Walking the Via Dolorosa through Amsterdam (Part 3)

This is the final part of my commentary on Art Stations of the Cross: Troubled Waters, a multisite exhibition in Amsterdam running from March 6 to April 22. (Read parts one and two.) Unless otherwise noted, all photos are by Eric James Jones/ArtandTheology.org.

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STATION 10. This is the one station I did not get a chance to see, due to its more limited opening hours. Anywhere, Anytime by Masha Trebukova is a temporary installation in the Mozes en Aäronkerk (Church of Moses and Aaron) in Amsterdam’s Waterlooplein neighborhood. It consists of a nine-foot-tall octagonal structure (a “columbarium”) covered with paintings on newspaper, as well as six large-format “books” of paintings on glossy magazine pages.

Columbarium by Masha Trebukova
Masha Trebukova (Russian, 1962–), Anywhere, Anytime, 2019. Temporary installation at the Moses and Aaron Church, Amsterdam, consisting of an eight-paneled “columbarium” with paintings on newsprint, each panel 60 × 290 cm, and “How to spend it,” six painted-over magazines. Photo courtesy of Sant’Egidio Nederland.

A columbarium is a room, building, or freestanding structure with niches for the public storage of funerary urns (which hold the ashes of the deceased). Ancient Romans decorated theirs with frescoes, often of peaceful scenes of the hereafter. Trebukova, on the other hand, has painted this columbarium with images of war and violence, exposing the savagery that causes death. This is not a celebration of paradise gained; it’s a lament for paradise lost.

Hear the artist briefly introduce the piece:

Columbarium (detail) by Masha Trebukova
Masha Trebukova, Anywhere, Anytime (detail). Photo courtesy of Sant’Egidio Nederland.

Trebukova used as her painting surface pages from newspapers and magazines, the headlines often creating consonance with the images while the ads create dissonance. The sleek photos selling vacations and luxury goods, enticing you to treat yourself, contrast starkly with Trebukova’s slashes and smears of color that depict masked gunmen terrorizing families, mass executions, refugees on the run, and individuals huddled over the corpses of loved ones. This contrast urges viewers to consider how our own self-absorption might be restricting our view of what’s going on in the larger world. What incinerations are being carried out as we casually engage in our leisure reading and other entertainments? The vaults in Anywhere, Anytime are fictive, but they prompt us to imagine the many bodies and places being turned to ash as armed conflict and acts of terrorism persist globally. [Images below sourced from the artist’s website]

 

The books are too fragile to be handled by visitors, so they are displayed open in glass cases, laid flat on a black-clothed table, and a video screen nearby loops through all the images in succession. Here is an excerpt from the video, a showcase of book five:

The book appears to have originally been a dance magazine, but Trebukova subverts the elegance associated with controlled bodily movement by recontextualizing these found images of dancers. A woman walking down a rustic road in pointe shoes is given a heavy burden on her back—a child—and a head scarf, recasting her as one of the many mothers fleeing violence in the Middle East. On the following page spread, another dancer’s graceful backbend is re-envisioned as an involuntary response to his having been shot; unlike on stage, this movement will end with a fall.

The Moses and Aaron Church is home to the Amsterdam chapter of the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic lay association committed to prayer, the poor, and peace. Existing in over seventy countries, Sant’Egidio seeks especially to serve the sick, the homeless (including displaced persons), the elderly, and the imprisoned. “War is the mother of every poverty,” they say, and they have been key players in peace initiatives in Mozambique, Algeria, the Balkans, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other areas.

Trebukova, Masha_Columbarium (detail3)
Masha Trebukova, page spread from “How to spend it.” Photo courtesy of Sant’Egidio Nederland.

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STATION 11. Erica Grimm’s Salt Water Skin Boats, a collaboration with artist and arborist Tracie Stewart and soundscape specialist Sheinagh Anderson, is an installation of five sculptural coracles made of interwoven willow, dogwood, fig, and cedar branches; animal skin and gut; cheesecloth; and bathymetric ocean maps imprinted with scientific measurements of things like glacial melt, sea-level rise, and ocean acidification. These are suspended from the ceiling along the nave of the Waalse Kerk and are lit from inside, and they are accompanied by an ambient soundscape that viewers activate by scanning a QR code.

