paul'sLooking along the North aisle of the church, stations 2, 3, 4, and 5 are visible.Interior View, South aisleInterior View, South aisleA detail of the South aisle view showing station 13 in situ.