Station breaks

Artist's Way of the Cross provides inspiration in church and on website
February 4, 2007

Artists are one of the blessings of our worship space. They inspire us with luminous stained-glass windows. They move us to tears with sculptures like Michelangelo's Pieta. They hold us in awe with deeply colored and gilded icons of saints. And by creating sets of the Stations of the Cross, they not only move us but also help us to move through Jesus' journey along the streets of Jerusalem towards his ultimate sacrifice.

Pilgrims go to Jerusalem to walk his path, the Via Dolorosa. For those who cannot make the journey, artists create a pictorial path. Since the Middle Ages, churches have commissioned artists to create the stations in paint, in clay, on paper and in sculpture.

In recent years, Episcopal artists have added to the tradition in new and innovative ways. They have written meditations linking the stations to personal and political realities. They have crafted sculpture in metal, made woodcuts, built elaborate assemblages of recovered objects (imagine 14 televisions all blasting loud sounds and images of violence as a station) and drawn the stations using modern-day refugees as models.

Scripture in sketchbook

Kathrin Burleson is a painter and icon writer in Trinidad, California. When commissioned to create a set of the stations for a local church, she first refused, asking, "How about an icon?"

When the benefactors were adamant, she finally agreed. She took her series back to its roots: Scripture.

"In my sketchbook, I wrote out the Scriptures for each station and then spent time imagining the scene," she says. "I looked for images and phrases that I had overlooked before and then played around with them in words and in images that started as doodles. Each morning, these were my preparations for the day ahead; they came to replace my other morning devotions."

"I had meant them to be my starting point -- material that I would draw from when I did the 'real' stations. Instead, I had the 'aha!' realization that these were my stations. They came from a place of feeling, of abstraction and of metaphor, a place where I inevitably find my spiritual reality.

"And," she says, laughing, "they started with doodles."

Burleson's doodles metamorphosed into 14 watercolor paintings that glow on the walls of the newly renovated chapel at Christ Church Parish in Eureka, California. The light infusing them is so intense, they almost appear to be stained-glass windows.

"They invite meditation," says the Rev. Leo Joseph, OSF and priest-in-charge. "Some of them have a certain level of illustration, but most are more symbolic. Throughout, there is that presence of the light."

Burleson's stations are the centerpiece of the chapel, which also includes a labyrinth, an altar moved into the center of the room and a floor-to-ceiling window that looks into the branches of a venerable magnolia tree. The tree is echoed in her paintings.

"In the first station, the angel that appears to Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane is represented by light coming from behind the tree," she says. "In the last station, the Resurrection, the light comes up and through the tree -- it's the tree of life, and light suffuses all of creation."

Spiritual coffee break

She envisions her stations, The Way of the Cross, as a contemplative tool for those who visit her website. "So often someone has a few minutes' break in an office and may not have a prayer book," she says. "Logging on to the Way of the Cross makes a spiritual coffee break, a daily renewal."

The artist's interest in expanding ministry comes from her active role in establishing a mission church in Trinidad and from her close association with the Community of the Transfiguration, an Episcopal women's religious community. The Way of the Cross is more than a paid commission for her.

"What a gift it is to have Kathrin in the diocese," says Bishop Barry Beisner of the Diocese of Northern California. "The iconographer is herself an icon.

"This is a shared-ministry diocese," he explains. "She is a wonderful example of effective baptismal and priestly ministry. One thinks of the priestly ministry as mediating between the human and the divine. Kathrin does this with her art and in so many other ways."

Walking the Way of the Cross isn't just for Lent anymore. Gone are the days of paper copies of old engravings pinned on church walls, as more churches create a permanent display of the stations as a devotional opportunity for worshippers.

"The stations are a timely means of lending focus to us in the Episcopal Church as we go through this time of chaos," says Beisner. "The challenge to us is to make sure that our journey is the same redemptive journey as our Lord's as conveyed in the stations."

Burleson's stations will be accessible in another venue besides the chapel and the website. She is writing a book, The Soul's Journey. It includes her 14 paintings, a journal of the two-year process of creating them, the Scripture verses from which they are painted and a meditation by the artist on each passage. Her meditation for the first station, Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, reads:

In the darkest hour,
You are not alone.
Each moment holds eternity.
Wake up, and see.

Burleson's stations are accessible on her website at "The Way of the Cross." You can email her at artist@kthrinburleson.com

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