Stations: Artist’s Introduction

Artist's Introduction

Faith Tolkien 

My first idea for this commission was that the interior of the church could be encircled by the story of Holy Week, the week in which we celebrate Jesus' accomplishment of his mission, our salvation: this is the heart of our faith and the heart of the Christian year. I hoped the stations would inspire meditation and praise, and would renew faith and hope in everyone who looked at them. Of course, many of them depict great suffering: nevertheless, the complete story of the Gospel – the good news – 'glad tidings of great joy'. It had been agreed that all the stations should be scripturally based so that they could speak to all Christians and so help to bring Christians together.

I thought very much about how to depict Jesus, turning in my mind not only to Holy Week, but also to the rest of his life as recounted in the Gospels. What characterized him most? He is the Son of God; he is a Jew steeped in the Scriptures; compassionate and calm, but occasionally very angry; a healer, a teacher who tells vivid stories to convey his message; always for the spirit, never for the letter, of the law; never deflected from his mission whatever fears, disappointments, betrayals and misinterpretations beset him; before his mission started, he worked for years as a carpenter. All this brought me to what was summed up by Julian of Norwich, the great 14th-century English spiritual writer, in the phrase 'marvellous homeliness'. By 'homeliness' she would have meant not our contemporary understanding of the word: in her day homeliness meant 'familiarity', 'intimacy', 'simplicity', and 'kindness' – all of which seemed Jesus' characteristic way. So Holy Week starts with the Son of God entering Jerusalem on a donkey and ends with him breaking the bread in a village inn. His parables are rooted in everyday experience – losing and finding, crops, money, meals, relationships at home and at work. When he is challenged there is often and earthy common sense in his reply. He relates to people – his disciples, friends, children, someone he has healed – in a simple and immediate way: in these stations there is tenderness as he holds Peter's foot to wash it, as he shoulders John's head, or as he puts the bread into the waiting hands. Creatures are part of the 'homely' scene – donkeys, dogs, hens, sheep, and birds – present at such momentous times during this special week.

I wanted the stations to appeal to all ages, as well as to all Christians. Children respond instinctively to a story: to make the most of the dramatic quality of this story, whether for children or adults, I have also broken with tradition by varying the scale in these stations. Each scene is confined within a circle 16 inches in diameter; within this limitation, I allowed myself the invaluable freedom of variation in scale. We are all used to this device in the cinema and on the television screen. Thus, for example, in the Thirteenth Station, using a smaller scale, I could show a landscape and sky behind Jesus and Mary Magdelene, with all that that could suggest of the early dawn, tranquillity, and freedom; whereas the comparative close-up of the three figures in the last station suggest the intimacy and simplicity of the evening scene around that table in the inn. Change of scale also gave me the space, when I needed it, to present dramatic contrasts within the same station – seen, for example, in the Seventh Station, 'Jesus is condemned'. In the Eleventh Station, 'Jesus is crucified', we again have dramatic contrasts with a commonplace scene in the foreground and one of agony and grief in the furthest background.

Although each station is scripturally based, I was allowed a certain artist's licence. Some images are there because they carry particular associations: the dog, for instance, watching Jesus wash his disciples' feet – part of the domestic scene then, just as it is now; or the apple in the scourging and in the mockery of Jesus, reminding us of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden of Eden; or the well and the vine in the first resurrection station – suggesting the living water of the Spirit and the wine of the 'new and everlasting covenant'. Leaves are there in a number of the stations partly because they would have just been there, but also suggesting what we have all experienced, that through the greatest tragedies or the greatest joys, life just goes on. Aspects of the natural world can also express a certain mood, as does the dark and forbidding wood in Gethsemane, or the lush and tranquil scene surrounding the risen Lord and Mary Magdelene.

The range and power of human emotions in this story struck me very forcibly. I sought to express this chiefly by the human figure, which by its very attitude can say so much. In several stations, for example the trial scene, I used the dramatic contrast between movement and stillness, whereas in others the power comes from the unity of the figures, as in the Twelfth Station, where the four mourners are united in their grief as together they hold the dead body of Jesus; or again in the second station, as the other disciples watch intently as Jesus holds Peter's foot to wash it. As well as the whole figure, I used facial expression, as, for instance, in the last station, the old man's look of amazed wonder as he recognizes the risen Lord offering the broken bread. I used, too, the gaze which can link two persons together, as, for example, Jesus and Simon of Cyrene; or the gaze averted as Jesus turns his head away from Judas in the Fifth Station, or when Peter in shame turns away from the gaze of Jesus in the next station. Hands are very important through the sequence. Indeed, I have thought that they could be a source of meditation in their own right: Jesus' hands – raised in blessing, giving the bread, washing the feet, praying to his father, roped together, tied to the pillar, holding the reed and the apple, roped together again, nailed to the cross, his dead hand held by Mary Magdelene, his living hand raised to calm her, and finally, once again, offering the broken bread in the inn; and others' hands – receiving, condemning, mocking, holding the cross, praying, holding the dead Lord, and finally, greeting the risen Lord. And, forever after, Christians are called to be the 'hands of Christ'.

I must add that I did not wish to say something closed and definitive in these stations, but hoped that they would be open and invite each person to make their own response. I have since been encouraged by people's thoughts on some of them which I had never thought of myself. That is as it should be: long may it continue! 

It was a great honour to be given this commission, for which I will always be grateful. It took me three years to carry out, during which time I was most kindly supported and encouraged by Fr Egan, Nicholas and Pam Coote, and Pat Hart. When a problem arose, we could always talk it through and arrive at a shared decision. I would also like to thank His Grace the Archbishop of Birmingham to whom I wrote to explain the reasons for this new sequence of stations, and whose permission was then given to carry them out.

The day of the blessing and celebration of the stations by Bishop Crispian Hollis was one of the happiest days of my life. That they continue to be part of the worship in Corpus Christi church and to inspire and speak to everyone who contemplates them, is my best reward.

Finally, I would like to pay tribute to my dear friend Patrick Davies. He helped me with all these stations, coming down from London every fortnight for two or three days. He entered wholeheartedly into what I was trying to do. He was a very patient model for all the figure work and gave me invaluable help in designing each station. He was, too, a perceptive and constructive critic. His interest in the whole project was genuine and quite selfless; the time and attention he gave to it was more than generous. He died on 18 December, 1996. May he rest in peace.