sound 040822About “Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani” by Barnett Newman

Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani is a series of 14 black and white paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Initially, when Barnett Newman completed the first two canvases, he knew that he wanted to further develop the theme and create more similar paintings. Only after creating the fourth painting in 1961, did he come to realize the subject and the layout of the series. The subject of Stations of the Cross refers to imagery that depicts Jesus Christ on the day of the crucifixion.

For Newman, The Stations were not only about Jesus’ agony but attested to the human condition. In his catalog statement, Newman wrote, “Lema Sabachtani—why? Why did you forsake me? Why forsake me? To what purpose? Why? This is the Passion. This outcry of Jesus. Not the terrible walk up the Via Dolorosa, but the question that has no answer.” In this moment, it is not just Jesus’ agony one faces with the Stations of the Cross, but as Newman explained, “each man’s agony: the agony that is single, constant, unrelenting, willed—world without end.” Newman does not single out Jesus’ particular experience via the traditional narrative of the Stations but uses it to call attention to the fact that every person will suffer and die, that in our very particularity (one cannot die someone else’s death), we are all connected by this fate, separate and together.

The traditional ritualistic nature of The Stations underscores this connectedness. Believers, singly and as a congregation, follow the priest in a procession around the church (or outside in a landscape), stopping at each Station. More than just verbal reminders of a biblical story, the Stations demand action from the participants: recitation of prayers, reflection, and walking from one to the next.

This active engagement is fundamental to Newman’s understanding of his painted series. The viewer contemplates the subject and proceeds—along with other viewers—to experience each of the paintings singly and in sequence, considering one’s bodily relation to individual paintings but also turning one’s head to look at the preceding canvases and those that follow. The paintings demand the viewer’s active physical, mental, and emotional participation.

The active engagement of the viewer—walking, looking, reflecting, turning—has the potential to generate self-awareness that connects one to others. As Newman told David Sylvester, “I hope that my painting has the impact of giving someone, as it did me, the feeling of his own totality, of his separateness, of his own individuality, and at the same time, of his connection to others who are also separate.”