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Sydney artist Justin O'Brien painted a series on the Stations of the Cross.  His works have been on display at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Stephen Hackett MSC, Chairman of the National Liturgical Architecure and Art Board, delivered a paper on the Stations.  This serves as a Lenten Reflection.


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Exhibition Talk, given at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 9th February 2011

Justin O’Brien’s ‘Stations of the Cross’

The Stations of the Cross are, arguably, a wonderful commission for an artist to receive. At a solely pragmatic level, the Stations of the Cross involve fourteen paintings or carvings or etchings – enough to occupy and sustain an artist for a considerable length of time. At an artistic level the Stations of the Cross range across our human experience and its concomitant emotions: suffering, tenderness, perseverance, humiliation, love, injustice, grief, anguish, embrace, loss. And at a symbolic level the Stations of the Cross are laden with meaning: journey and destiny, the cruciform human body, the cross as axis mundi, being lifted up from the earth. All of this was implicit in the commission Justin O’Brien received to paint the Stations of the Cross which were to hang in the chapel of Cabrini Hospital at Malvern in suburban Melbourne.

Before looking to the Stations of the Cross painted by Justin O’Brien, it might be helpful to first survey the history of the Stations of the Cross; and then to look at the structure and sequence of the fourteen stations, both traditional and more recent Scriptural versions. Finally, I would like to propose three ‘lenses’ through which we might look at these Stations of the Cross that constitute part of Justin O’Brien’s legacy.

The Stations of the Stations of the Cross, sometimes referred to as the Via Crucis or Way of the Cross, or as the Via Dolorosa or Way of Grief, take us back to the final journey Jesus walked in his human life. Beginning with or after his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane which is in the Kedron Valley at the base of the Mount of Olives and outside Jerusalem’s city walls, the Stations of the Cross take us from the arrest of Jesus there, back into Jerusalem and across the city to the Praetorium and the contrived trial of Jesus before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, and to the moment Jesus takes up carrying the cross. The Way of the Cross is tortuous; recall perhaps Mel Gibson’s relentlessly violent depiction of it in his film The Passion of the Christ. Eight of the traditional Stations of the Cross convey incidents or moments as Jesus makes his way from the Praetorium to the hill of execution named Golgotha, the place called ‘The Skull’. The remaining Stations recount the crucifixion of Jesus, his being taken down from the cross, and his burial in a tomb nearby.

We can loosely trace the history of the Stations of the Cross to the fourth century. I say ‘loosely’ because the Stations in fact originated as a medieval devotion. However, two foundations for the Stations were established in the fourth century. The first is the memorial buildings – churches, martyria and related structures - built by Constantine at the sites in and near Jerusalem where the faithful of the Jerusalem Church had from as early as the second century commemorated the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. These include the Church of the Resurrection – known today as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – together with the Eleona Church at the Mount of Olives. So we have here the beginning of the custom of honoring places that are significant in the Gospel story of Jesus Christ, and particularly his passion, death and resurrection, by erecting churches, a custom still very much alive today.

The second fourth century foundation of the Stations of the Cross is the testimony of the woman known as Egeria or Aetheria, a pilgrim from France. Her account tells of a procession by the bishop of Jerusalem and about 200 faithful – apparently a regular event - that commemorated Jesus Christ with prayers, singing of psalms and proclamations of the gospel at these memorial churches and other sacred places. Though clearly not the Way of the Cross this procession certainly prefigures a devout recalling of the passion of Jesus, while also revealing that by the end of the fourth century pilgrimage was already becoming established as a revered Christian practice.

Jerusalem, with its history of conflict, destruction, rebuilding, crusades, and three religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – has ever been the city of the historical Way of the Cross. In the Middle Ages, an era of heightened devotional practice and dramatic representation of Christian faith, the attraction of Jerusalem gave rise to a desire on the part of devout Christians who couldn’t travel to the Holy Land to reproduce locally the processions that took place there commemorating Jesus’ Via Crucis. During this same era suffering, death and sin were ever present, and the image of God suffering in the person of Jesus in the Stations of the Cross may have been appealing to the medieval spiritual mindset. Three saints, Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi, and Bonaventure, prepared the way for the Stations of the Cross; within a century the devotion had begun to grow in popularity. Now at this time and for centuries to come, the devout made the Stations out-of-doors.