Salt Water Skin Boats by Erica Grimm
Erica L. Grimm (Canadian, 1959–), Salt Water Skin Boats, 2018. Willow, dogwood, fig, and cedar branches; cheesecloth; animal skin and gut; bathymetric ocean maps; layers of wax; earbuds; LED lights. Installation view at Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam, in March 2019, part of Art Stations of the Cross.

Small lightweight boats without rudder, anchor, or keel, coracles are unstable watercraft, easily carried by currents and wind. Back in the day, Celtic Christian pilgrims would set sail in them, not having any destination in mind but rather trusting that God would steer their little boats to wherever he saw fit. In a sense, we are all “skin boats” afloat on a vast ocean, not knowing where we’ll end up. But Grimm’s incorporation of numerical data that highlight the dangerous warming, acidifying, and expanding of the world’s oceans pushes this metaphor in a new direction; the work “proposes an analogy,” writes curator Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker, “between our bodies and the vast ecology of the global ocean: between the life-sustaining, precariously balanced ocean chemistry and the chemistry of our own salt-water-filled bodies.” 

Grimm, Erica_Salt Water Skin Boats

Erica Grimm, Salt Water Skin Boats

Erica Grimm, Salt Water Skin Boats

The Waalse Kerk (Walloon Church) has been home to French-speaking Protestants since 1578, but its origins are Catholic, having previously belonged to the Brothers of Saint Paul. It is one of several churches in Amsterdam that, along with monasteries and convents, were confiscated by Protestants during the “Alteration” of 1578, a bloodless revolution in which Amsterdam’s Catholic city government was deposed in favor of a Protestant one.

I wasn’t familiar with the term Walloon but learned that it’s akin to the more familiar term Huguenot; both refer to French-speaking Calvinists who fled religious persecution in the sixteenth century. (The Walloons came from the southern Netherlands, roughly equivalent to present-day Belgium, whereas the Huguenots came from France.) At the time, the southern Netherlands was controlled by Catholic Spain under Philip II, who continued his father Charles V’s inquisitorial practices to suppress heretics. The torture and execution of Protestants in the Low Countries caused a mass migration north as Protestants fled the terror.

[Read commentary by curator Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker]

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STATION 12. This station is located on the main strip of Amsterdam’s red-light district inside the Allemanskapel van Sint Joris (Everyman’s Chapel of Saint George), one of eleven properties in the district owned and run by the nondenominational Christian organization Oudezijds 100. It’s right next-door to the famous Theatre Casa Rosso, a sex theater—something that I, in my naïveté, had never heard of before but that I gather, from my sidewise glances at the posters, to be essentially live porn. The chapel itself is a former sex theater, having acquired its current sacred use, which includes daily prayer services, in 1977.

Although many urban cities have a “red-light district”—an area with a high concentration of sex-oriented businesses—the name has become synonymous with the one in Amsterdam, where prostitution is legal and plentiful. (The official name of this neighborhood is De Wallen, and it’s at the heart of Amsterdam, closest to the harbor; all the remaining art stations are in De Wallen.) I entered the district as a pilgrim, not a tourist (the notion of sex tourism, even if limited to “window shopping,” still repulses me, to be honest), and even though it was daytime and therefore the activity was more limited, it felt uncomfortable. I tried to keep the windows in my periphery because it somehow felt disrespectful or voyeuristic to look.

I’ve come to acknowledge the varied perspectives on Amsterdam’s prostitution—even Amsterdammers, including civic leaders, hold different views from one another—but still, I couldn’t help but pray, Kyrie eleison (“Lord, have mercy”). On both the sellers and the buyers and our world’s very broken, desecrated treatment of sex, have mercy.

The words Kyrie eleison are carved letter by letter into a vertical slab of Irish hardstone in Anjet van Linge’s Compassion. Linge is a sculptor whose works, which invite stillness and reflection, have been described as “spiritual minimalism.” A hammer and a chisel are usually her only tools, and she frequently uses the stone chips left over from the carving process to create new pieces. When she chisels a word—a laborious process—she says she becomes completely one with the word. Here, fourteen times, she has carved eleison, a plea for mercy, pity, compassion. Compassion literally means “with suffering”—to suffer with. It seems to me that Linge’s act of inscribing this hard stone with a prayer was an act of “suffering with.”

Anjet van Linge, Compassion
Anjet van Linge (Dutch), Compassion, 2018. Irish hardstone, 180 × 30 × 6 cm.

