While working at a rehabilitation center for torture survivors in Chicago, Greg Halvorsen Schreck was struck by the profound physical and emotional traumas these individuals had experienced. He thought of Christ, who suffers in solidarity with those who suffer. And he thought that as a fine-art photographer, maybe he could tell the story of this via dolorosa (“way of sorrow”) they were traveling, by linking it to the medieval Christian devotional practice of the fourteen stations of the cross.
The stations of the cross originated in the thirteenth century as a way for Christians to enter more fully into Jesus’s last hours by praying visually, verbally, and bodily with fourteen images that highlight various points along his journey to the cross, from his trial to his entombment. Derived from the scriptural accounts (save for the legendary addition of Veronica’s veil, plus the embellishment of Christ’s three falls), the stations offered a stay-at-home alternative for Christians who couldn’t afford a pilgrimage to Jerusalem: instead of literally walking the road between Antonia fortress and Golgotha, they could walk it metaphorically, in their imaginations, with fourteen way stations to provide particular foci.
The models Schreck used in his Via Dolorosa cycle—which can be viewed in full here, and in the video below—are not themselves torture survivors. (That would have posed a safety risk.) But “the stories and the general ethos of those in our midst wounded by war, political upheaval, and unspoken violence shaped my approach,” he said.
It was important to him to portray a range of ethnicities—which is why his stations include people not only of European descent but of Latin American, Caribbean, Middle Eastern, East Asian, and African descent, including a few of mixed race. The falling Christ is portrayed by a Mexican American veteran of the Iraq War. Simone of Cyrene is portrayed by an Ethiopian woman. Mary Magdalene, with her jar of incense, is portrayed by a woman who is half-Syrian.
Schreck also included his two children, adopted from Guatemala, in the project. His daughter, Magdalena, is cast alongside three of her friends as a daughter of Jerusalem in station 8 (top left). His son, Teo, is featured in stations 2 and 13; in the latter, Schreck himself stands in for Joseph of Arimathea or Nicodemus, a reference to Michelangelo’s self-portrait in his Florence Deposition sculpture, Schreck says.
His wife, Karen, poses as Mary in station 4.
Most controversially, Schreck used a female model—a single mom from the west side of Chicago—as Jesus for two of the stations. In “Jesus is stripped naked,” she spreads open her garment, looking out at us with a confrontational gaze. Schreck said he asked the model to react to the imagined scenario of a man demanding her body in exchange for the safety of her son. Strong and self-possessed but betraying a glimmer of fear, she steadies herself to receive the trauma of rape.
Station 11 is duplicated in Schreck’s series: one photo bears the traditional label, “He is nailed to the cross,” whereas the variation states, “She is nailed to the cross.” “He” is oriented upside down, while “She” is right-side up, creating mirror images. In each one the frame bisects the bridge of the nose, cutting off the face just below the eyes, which draws more attention to the mouth—one contorted in pain, the other relaxing into a resignation of death.
Using a feminine pronoun in reference to Christ has raised confusion among some viewers, Schreck says, but he feels biblically justified: Acts 8:1–3 recounts how both men and women of the early church were being persecuted by Saul, and then in the next chapter Jesus asks Saul accusingly, “Why do you persecute me?” (9:4, emphasis added). So “while the crucified, historical Jesus is a man,” Schreck says, “the contemporary body of Christ is both men and women. And both men and women suffer. That’s why I wanted a crucified woman.”
Schreck writes on his blog how the people in these pictures represent roles we’ve all likely inhabited at some time, from victim to oppressor to bystander to grieving loved one:
Most of these are simply portraits. The characters are all of us at one time or another. [Like Pilate] We all work to crucify Jesus sometimes. We inflict pain on others in spite of our desire for justice; we live in an oppressive system. There are times that we stand on the road to Calvary and watch with sadness and compassion as an innocent person suffers [as did Mary, Veronica, and the daughters of Jerusalem]. And there are times when we suffer.
So while arousing empathy is one aim of the work, another more subtle and challenging aim is present: to see ourselves as the one inflicting the pain. In what ways are we that well-groomed man in station 1, wiping our hands clean with a towel? How does what we eat, wear, drive, and download contribute to global suffering?
“I hope the ideas that surround my approach to the images here are quiet,” Schreck says, “and that they leave the viewer space to draw her own conclusions.”
Schreck’s Via Dolorosa debuted at Burning Bush Gallery in Wheaton, Illinois, during Lent of 2012 and was then purchased by Wheaton College, where Schreck works as a professor of art. His colleague Jeremy Botts, a graphic designer, saw the stations and felt inspired to respond to them with his own set of images—a collection of archival digital collages that he calls “abstract icons.”
In 2013 Biola University asked Schreck and Botts if they would be willing to create a video that presents their combined interpretations of the stations, for publication as part of Biola’s then-new online Lent Project. Here is the stunning result:
- He is condemned to death
- Jesus is given his cross
- He falls the first time
- He meets his mother
- Simone of Cyrene carries the cross
- Veronica wipes his face
- He falls the second time
- He meets the daughters of Jerusalem
- He falls the third time
- Jesus is stripped naked
- He is nailed to the cross / She is nailed to the cross
- Jesus dies on the cross
- His body is removed from the cross
- He is laid in the tomb and covered with incense
- In the beginning . . .
The juxtaposition of nonfigurative and figurative images provides a whole new viewing experience: a station is veiled, then unveiled. Botts describes his pieces as “blinks,” what you see when your eyes are closed. If Botts provides the blinks, Schreck provides the eyes-wide-open. We are brought into a meditative space by Botts’s deeply woven surfaces, then we are jarred by the direct gaze of a subject, confronting us with their humanity and hurt and asking, Why?
The soundtrack of the video is also a collaboration between the two artists, with Schreck on percussion and Botts on the melodica and piano (which he mainly strums rather than hammers). The best word I can think of to describe the music is uncomfortable—an impression created by the dissonance, irregular rhythms, and sparse texture, as well as the stylistically incongruous splice-in of the archival recording of Schreck’s late father-in-law, Clayton Halvorsen’s, classical singing. The instruments and voice, when combined, grate together to evoke something of the agony of the cross. They suggest, too, a sense of hollowness and isolation: I picture a jail cell, and hear the magnified echo of dripping water. When station 14, “He is laid in the tomb,” comes around, the music drops out, leaving an eerie silence.
Artists sometimes add a fifteenth station to the traditional fourteen, depicting the resurrection; this is what Schreck and Botts have done, albeit in a subtle way. The final image on the video, from Schreck’s original series, is a detail of the famous photographic negative of the Shroud of Turin taken by Giuseppe Enrie in 1931. This shroud, kept in the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in the northern Italian town of Turin, is allegedly the one that covered Jesus in his tomb. Venerators of the relic say his imprint was miraculously put there by an intense burst of UV radiation that proceeded from his body at the time of resurrection.
The audio that coincides with this image, and Botts’s counterpart, suggests the stirring of life underneath the shroud: there’s a scratching swell, as if something is being reset, then a barely perceptible throbbing. The video then ends with a text frame that reads, “In the beginning . . .”—a reference to John 1: “In the beginning was the Word. . . . In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (vv. 1a, 4–5).
Schreck and Botts invite you to download their video from Vimeo for use in church contexts. I first saw it in excerpts at a late-night art show at Calvin College last summer (part of CIVA‘s Between Two Worlds conference), and I thought what a powerful experience it would be to watch it on a Sunday morning during Lent, in community with other “pilgrims” on the way, or as part of a Good Friday service. Ask your worship director!