During Holy Week, it is common for churches to provide opportunities to enter imaginatively into the Passion narrative. Whether Maundy Thursday watches, Stations of the Cross, pilgrimages, or contemplative church services, these moments help us find our place in the Easter story. This year, St Paul’s and St George’s, a Scottish Episcopal Church in Edinburgh, transformed their church building into ‘an interactive thought-provoking journey through the experience of Easter.’ I had the opportunity to visit Journey Through Easter and reflect upon my response to the Passion narrative as facilitated through directed participation and works of visual art.
St Paul’s and St George’s recently renovated the interior of their sanctuary, removing the pews and thus creating a space able to accommodate events such as Journey Through Easter. As I entered the sanctuary, the lights were low, the music haunting (a saxophonist with Gregorian chanting was the soundtrack), and my eyes were presented with a variety of visual stimuli. Guided by a stone and tea light lined path, I started on ‘Holy Ground’ and I took off my shoes. As I self-consciously struggled to take off the boots required for an unseasonably cold March, I am reminded of Jesus stooping low to wash the feet of his disciples at that Last Supper. The path guided me through the Passion events as narrated in the Gospel of Matthew – Mary’s anointing of Christ, the Last Supper, Gethsemane, the Passion and the Resurrection. At each station was a mix of paintings, sculpture and interactive installations. At times, I was directed in what to do: ‘Dip your ribbon in this scented water and contemplate on Mary Magdalene’s anointing of Christ the Saviour.’ At other times, I found familiar scenes, such as the Last Supper set up with communion cups and bits of bread. These elements were set among a platter overflowing with grapes and a whole loaf begging to be torn apart and shared with others at the table. The chancel was transformed into a Garden of Gethsemane with turf laid on the floor and trees sculpted from paper. As I approached the altar, I discovered drawings of the sleeping disciples hung between the trees. At the altar, a sign suggested planting a flower and then reflecting on what it means to submit to God’s will as Christ had done. The end of the journey led to a large crown suspended in the middle of the space, under which one is invited to sit, reflect, and write or draw a response onto large chalkboards.
As a participant, the first thing that struck me is that despite the journey not being wholly chronological (for example, the crucifixion happens before Mary’s anointing), one’s tacit knowledge of the story means that the disruption to the chronology evoked new questions and even conflicting interpretations of the works of art that followed. A familiar story became, in that moment, slightly unfamiliar, causing me to pause and think again upon the significance of the events taking place. While this was an opportunity for me to rethink a story I know very well, I did wonder to what extent someone with little or no knowledge of the narrative would make of the experience. Would they ‘get’ what the sometimes very traditional Christian symbols were pointing to? Would the ambiguity distract or would it raise questions and create curiosity to find out more?
In the evening, the church held their Maundy Thursday service in the round underneath the crown that had been suspended. It was during this service that I realised the poignancy of what the art was doing in the space; it was much more than an art exhibition. Rather than entering the space as a critic, judging the work as good or bad, we entered the space as a participant. Earlier in the day, I sat as one of the disciples at the Last Supper and imagined my surprise when Jesus broke the bread; in the evening, as we contemplated the magnitude of that moment and took of the elements, my earlier participation still had me in the story. Journeying through Easter, participating in the visual and allowing it to disrupt the familiar, led to new and deeper insights about my part in the story.
Journey Through Easter will be open Good Friday, 10am -10pm, and Easter Saturday, 10am-4pm. The church is located at 10 Broughton St, Edinburgh.
Photo: Author’s own
Sara Schumacher is Editor-in-Chief of Transpositions and a PhD candidate within ITIA, researching contemporary church patronage of the arts.