Kyrie eleison is a traditional Christian prayer of petition used especially in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox liturgies. It can be used to pray for mercy for oneself, especially for one’s sin, or for others who are undergoing suffering, especially when sins are committed against them. It’s a lament cry, and it can also be a way of asking God to be present in a situation and to give gracious relief. I often hear it used as the refrain of litanies for justice (see, e.g., Fran Pratt’s Litany for the Border), or as a response to national tragedies, such as mass shootings.

The Chapel of Saint George, where Linge’s sculpture is located for the duration of the Art Stations exhibition, is a small, quiet, dimly lit basement that offers an oasis from the hustle-bustle outside. Along two sides of the chapel, a water feature directs a flowing stream along a stone pathway that turns a corner and then spills out into a baptismal font, creating a natural trickling soundscape that soothes and that invites us to be cleansed. Whereas water tends to work in the other stations as an agent or bearer of pain, here it works as a potential agent of healing. I’m reminded of David’s testimony that God is a shepherd who leads us to still waters and restores our soul (Psalm 23), and also of God’s command that justice roll down like a river and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24). I imagine some of the sex workers in the neighborhood come here for respite, to escape the male gaze and to pray or to meditate. During Lent, Compassion has served as a prayer prompt for them and for others. And the water seems to whisper God’s assurance. Mercy beckoned and bestowed.

Chapel of St. George, Amsterdam

Chapel of St. George, Amsterdam

Chapel of St. George, Amsterdam

Station 12 also features two “extras”: watercolors of the suffering Christ by Paul van Dongen. These hang in the window and thus are easily visible to passersby and to those waiting in line for the sex shows next-door. I wonder if any non-pilgrims have lingered on them for any amount of time.

Dongen, Paul van_Jesus
Paul van Dongen (Dutch, 1958–), Jesus, 2004. Watercolor on paper.
Dongen, Paul van_Jesus
Paul van Dongen (Dutch, 1958–), Jesus, 2006. Watercolor on paper.

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STATION 13. Station 13, Jesus’s descent from the cross (traditionally known as “The Deposition”), is the most graphic Deposition I’ve ever seen. Jan Tregot’s The Last Days shows Christ’s dead, dismembered body toppling down from the cross head (or should I say neck?) first, his severed head staring blank-eyed and open-mouthed into space, and his severed left arm still pinned to the wood. This is not the carefully choreographed post-execution image that we’re familiar with, of Christ being gracefully lowered from the cross with a cloth; such traditional imagery has ceased to shock—it’s just too sanitized. Tregot restores some of the gruesomeness to the Crucifixion, re-engaging our sense of horror at its brutality. Although the detachment of Christ’s head and limbs is not historical, it creates an allusion to the religiously motivated violence of ISIS and other militant groups.

The Last Days by Jan Tregot
Jan Tregot (Dutch, 1970–), The Last Days, 2017. Bluestone, plaster, maple, jatoba, stainless steel, leather, and oil paint, 90.5 × 88 × 60 cm. Paint: Erik van de Beek.

Tregot, Jan_The Last Days (detail)

Tregot, Jan_The Last Days

Tregot, Jan_The Last Days (detail)

Tregot is known for repurposing discarded corpuses (corpus refers to the body of Christ on the cross, which in sculpture is often made separately from the cross itself) and other cheaply made saints’ statuettes, which he finds in charity shops and junk sales. These mass-produced objects, kitschy though they are, likely served once an important devotional function for whoever first purchased them, but now they are thrown out. Tregot is interested in reclaiming new meaning for these discarded objects. In 2017 his sculpture Take, Eat was shown at the Noordbrabants Museum in Den Bosch as part of the exhibition “Recycling Jesus: Reusing Christian Images in Contemporary Dutch Sculpture” (see this ArtWay review).

The Last Days is exhibited in the new building of the Museum Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder (Museum of Our Lord in the Attic), an astonishingly well-preserved canal house from the Dutch Golden Age whose upper three floors were converted into a Catholic church. As I mentioned in part two, the Calvinist Protestants who seized power in Amsterdam in 1578 did not make conversion to Calvinism compulsory; they believed in freedom of conscience. But how free are you if you cannot openly express what you believe? The Calvinists tolerated the communal worship of religious minorities, yes, but only as long as it was discreet and not conducted in public spaces.

