When a friend first approached Gwyneth Leech two years ago to see if she would consider painting the Stations of the Cross for an Episcopal parish in Connecticut, the idea did not resonate favorably.
“I was not tempted. I had just had a second child,” the New York artist recalled, “and I was into joyful painting. I was into movement and color, things filled with life.” Nor had she ever painted icons, or Stations of the Cross depicting the last hours of Jesus’ life before his crucifixion.
But she was cajoled into visiting St. Paul’s on the Green in Norwalk to talk with its staff and learn about this parish, which prizes its diversity, practices “radical hospitality” and in 10 years has bounced back from the brink of demise. “I loved her style,” said the Rev. Nicholas Lang, St. Paul’s rector for the past 11 years. “Gwyneth could blend traditional things with contemporary ones. That was what we wanted.”
What Lang saw were examples of paintings Leech had done for St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Glasgow, during the 17 years she and her husband lived in Scotland. She had painted four large murals on the betrayal of Christ, his disposition on the cross and his resurrection. But instead of a traditional setting, she chose a local park in Glasgow that reflected St. Mary’s multicultural neighborhood.
As Leech reflected how she might respond to St. Paul’s request, she saw — as she describes it — a glimmer of potential. “We were living through a terrible period of war with Iraq, and I began early on to wonder if there was some way I could express through the Stations of the Cross how I felt.”
The Pennsylvania native who attended a Quaker private school said that despite being a lifelong Episcopalian, she was unfamiliar with iconography and the Stations of the Cross. She immersed herself in the topic, poring through books, visiting museums and searching for paintings and sculptures amidst the encyclopedic quantity of Christian art.
“It was after months of research and drawing that I had a moment of sudden clarity in front of a 16th-century Flemish painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” she recalled. “The cowled and dark-robed women weeping at the foot of the cross bore an overwhelming similarity to the images I had seen that morning in the newspaper, of Iraqi women grieving for a car bomb victim. Many parallels began to flow from that one connection.”
Hanging on the wall of Leech’s studio in New York is a newspaper clipping of a hooded man with arms outstretched, almost a pose of crucifixion. Wires run from his hands and from beneath the rough robe covering his body. Millions of people have seen that image in newspapers, magazines and on television and have been shocked by it.
“My brief was to re-imagine the traditional iconography in contemporary terms,” she said. “Neither the church nor I knew exactly what that charge would produce, but the central question was: How could I make the Passion narrative real to this present-day congregation?”
In the end, the image of the hooded figure played no more than a subliminal role because Leech concluded that few would be able to see past its origin. But other images of Abu Ghraib prison did influence her work.
She started her stations with the one she most feared painting — the Crucifixion. “That was the way into the project for me. The gestures, those gestures of grief I saw around the foot of the cross in other paintings, really interested me.”
She drew upon images of grieving Iraqi women and American parents mourning lost sons and daughters. She ended up collecting a large number of newspaper clippings, all with images of grief. “What would speak most to people?” she asked herself. “Who is the military? Who are the soldiers?”
In Station X, Jesus is stripped of his garments. “The Roman stripped the condemned and crucified them naked as a way of humiliating them and utterly breaking their spirit. Here, I had dozens of images of modern prisoners stripped for the same reasons,” Leech said.
“I decided to compose the 10th station with the man threatened by dogs, echoing Psalm 22, sung each Good Friday: ‘Deliver me from the mouth of the dog.’”
When the oil paintings on wood were completed and dedicated at Lent last year, many people were shocked and some were offended. “They were startling, but they were very moving,” said Ann Watkins, one of many parishioners who embraced the paintings. Others, especially those who have served in the military, have expressed strong reservations or anger when they see images of soldiers carrying rifles, not spears, along streets girded with barbed wire.
“To some these paintings are cathartic; to others, inappropriate,” said Leech. Often, initial impressions alter when people who have read about the stations actually see them, said the Rev. Elana Barnum, St. Paul’s deacon, who has responsibility for the church’s healing ministry. She said the contemporary references in the stations serve a spiritual purpose.
“They are going to be a little scary and a little uncomfortable,” she said. But, she added, the original Stations of the Cross of the Middle Ages intentionally made contemporary references to drive home the message of Jesus suffering in terms that people could understand. The problem now, she argued, is that those medieval stations have become “frozen” in people’s minds.
“This Lent, we will make a real point to encourage people to walk the stations,” said Lang. “The stations help us to understand that Christ’s suffering is related to ours.”
The Stations of the Cross are on permanent view at St. Paul’s on the Green, a diverse, Anglo-Catholic Episcopal parish that welcomes everyone at 60 East Ave., Norwalk, Conn. 06851. Compline, 20 minutes of chant in candlelight, is sung every Sunday at 9 p.m.