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Christ’s Passion and the Holocaust

13 March 2015

Pat Ashworth sees a series of Stations that bring both together

Parallel lines: Station I, "Jesus is condemned to death: the Jews are condemned to death"

Parallel lines: Station I, "Jesus is condemned to death: the Jews are condemned to death"

ANY art temporarily brought into Coventry Cathedral has to hold its own against the scale of a building where everything is big and bold and makes a statement. Ralph Beyer's ten giant stone plaques, The Tablets of the Word, arrest the onlooker with the promises of God in insistent words of scripture. It says something about the power of Jean Lamb's 32"-by-16" Stations of the Holocaust, shown beneath the tablets, that they manage to command attention in close-up, and draw the eye to themselves alone, in what is an intensely emotional experience.

The 14 reliefs, carved from a single piece of elm wood between 1999 and 2012 and now cast in jesmonite plaster, interweave the narrative of Christ's journey to the cross with the last hours of Jews in the death camps of the Holocaust. So each Station has a brusque, stark parallel, as in "Jesus takes up his cross: the Jews are made to cart off their dead"; "Jesus falls for the first time: a boy is shot"; "The deposition of Jesus from the cross; the Jews are lined up to be shot and to fall into pits".

Lamb, who is a C of E priest and whose German mother survived the Allied bombing of Berlin and the Russian occupation, has felt the Stations to be her calling. In naïve style and using earth pigments with splashes of primary colours in the garb of women, children, and angels, the reliefs shock and sear with the muscular physicality of Christ's dominating presence in the foreground of each work and the terrible miniatures of the Jewish story alongside or in the background.

It is most often the hands in relief that cut to the quick, especially the big, male hands of Christ gripping the heavy cross, and those of Simon of Cyrene and of the young man brought out of the crowd to lift the cross before it crushes Christ under the weight. In Station VII, "Jesus falls for the second time: the Jews are rounded up in the ghetto", the fallen Christ is depicted under the cross. His escaped, outsized hand is outstretched and curled above the uncompromising line of housing blocks that enclose the ghetto, wanting to encompass and protect the huddle of Jews rounded up at gunpoint.

Here in terrible cameos are the gas lorries, the gas chambers, the bloodied death pits, the open pyres, the masses of bodies, the impassive soldiers. The snaking railway line is a recurrent motif.

Station VIII, "The weeping women of Jerusalem: woman fleeing with her children: children punished in the death camps" is one of the most powerful: a mother with babe in arms, pulling along two blank-faced, doll-like children, is superimposed on the struggling figure of a set-faced Christ moving on bent legs in the opposite direction, while another woman covers her face with her hands and children hang limp from the gallows in the background.

Sister Mary Michael CHC has written a meditation for each Station based on the Psalms. Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg ponders with honesty and some pain in the catalogue on how difficult a work which tells the Jewish story in the context of the Stations of the Cross might be for Jews to contemplate. While describing it as brave work which offers links - "albeit fraught and disturbing ones" - between Christianity and Judaism at a time when sensitivity and co-operation between the faiths is of the utmost importance, he reflects, "While the suffering of one can express the sufferings of many, there can never be an equation with the unquantifiable horrors experienced by any group which has been subject to genocide."

"Stations of the Holocaust" is on exhibition at Coventry Cathedral until Good Friday (3 April). Phone 024 7652 1200.


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