So this canal house was built as a residential home in 1630. In 1661 it and the two houses behind it were purchased by the wealthy Catholic merchant Jan Hartman, who had them joined together and then had the joint attic transformed into a church, a major remodeling project that was completed in 1663. Floors were torn out to create, above the narrow gallery seating at the base, two levels of balcony seating, which altogether accommodates about 150 worshippers. The church is decorated in the Dutch classicist style, with a marble altar and columns, gilded capitals, a painting of the Baptism of Christ (1716) by Jacob de Wit, and stucco sculptures of God the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Church of Our Lord in the Attic
Interior of a seventeenth-century hidden Catholic house church, Museum Ons’Lieve Heer op Solder, Amsterdam.

This is the most famous of Amsterdam’s “hidden churches.” It served as the parish church for Catholics living in the city center for two hundred years.

In 2015 the museum constructed a new entrance building, which is connected to the historic house museum by an underground passage. This new building is where Tregot’s Deposition (station 13) is located, upstairs in a sleek new modern gallery space. I was super-impressed by the meticulous exhibition design, which organizes the space in a meaningful way. The Last Days is displayed opposite, on the other end of the gallery, a sixteenth-century Pietà carved in wood, from the museum’s permanent collection, which creates a conversation between the two. They are connected visually by a thick carpet of paint that runs from the wall and display platform on the one end, down across the floor, to the display platform and wall on the other end, with the color graduating from dark red to bright yellow. (I didn’t capture this on camera, but you can get an idea by looking at the photos on ArtWay.) The Pietà’s yellow backdrop, and the close-up graphic of a golden monstrance, like a sun, that rises up behind it, creates a sense of hope that’s missing from the Deposition when viewed in isolation.

Pieta (16th c)
Pietà, oak sculpture, early sixteenth century. Collection of the Museum Ons’Lieve Heer op Solder, Amsterdam.

Pieta (16th c)

Pieta (16th c, Mary detail)

These are the only two artworks on display in the gallery for the duration of Art Stations, which creates a sharper focus on Christ’s death, plus room to breathe. Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater for solo alto and orchestra plays quietly, forming the sonic environment for the sculptures.

Admission to this new gallery space is free while Art Stations lasts (through April 22), but entrance to the main museum will cost the usual €12.50. I highly recommend that while you’re there, you see it, leaving yourself at least an hour, and preferably more. The Museum Ons’Lieve Heer op Solder was one of the most interesting and unexpected things I saw in Amsterdam. I was shocked by how large it was inside, and how many rooms it contained, which I never would have expected from the street view. The museum is not just the attic church but the whole rest of the sixteenth-century home, where Jan Hartman and his family lived—sitting rooms, a reception hall, bedrooms, kitchens with Delft tiles, steep, narrow stairwells and corridors, and more. Complimentary audio guides are provided with different language options.

For a very detailed look at the history and layout of the building by the museum’s former director, Judikje Kiers, see https://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/teaching/case/olita/index.html.

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STATIONS 14–15. The last stop on the Art Stations tour is the Holy Sepulchre Chapel in the Oude Kerk (Old Church), home to a permanent site-specific installation by Giorgio Andreotta Calò, unveiled last September.

Old Church (Oude Kerk)
Oude Kerk (Old Church), Amsterdam

Founded around 1213 and consecrated in 1306, the Oude Kerk (originally called Sint-Nicolaaskerk, or the Church of Saint Nicholas) is Amsterdam’s oldest building. On the north side is the Heilig Grafkapel (Holy Sepulchre Chapel), built in 1515 as a replica of the tomb of Christ in Jerusalem. It used to house a sculpture group of the Lamentation of Christ—a burial scene that traditionally serves as the final station of the cross. However, on August 23, 1566, a Protestant mob destroyed the artwork, along with much of the rest of the church’s art and furnishings, an act of religiously fueled violence known as the Beeldenstorm (“Storm of Images”). Now all that remains in the chapel is a stone canopy and a shallow arched niche, the empty spaces beneath them evincing a glaring absence.

