By Dennis Raverty
The Stations of the Cross at the Anglo-Catholic Church of St. John’s in the Village in New York City were written for that church by Greek Orthodox icon painter Christopher Kosmas in the late 1970s and were installed in 1982. The artist modified the traditional stations by combining them with Eastern iconography in a hybrid, amounting to a Greek Orthodox “correction” of the traditionally Roman Catholic cycle, a cycle that adorns most Roman Catholic churches (and some Episcopal churches) to this day.
The sacramental Stations of the Cross were first introduced by Franciscans during the 17th century as an extended meditation on the suffering and death of Christ. The 14 traditional stations open with Pilate condemning Jesus to death and end with Jesus’ burial. To the Eastern Orthodox, this iconography is overly pessimistic in its exclusive emphasis on Christ’s suffering and death.
The Orthodox, by contrast, place more emphasis on the Incarnation, typically expressed idiomatically as “It is not [only] by his death but by his life we are saved.” Traditional iconography in an Orthodox church does not dwell with such singular insistence on Christ’s death, and presents an iconography in which representations of his death take their place among representations of his birth, baptism, preaching, and miracles, along with images of his mother and the saints and angels.
The most obvious departure from the traditional stations in the cycle of paintings at St. John’s is the addition of a pair of icons bracketing the cycle, one placed before all the others and one following them. The preliminary icon, almost a prologue to the stations, depicts Moses leading the Israelites through the Red Sea, implying that the triumph of the Hebrews over Pharaoh and his armies is a prerequisite for making sense of the later sacrifice of Christ as a similar passing through the sea on dry land, but now the Red Sea through which Christ passes seems to be death itself.
There is an equally important epilogue to the stations in an icon of the Descent of Christ into Hades, the traditional iconography for the Resurrection in Orthodox tradition. Christ tramples down the doors of death, and rescues Adam and Eve from their graves. By enduring death he defeats death. In some ways Christ is the new Moses, but the new Promised Land is now eternity.
Other innovations the artist introduces into the series are the representation of the cross that Jesus drags to Calvary as a heavy log, in accordance with what certain historians tell us about Roman crucifixion. It is thought by some that vertical poles were erected permanently on Golgotha, and the crossbeam carried by the condemned man up the hill would be affixed to these vertical posts and then removed once again after his death, to make way for more crucifixions with merciless Roman efficiency. In his icon for the first fall of Christ, Kosmas shows Christ brought to his knees by the weight of the cross, yet also shows the glorified Christ triumphant in the background. It is as if the artist could not bear representing the fall of Christ without showing the promise of his ultimate triumph over death.
St. Veronica (whose name means “true image”) is said to have wiped the face of Jesus on the way to his death and was left with a miraculous image not made by human hands. The resulting visage is a direct, indexical sign of the Incarnation, imprinted on the saint’s towel or veil, just as Christ, the Logos, is imprinted indelibly on our innermost souls. The image on Veronica’s cloth in Kosmas’s icon is not a bleeding, suffering Christ crowned with thorns and bespattered with blood, as it is often represented, but a calm, triumphant victor over death. This is a fitting Orthodox interpretation of the miraculous image, the imprint of which is so direct that it serves as the prototype for all subsequent icons.
Any truly living tradition is open to a certain level of transformation in the hands of a competent artist, and these paintings are no exception. In the unique icons at St. John’s, a Greek artist trained in the Eastern tradition created an idiosyncratic, highly incarnational version of the traditional sacramental stations for a progressive Episcopal parish.
Dennis Raverty is an associate professor of art history at New Jersey City University, specializing in art of the 19th and 20th centuries.