What Jesus told ‘the multitudes’ in Mark 8, Matthew 16, and Luke 9 is direct and unambiguous. To follow Jesus—to live and act as his disciple—demands a decision. This decision essentially involves the readiness to suffer and even to die for one’s faith in the incarnate Son of God:
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. (Mark 8:34–35 NRSV)
Simone Martini presents the viewer with a dense composition. He tries to capture the claustrophobic press of the crowd around Jesus on the way to Calvary, giving special attention to Mary Magdalene—her anguish revealing her love for Jesus and ultimately the pain that all true followers of Jesus will and must be prepared to endure for the kingdom of love. In fact, it is her face, rather than Jesus’s, which is the most expressive of sorrow and distress in this scene.
Drawing upon the imposing crenelated walls and domed cathedral of his native town of Siena, Simone depicts the imagined architecture of Jerusalem, in a way that conveys Jerusalem’s as well as Siena’s role as seats of state and religious power. It is from this city in both its political and religious aspects (‘royal’ and ‘holy’) that Jesus, king of the Jews and Son of God, is being expelled.
Jan van Hemessen’s painting concentrates on Jesus, on his emotional state—his agony and sorrow, his carefully rendered naturalistic tears, his calm accepting demeanour—presenting them to the beholder for contemplation. Christ is carrying a massive cross; the Son of man, though innocent, is carrying the sin of the world. The cruel, merciless figures on either side of him—the determined, brutal soldiers on the left and, especially, the grotesque faces on the right—harshly contrast with the gentle-faced suffering servant, the saviour on the road to Golgotha. The scene evokes Jesus’s mention of an ‘adulterous and sinful generation’ (Mark 8:38).
Barnett Newman’s painting, Station 2 of the fourteen Stations of the Cross, is markedly different from the works by Simone and Hemessen from earlier centuries. An entirely abstract work, the canvas does not in itself disclose the theme of the painting.
Anyone with even a basic knowledge of Christianity will identify at once the subject of Simone’s and Hemessen’s paintings. Newman, however, indicates his subject matter—and thus gives meaning to his fourteen Stations—principally by their title. Indeed, without the title, most viewers (Christian or not) would have only a vague or no idea what the artist was trying to evoke in these monumental canvases.
The role of a title in suggesting possible interpretations of a work is something that takes on new importance in modern art, and particularly in abstract art. In Station 2, as in all other thirteen Stations, there is no figuration, no obvious message, except possibly only in an oblique way through the use of colour and form. The work hints at, rather than depicts upfront, the suffering Christ.
In an age that is no longer theocentric—in which God, and, for that matter, religious themes in art are far less prevalent than in the past—Newman’s oblique approach may not surprise us, even if in his time his rendering of The Stations of the Cross certainly was a new and most unusual venture. It has been widely regarded as his masterpiece. It has influenced, directly or indirectly, other contemporary artists in their depictions of the same theme, including, for example, Ellsworth Kelly and Günther Förg.
Newman’s canvas neither figuratively depicts Jesus’s taking up of the cross nor explicitly reproduces his radical message to his followers that they likewise must be prepared to suffer. It is radical in a different way. Yet—though far less explicit than Simone’s or Hemessen’s works—Newman’s work takes its place alongside them as an invitation to the contemporary viewer to enter into contemplation of the mystery of Jesus carrying the cross, the sin of the world, to Calvary—crucified man, Son of God. It asks to be viewed in the context of a series which culminates in Station 14, where Christ’s committal to the tomb is rendered in shades of white.
Through forfeit comes gain. Precisely through their openness, their lack of representational figures, their lack of clear statement, these fourteen images invite beholders to contemplate, to observe, to ask questions—to immerse themselves in the experience of seeing, and hence, possibly, in an experience of transcendence.
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.”