Anastasis by Giogio Andreotta Calo
Giorgio Andreotta Calò (Italian, 1979–), Αναστάσης (23 VIII 1566) [Anastasis], 2018. Permanent site-specific installation, including hand-blown and leaded red glass window, 387 × 156 cm (12′9″ × 5′1″). Holy Sepulchre Chapel, Oude Kerk, Amsterdam.
Calo, Giorgio Andreotta _Anastasis

Calo, Giorgio Andreotta _Anastasis

Calò’s installation in the small enclosed chapel is titled Anastasis, a Greek word meaning Resurrection. It consists of a red glass window (replacing the clear-glass reconstruction window from 1959) that casts a red glow over the whole space. Red is the color of anger, of the iconoclastic fury that swept through Europe in the sixteenth century. It’s also the color of blood, the blood that Christ shed on the cross—a color used to particular effect in the previous station. In addition, red safelights are used to develop photographs in darkrooms, and red fluorescent lights are used at night to light the windows of Amsterdam’s brothels, located in the same district as this church. There are lots of ways to experience the redness. Is it tense and oppressive? Does it scream? Is it warm? Does it flow from Christ’s wounds and wash you clean? Does it facilitate some kind of image processing? The multiplicity of the work—all its possible meanings—is part of what makes it good art.

The Art Stations curators chose to mark this site as station 14, the entombment, and station 15, the resurrection. This picks up on a tension the artist seems to be hinting at, a tension between destruction and renewal, death and life. This room is a tomb, but it’s an empty one. Christ is risen. Tomb has become womb. Calò subtitled the work with the date of the first major outbreak of iconoclasm in Amsterdam. Twelve years later, in 1578, the Protestant takeover of the city government led to the rechristening of this historically Catholic church as Calvinist, which it still technically remains today. Now centuries removed from these interdenominational conflicts, how are we doing? Has the church—that is, the church universal—risen above any of the infighting of its past? If the Protestant Reformation was a rebirth, what died?

These are complicated questions, and this final station brought me face-to-face with my own Protestant heritage, especially as it relates to a theology of images. While books could be written on this topic—and have been—I don’t have the ability to address it here and now. But I will say that the impulse of the Reformers to get rid of images in churches did have serious theological underpinnings; though their methods were extreme and, I’d say, wrong (the defacement, looting, and destruction of another’s property is a no-no), and though I mourn the loss of the many great medieval art treasures that irrecoverably fell to the fury, I believe that the Reformers were doing their best to faithfully interpret the scriptures and to promote sanctity in places of worship. So how do I, a Protestant, whose tradition in many ways still perpetuates a distrust of or even hostility toward religious images, justify my love of precisely those kinds of images my spiritual ancestors sought to ban? How do I answer question 109 of the Westminster Larger Catechism and still maintain a practice of using images of Christ in my devotions, and regularly publish them on this Art & Theology blog so that others might do the same?

Of course I’ve thought about this immensely and have avoided addressing it outright on the blog just yet because I want to be sure to approach it very carefully and respectfully and with the input of others, and with lots of historical research under my belt. But I will be addressing it!

As a postscript to this: From May 25 to September 23, 2018, the entire Oude Kerk was bathed in red light, as Giorgio Andreotta Calò, commissioned to create a new temporary work for the church, installed filters over all the windows. I suppose it was so well received by the public that the church invited him to preserve a remnant of the installation inside the Holy Sepulchre Chapel.

[Read commentary by curator Anikó Ouweneel]

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Art Stations of the Cross: Troubled Waters is in its last few days, ending April 22, the day after Easter. I appreciate how curators Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker and Anikó Ouweneel-Tóth made the exhibition distinctively Dutch while still able to be enjoyed by people outside the Netherlands. This is the first of the “Art Stations” projects to feature exclusively contemporary art, and it worked so well! I appreciate the diversity of host churches—Roman Catholic, Reformed, Walloon, Mennonite, Syrian Orthodox, Sant’Egidio and Spe Gaudentes communities—and of artists. This put me in touch with diverse histories, backgrounds, and styles.

Art Stations was a challenging but rewarding journey, a chance to enter into the suffering of refugees, persecuted religious minorities, descendants of slaves, modern-day (sex) slaves, abused children, bereaved parents, and so on, and to practice lament and intercession. I also had to confront my own complicity and/or indifference in some instances, especially in regards to environmental degradation. It was heavy—and it was supposed to be; it’s a cross-carrying journey. But the little cross I took up on the two days I walked these stations is nothing compared to the cross borne by those represented at each stop.

The good news is, the road ends with resurrection. It feels trite to say it, because Christ’s death-defeating power is not often (or at least not soon) felt in situations of trauma and loss. But it is the linchpin of Christianity: Christ is risen. He is also incarnate, which means we hurt with God, not without God. He is a flesh-and-bones God who invites us into his very life—but not before we enter into his death.

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