The long formation of the Stations of the Cross and the varying influences upon the Stations over this time meant that initially the Stations were without uniformity. There are known to have been as many as four versions of the first Station and varying subjects thereafter; and varying numbers of Stations, too: more than thirty by one account. It wasn’t until the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries that a succession of popes gradually permitted displays of the Stations of the Cross to be erected in churches. In 1731 Pope Clement XII fixed the number of Stations at fourteen. In 1742 Pope Benedict XIV urged every church to display them.

Which all but brings us to the present day, bar one further point that ought to be noted: while the name ‘Stations of the Cross’ is almost invariably associated with images of the fourteen Stations, the Stations of the Cross are actually the crosses that go with each  Station; the paintings or carvings or etchings depict what each cross represents. Today the Catholic Church recognises two forms of the Stations of the Cross, the traditional fourteen, and a Scriptural Way of the Cross first used by the Servant of God Pope John Paul II at the Colosseum on Good Friday in 1991.

The traditional Stations incorporate nine Gospel subjects (and here I am using the version of the traditional titles which are used with Justin O’Brien’s Stations of the Cross): Jesus is condemned to death; Jesus is made to bear his Cross; The Cyrenean helps Jesus to carry his cross; Jesus speaks to the Daughters of Jerusalem; Jesus is stripped of His garments; Jesus is nailed to the Cross; Jesus dies on the Cross; Jesus is taken down from the Cross; and Jesus is placed in the Sepulchre. The other five traditional stations are not explicitly mentioned in the Gospels: Jesus falls the first time under the Cross; Jesus meets his afflicted Mother; Veronica wipes the face of Jesus; Jesus falls for the second time; and Jesus falls the third time. Yet the absence of these Stations from the Scriptures ought not to be interpreted in terms of fictional origins but of them coming rather from a profound religious instinct which contemporary theologians sometimes refer to as the ‘Catholic imagination’.

The fourteen recently devised Scriptural Stations of the Cross were not intended as a corrective or replacement of the traditional version, but rather as a rediscovery of subjects that have been absent or very much in the background. It is worth mentioning, too, that the formulas for announcing and praying each station vary markedly. Over the years the Church has authorised the use of alternative formulas and, as a visit to any Catholic bookstore or an online search will reveal, there are still more versions of the Stations of the Cross available; which witnesses to their continuing place in Catholic life and the ease with which people of faith identify with the both the prayers and images that accompany the Stations.

The Stations of the Cross, found in most Catholic churches and chapels, as well as in miniature form in a number of homes, can be prayed privately at any time; and there is a special communal devotion to praying the Stations together in churches on Fridays during the season called Lent, a period of forty days in which the Church prepares to commemorate the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus in the three holiest days of the year, from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday. The Good Friday morning public celebration of the Way of the Cross often brings together people from different Christian communities to pray the Stations. Even where the Stations are simply observed in Catholic churches, these devotions are usually very well attended.

At the beginning I spoke of three ‘lenses’ through which we might view Justin O’Brien’s Stations of the Cross. These three ‘lenses’ are not exclusive; indeed if we look at these fourteen works as O’Brien intended at least two of these ‘lenses’ will come into play at any one time. I’m calling them the human lens, the faith lens and the artistic lens.

The human lens emerges from our experience and our capacity for empathy, for identifying with those who suffer. In the unfolding story of the Stations of the Cross it is twofold: an empathy, an identifying with the man named Jesus in his suffering, particularly as the brutality to which he is subjected makes his inevitable death seem like a liberation from all he has to endure; and an empathy, an identifying with those who are so deeply moved by his plight, who each in their own way feel for him and with him: Simon of Cyrene, the women of Jerusalem, the unknown Veronica, John the youngest disciple, Mary the Mother of Jesus; maybe even the weak, hapless figure of Pontius Pilate.

