By Sean Callahan
“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” This is the refrain of an African American spiritual, published just before the turn of the 20th century, which serves as the inspiration for the new Saint Vincent gallery exhibition, “Were You There? Artists Interpret the Way of the Cross.” Much of the artwork on display shows different perspectives of Jesus before, during and after his crucifixion. Several paintings show Jesus falling the first or second time, while carrying his cross, while another depicts an immense crowd observing his crucifixion.
According to Andrew Julo, curator of the Saint Vincent Art and Heritage Collection, the exhibition was planned to coincide with Holy Week, the final week of Lent. Were You There? is open for viewing from March 22 to April 2, in the Verostko Center for the Arts, at the Dale P. Latimer Library.
Julo explained that the spiritual—which provided inspiration for the exhibition’s title—challenges the audience to recall the sufferings of Christ, as manifested in the sufferings of humanity.
“The work featured in this exhibit demonstrates that the moments leading up to and following the public execution of Christ have been and continue to be a source of tremendous inspiration for artists,” Julo said.
In addition to the general exhibits, Julo highlighted the new Rare Book Reading Room, which includes manuscripts and texts related to the Benedictine order. Books included in the Were You There? exhibit were culled from both the library's general collection and Saint Vincent’s special collections.
Notably, several of the works in the exhibition were created by the artist Roman Verostko, from whom the gallery takes its name. Julo said Verostko has “deep roots” at Saint Vincent, due to his experience as a former member of the campus’ monastic community from 1953 to 1968 and his willingness to present his art as a gift to Saint Vincent, even now, at 91 years old.
Verostko is known for co-founding a movement of digital artists who create algorithmic art, termed ‘Algorists,’ alongside Jean-Pierre Hérbert, in 1995. Julo provided several examples of the artist’s accomplishments, which he said were a product of Verostko’s diverse experiences as a monk, author, educator and humanities scholar.
“In 1982, Verostko created a sequence of animated, non-repeating visual routines known as the Magic Hand of Chance, making it one of the first examples of generative art programmed using a PC,” Julo said.
Additionally, Julo noted that Verostko was one of the first to write code for creative purposes.
“Unlike many of his contemporaries who also worked with creative coding and who came from computer science backgrounds, Verostko was formally trained as an artist before learning to code,” Julo said.
The most recent of Verostko’s works on display is a mixed media image of George Floyd combined with a depiction of the veil Veronica used to wipe the face of Jesus. Julo said that Verostko offered it as a gift in honor of the election of Archabbot Martin de Porres Bartel, O.S.B., who was elected in June of 2020.
Despite the exhibition—which ends just before Easter—having a limited run, Julo hopes the many pieces of artwork in Were You There? will show perspectives of society through Christ’s suffering.
“Artists' representations of the Way of the Cross invite us to contemplate the treatment of Christ as having resonance with how others are treated today,” Julo said.