One of the leading Abstract Expressionists, Barnett Newman (1905–70), an American of Jewish Polish–Russian descent, painted his Stations of the Cross between 1958 and 1966. It is a series of fourteen very large canvases in his typical minimalist style of expansive colour fields with vertical bands and lines. The canvases here are in white and black, interrupted by bands of different sizes spaced at varying intervals. In Western Art white has frequently connoted innocence, purity, and light, while black has been associated with darkness and death.
Newman wrote: ‘Lema Sabachtani—why? Why did you forsake me? Why forsake me? To what purpose? Why? This is the Passion. This outcry of Jesus. Not the terrible walk up the Via Dolorosa, but the question that has no answer’ (O’Neill 1992: 188).
It was not just Jesus’s outcry and suffering that Newman sought to capture in choosing the traditional format of The Stations but the agony of each single human being in this world. Newman regarded the human as ‘tragic’, a tragedy that essentially manifests itself, as he said, in the ‘metaphysical problem’ that each person is single, alone, yet belongs and is part of another (O’Neill 1992: 257–58).
It is remarkable that Newman, a Jew, should choose to paint over eight years—un-commissioned and of his own desire—this central Christian theme. The tradition of representing the Stations of the Cross goes back to the early Christian pilgrims who visited Jerusalem, walking in devotion and prayer along the path of Jesus to Calvary. Working in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and in the context of the Cold War and the Vietnam War, Newman’s focus in this set of works may have been not only Jesus but the whole human condition. Yet it is curious that he would engage with this most quintessentially Christian devotional subject—Christ the symbol of human suffering—to such an extent.
True to his own artistic style and true to the Jewish prohibition of religious imagery, Newman presents us with an ‘imageless image’, a non-figurative evocation of Jesus on the way to the crucifixion. The final work in the series, Station 14, traditionally represents Jesus laid in the tomb and in Newman’s conception is represented entirely in shades of white—possibly a concluding hint at the transcendence of Jesus’s and of all human suffering into resurrection and eternal life.
O’Neill, John P. (ed.). 1992. Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews (Berkeley: University of California Press), pp. 188, 257–58
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life? 27For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done. 28Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.”
34 And he called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? 37For what can a man give in return for his life? 38For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
9 And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”
23 And he said to all, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it. 25For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? 26For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. 27But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”