Empathising with, identifying with the man named Jesus in his suffering is something we can all feel moved to, but especially if any of us have suffered from life-threatening illness, or have been in a terrible accident that left us struggling between life and death, or have faced death repeatedly such as happens in war, which Justin O’Brien’s had experienced during his military service and as a prisoner of war. Empathising with those who are profoundly moved by Jesus on his Way of the Cross is something with which more of us will more readily identify. This is the experience parents sitting by the hospital bed of their infant child who is in an induced coma and may not make it; this is a husband or wife sitting with spouse as life ebbs away in the final throes of cancer; this is the families of those unaccounted for in the recent floods, hoping for good news but suffering all the while as the situation becomes more and more hopeless.

The human lens through which we might view Justin O’Brien’s Stations of the Cross is the lens of human suffering. It isn’t an easy lens to peer through. Yet it seems to me that suffering is an ineluctable part of being human. When suffering confronts us we can avoid it or deny it but we cannot make it go away. It just is. And if we view these Stations of the Cross through the human lens, through the human experience of, the human encounter with suffering, we may see and recognise something otherwise hidden from us; we might learn something about suffering and what it means to be human. I’m not saying that suffering in itself is a good thing. But I am saying that it is not meaningless, for it can teach us about ourselves, about life, about what we call the human condition – that which we share with every living person. Sharing in some way in the suffering of others can stir within us the gift of compassion. Surely this is what Justin O’Brien is referring to when he states: ‘I have always tried to find a symbol when drawing the face of Christ – not one man but all men in one, a never-changing face.’

The second lens through which we might view these Stations of the Cross is the lens of faith. What I’d like to reflect upon here presumes no faith on the part of any of us, but looks rather to the faith of Jesus. The Christian Scriptures teach that Jesus was obedient to death, death on a cross. The same Scriptures tell us that in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before he died Jesus uttered a prayer from the very depth of his being, that he might be spared the agony awaiting him, but that not his will but God’s will be done. Jesus’ obedience to God, his doing God’s will even to death on a cross, can at face value create for us a distorted idea of God, of a god who is cruel and heartless.

To make sense of the obedience of Jesus, of his self-sacrifice in doing the will of God, we need to go back to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and beyond. There is much in the Gospels that I might set before you, but to stay within the scope of this exhibition, I will refer only to the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan, and to echoes of what occurred there in his Transfiguration. At his Baptism, as Jesus came up out of the waters of the Jordan, he heard a voice – the voice of God – naming him Son, beloved Son. The same voice spoke to him when he was transfigured on the mountain. And again that voice named him Son, beloved Son. In each of these instances – in his Baptism and his Transfiguration the voice Jesus heard confirmed what he already knew – that he was totally, utterly loved by God. Indeed this knowledge, this awareness, is at the heart of all that he taught about God. Jesus knew in the same depths of his being from which he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before he died that God loved him beyond measure. He knew that God, of God’s very being, is love. That’s why the core of Jesus’ message, of the words he spoke and the deeds he did, was love: he taught people about the God he had come to know. It is, surely, why he gave but one new commandment: to love one another as he had himself loved us.

So then, faced with the cross, confronted by death if he remained obedient to God and accepting of God’s will, Jesus knew above all else in his life that he was beloved of God, that he was Son; he knew that the love God had for him was immensely greater than anything human life could inflict upon him, including death; he knew that God would never let him go. Jesus’ obedience, then, his doing of God’s will, was a surrender of his human life not to a cruel and heartless god but to a God whose love was stronger than death. And, as the Gospels recount, God did not let go of Jesus but raised him up on the third day – which is what Christians celebrate at Easter: the resurrection of Jesus and the new life he offers.

The faith that constitutes this second lens, then, is the faith of Jesus, grounded in God’s love for him. It is this faith that enables him to keep stepping forward in his Way of his Cross, even to death. Christians share this faith of Jesus and, indeed, this faith opens for us a way to enter into what is commemorated, what is prayed in the Stations of the Cross. But as we view Justin O’Brien’s Stations, none of us needs to share the faith of Jesus to recognise and understand what it was in Jesus that enabled him to walk the Way of his Cross, to walk the path that is marked out for us by the Stations of the Cross, obedient to the will of God.

