Glencairn Museum News | Number 9, 2013
A Popular Form of Devotion | For hundreds of years Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land have followed the Way of the Cross, retracing the footsteps of Jesus Christ on His sorrowful journey to Golgotha, the site of the crucifixion. Beginning in the fifteenth century this tradition inspired a popular form of devotion known as the Stations of the Cross, in which a series of fourteen images allow the faithful—most of whom will never be able to visit the Holy Land—to undertake a symbolic pilgrimage along the road to Golgotha. This spiritual practice is the focus of Glencairn Museum’s current exhibition, The Way of the Cross: Sculptures by Thorsten Sigstedt.
The Stations of the Cross may be arranged in narrative sequence around the walls of a church, or outdoors along a pathway. Each scene depicts an event from the story of the Passion of the Christ. This tradition is commonly observed by Anglicans, Lutherans, and Roman Catholics, and may be performed as either a public or private devotion.
In the early 1950s Thorsten Sigstedt (1884–1963), a woodcarver with a studio in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, carved the Stations of the Cross for St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Roxborough, a neighborhood in Northwest Philadelphia. Today these fourteen basswood relief sculptures remain a vital part of the devotional life of St. Timothy’s, with parishioners performing the stations annually on Good Friday—the day when Christians worldwide memorialize the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
At St. Timothy’s a clerical or lay celebrant leads members of the congregation from station to station. Special prayers and readings are offered, commemorating Christ’s progress along the Way of the Cross. The celebrant reads an opening versicle at each station, to which the people give a response in unison. One prayer asks, “Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace, through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord.”
In the early 1960s the Reverend Eugene F. Lefebvre, the rector at St. Timothy’s, gave permission for cast stone copies to be made of the stations for sale to other churches. Copies were purchased by congregations in Philadelphia, New York, Florida, and Oklahoma. Two of the original wood-carved relief sculptures (#7 and #8 in the center panel of the exhibition) are on loan from St. Timothy’s. The other twelve sculptures in the exhibition, cast from the originals by Oliver and Rachel Odhner (Sigstedt’s nephew and niece), are now in the collection of Glencairn Museum.
The subject matter and iconography of Sigstedt’s sculptures follow set conventions for the Stations of the Cross. Traditionally the stations have included both scenes from the Gospels (such as Christ’s words to the “daughters of Jerusalem” and the compassion of Simon of Cyrene) and apocryphal scenes (such as the Veil of Veronica and Jesus meeting His mother). The titles of the Stations of the Cross listed below are those written by Thorsten Sigstedt himself:
I. The Lord’s condemnation to death
II. Jesus receives the cross
III. Jesus falls under the cross
IV. Jesus meets His mother, whom He strengthens
V. The cross is laid on Simon of Cyrene
VI. St. Veronica wiping the face of Jesus
VII. Jesus falls the second time
VIII. Jesus meets the daughters of Jerusalem
IX. Jesus falls the third time
X. Jesus stripped of His garments
XI. Jesus nailed to the cross
XII. Jesus is crucified
XIII. Jesus taken down from the cross
XIV. Jesus laid in the sepulcher
The first station (I) illustrates the incident in the biblical account in which Jesus is condemned to death. According to Sigstedt, this scene shows Jesus “dressed in mock-regal splendor: a scarlet robe, a crown of thorns on His head, and a sea-reed as a scepter in His hand—depicting when Pilate said: “See the man” [John 19:5]. Spears outside the Judgment Hall, lightnings on the other side—symbols of violence” (Thorsten Sigstedt, “The Fourteen Stations of the Cross,” n.d.). The artist has indicated that the triangular shapes present in the composition of all fourteen of the sculptures have a specific meaning: “The triangular marks like arrowheads decoratively placed on all the plaques are ancient symbols of force. Being all pointed against Jesus they symbolize forces of evil” (Ibid.).
The sixth station (VI) depicts the story of Saint Veronica, an account not found in the Gospels. This tradition, first written down in the Middle Ages, describes Veronica’s encounter with Jesus while He was carrying the cross on the way to Golgotha. Moved with compassion, she wipes His face with her veil. The image of Christ's face is miraculously imprinted on the cloth, and later becomes a relic known as the Veil of Veronica. Sigstedt has explained the significance of the unusual shapes at the lower left of this scene: “Round forms and bent lines are ancient symbols of good” (Thorsten Sigstedt, “The Fourteen Stations of the Cross,” n.d.).
Thorsten Sigstedt (1884–1963) was born in Stockholm, Sweden, a country with a rich tradition of woodcarving. In his early teens he began a seven-year apprenticeship with a master woodcarver in Jönköping. He went on to improve his craft with additional study and work in Berlin and Hamburg, Germany; Copenhagen, Denmark; and Paris, France. Thorsten and his brother designed and made fine rococo furniture, which they sold in their Stockholm store. In the early 1920s he won a Swedish national contest for the commission to detail and carve the decorations on the royal ceremonial boat, Vasaorden, which is still used during royal weddings. (The original Vasaorden, dating from 1774, had been heavily damaged during a fire in 1921.)
In 1928 Sigstedt moved to the United States with his wife, Cyriel, a Swedenborgiana research scholar and archivist. He eventually settled with his family in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, where he maintained a home with a studio on Rose Lane. In 1945 Sigstedt was commissioned to carve three mahogany offertory bowls with religious scenes for Bryn Athyn Cathedral. In the late 1950s he was asked to make a fourth bowl. The bowls are nested, each one fitting into the next.
Sigstedt was an active member of the New Church (Swedenborgian Christian) congregation in Bryn Athyn. He held a particular interest in the history of art, especially as it relates to religion and the spiritual forces at work in an individual artist’s work:
“I am sure that deep within the artist, in his fervor, in his incredible daring in allowing himself to be led into these mysterious depths, searching for incalculable treasures and attempting to ultimate them in lifeless materials, there is a hidden religious current, of which he may not be consciously aware. But what he does know is that what he is doing is more than a play with colors and inter-relating lines and planes which we call forms. He is obeying calls from within, which are commands, and his desire is to become an easily moved living instrument for heavenly beings to play on, even if he is totally ignorant of the existence of heavenly beings” (Thorsten Sigstedt, “Art in Relation to Religion,” Consociation of New Churchmen, Summer 1948, 3).
Sigstedt won commissions for both ecclesiastical and non-ecclesiastical projects, creating his major works in the 1950s and early 60s. His works include carvings for the Dauphin County Courthouse in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; an eleven-foot figure of Christ for Messiah Lutheran Church in Philadelphia; carvings of Swedish pioneers for the Swedish American Museum in Philadelphia; fourteen Stations of the Cross for St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Roxborough, Philadelphia; and a large Christ as Victor statue for Gloria Dei Church in Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania.
Glencairn Museum would like to express its appreciation to the Reverend Kirk Berlenbach and the congregation of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in Roxborough, Pennsylvania, for the loan of two of their wood-carved Stations of the Cross.
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