The third lens I’ve called the artistic lens. I don’t intend here to comment on O’Brien’s depiction of each Station of the Cross one by one; rather to draw to your attention some of the features of this series of works in pen and ink and aquarelle. First let’s look to the figure of Jesus. His face remains implacably calm, revealing little of the pain and turmoil that must have accompanied his way up Golgotha; or is it a look of quietly suffering endurance; or a serenity that comes from already having handed over his life, on the one hand to those who will crucify him and on the other hand to God?

Now if Jesus’ face reveals relatively little, his eyes reveal much. They show his feeling in every Station, especially when he is looking upon others – his steady gaze at Pilate; his pity for his mother in the sorrow she is bearing because of him – note that their eyes do not meet; his alertness to the reflection of his face, held by Veronica; nailed to the cross but not lifted up, his looking up to God whom he cannot see. From the first to eleventh Stations the eyes of Jesus reveal his life slowly drawing to its close as he staggers up hill to his crucifixion.

Next his tunic: the Gospel tells us Jesus’ garment was seamless, so well made and of apparent value that the soldiers who stripped him later cast lots to see who would have it. This tunic stands out brightly from the first Station, its orange-gold colour fading as the end nears – compare the change in colour from the first four Stations to the ninth and tenth. The tunic is diaphanous: it covers the nakedness that will be shown, save his modesty, in the last four Stations. But it does not clothe Jesus in any real sense; rather the tunic reveals his body: from the moment Pontius Pilate hands him over to be crucified, the human body of Jesus which will be nailed to a cross is physically present in every Station. And when he is stripped before being crucified, those who remove his tunic are almost reverential in their manner, with no hint of brutality. Justin O’Brien uses this style of portrayal in other works as well; yet here in this series of fourteen works the human body of Jesus is kept subtly before our eyes.

Lastly of the figure of Jesus, we might look to the cross he carries and upon which he is crucified, featuring in eleven of the fourteen Stations. It isn’t a dramatically heavy cross, one which we can imagine Jesus would constantly struggle to remain upright beneath as he carried it. No, this cross is as much symbolic as it is realistic, signifying the burden of human sinfulness from Jesus will free humankind by his death and resurrection. Note the three Stations where Jesus falls: in the third Station he is weary, but regains his strength sitting up from the cross, which stretches away from him into the background; in the seventh Station he is again over the cross, this time forced to his knees, as he pushes himself up from the cross and from the ground. In both of these Stations one hand rests upon the crossing where the beams intersect while his feet remain apart. The third time he falls, depicted in the ninth Station, Jesus is almost upon the cross: one arm touches the end of the beam where soon it will be nailed, his feet are crossed just as they will be when nailed together, and having fallen backward across the cross he struggles to stand again.

The figure of the Mother of Jesus appears in only the fourth and thirteenth Stations. In the earlier of these she stands out more, robed in blue, and reaches out to her son who is robed in orange-gold. In the second she cradles his dead body after it has been taken down from the cross. The Scriptures don’t tell us of this encounter; rather it comes from the religious intuition I mentioned earlier; who else but the mother would hold the limp bloodied body of her dead son prior to preparation for burial? Here her attire is plain, as befits the sallow complexion of her dead son’s body. This scene is, of course, the source of the Pieta, the familiar image of the sorrowing Mary holding the dead body of Jesus and grieving for him.

Somewhat characteristic of Justin O’Brien’s style, all of the figures in his Stations of the Cross are drawn elongated; all have flattened faces. Other than Jesus and Mary, the other figures barely stand out at all. They stand so still, so silent. We’re meant to observe them there, but the story is not about them so they are not to the fore at all. No, the story is about Jesus and his cross; it is the image of Jesus that must catch our eye – and our empathy - throughout these fourteen Stations.

Moving away from the figures, as you view the Stations you might notice how the medieval depiction of Jerusalem blends into the hard-edged terrain. There is a sharp and jagged verticality in this terrain, found in other of O’Brien’s works, though here it conveys a sense of foreboding and violence. Even though some of the figures cast a soft shadow upon the ground, it is the shadow on the dark sides of the jutting rock formations that give us some sense of the movement of the sun in the sky, a sun we observe dimly in the second, sixth, tenth and twelfth Stations. The ink line drawing and shading that create the darker shadows, as well as the folds in garments, is amongst the finest in these fourteen works. Coming to the twelfth Station, Jesus dies on the Cross, pay attention to what has happened to the jagged terrain: the terrain that has loomed large or at least figured prominently in most of the Stations is now overshadowed by the cross and Christ crucified being lifted up above it. Here, centred perfectly on the paper – the only Station where the cross is so centred - the cross becomes an axis mundi, the cosmic axis, the centre of the world. Note too what is absent here: often the faithful women or at least his Mother and the youngest of the male disciples, as well as some soldiers, are shown near the foot of the cross. Yet for Justin O’Brien there is only Jesus, only his cross. And though the Gospel presents the moment of Jesus’ death as occurring in mid-afternoon darkness, attributed to an eclipse, there is a transcendent luminosity surrounded by a gentle darkness behind the cross; yet it is not this luminosity that is casting the shadows in the terrain. O’Brien’s interpretation of the twelfth Station conveys both the utter solitude of dying and the mystery of passing from life into death.

Finally, the muted colours and limited range of hues used by Justin O’Brien in his Stations of the Cross warrant at least a comment. These soft, pale colours stand in such contrast with the Byzantine-like brilliance of so many of his other religious works. Those richly coloured paintings, which include scenes that are also Stations of the Cross, almost come out to meet us. But not O’Brien’s Stations; we have to go to them and give their detail considerable attention if we’re not to miss what is before our eyes. And one of the elements of what is before our eyes in these fourteen Stations is the changing sky. While the foreground of earth remains fairly constant throughout, changing only a little, the colour and wash of the sky differs from Station to Station.

I don’t know if the commission the artist received specified pen and ink with aquarelle, instead of oils; or whether this was negotiated as his preference in accepting the commission. Perhaps the choice had as much to do with the place in which the Stations were to be housed – a chapel in a Catholic hospital, circa 1960. Such chapels are generally not large and might easily be overwhelmed by fourteen works in brighter, deeper, bolder oils. Moreover, hospitals are places of suffering and death, as well as of healing and new life, so the more muted tones of these Stations may have better suited the anticipated spiritual needs of patients and staff. Whatever the historical explanation, the chosen media, while perhaps lacking the drama and depth of more colourful oils, has created fourteen Stations that have about them a sobriety, even a stately quality which calls forth in us not an emotive response but one of contemplation.

In the fourth Gospel, John recounts that after Jesus had died on the cross one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear – to ensure he really was dead – and blood and water flowed out. This, says John, was to fulfil the prophecy spoken through Zechariah more than 300 years earlier, that ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced’. I think that is what we are invited to do: to look upon the portrayal of Jesus in these Stations of the Cross: to look through the lens of our humanity; to look through the lens of the faith of Jesus, and for those of us who share his faith, through the lens of our own faith as well; and to look through the lens of art. Then we might come to appreciate what Justin O’Brien is saying to us in these masterfully delicate and beautifully detailed works.

Stephen Hackett MSC


Leslie J Hoppe, The Synagogues and Churches of Ancient Palestine, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, 1994.

Richard Krautheimer, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1986.

Piero Marini, ‘The Way of the Cross’, Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, www.vatican.va, sourced 1st February 2011.

Peter and Lindsay Murray, ‘Stations of the Cross’, in The Oxford Companion to Christian Art and Architecture, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998, pp. 505-506.

Barry Pearce & Natalie Wilson, Justin O’Brien: the Sacred Music of Colour, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2010.

Lucien J Richard, ‘Suffering’, in The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship, ed. Peter E Fink, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, 1990, pp. 1234-1237.

Richard Viladesau, The Beauty of the Cross: the Passion of Christ in Theology and the Arts – from the Catacombs to the Eve of the Renaissance, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.

Christopher Walsh, ‘Stations of the Cross’, in The New SCM Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship, ed. Paul F Bradshaw, SCM Press, London, 2002, p. 450.