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Inside NCR

Artist looks at passion through the dark

Things went downhill quickly after that Sunday with the throng of people and the palms waving and donkey-ride. The Thursday dinner obviously made a big impression on some who were there, although we will never know for sure just who was there. Then Good Friday came upon them fast. From the perspective of our time and place, when a legal execution takes 12 to 20 years to carry out, it’s hard to keep up with all that happened on that Friday.

When Jesus was finally dead -- so the gospel story goes -- darkness came down. Ever since then, his followers have been intrigued imagining what happened. A great diversity of art has come out of this wonder and speculation.

One recent effort is “Tenebrae,” a large triptych by Melissa Weinman, which graces our cover this week. Weinman, from Tacoma, Wash., was placed fourth by Sr. Wendy Beckett in NCR’s Jesus 2000 contest for her “Study of Christ.”

“Tenebrae” is presently on view as part of a solo exhibition of Weinman’s work at the Sandpiper Gallery in Tacoma.

The following is what the artist herself wrote about the process and the picture:

In March 1999, I began work on a 13-by-6 foot triptych about grief. I call this picture Tenebrae, a liturgical term. Tenebrae, which is Latin for darkness, refers to the three hours of darkness that occurred between 6 and 9 on the day Christ was crucified. I chose the darkness as a visual metaphor for grief, thus Tenebrae is a fitting title for my painting of the grief-stricken Mother Mary on the day of Christ’s death.
The two flanking, smaller canvases are centered against the middle canvas forming a cross, thereby alluding to the crucifixion without actually painting it. The picture is large in order to reflect the enormity of this emotion. The scene is a construction site landscape (conveying the “torn up” aspect of grief), in which the viewer can see a vast space that extends all the way to the horizon under a thick blanket of dark clouds. The horizon is situated just above the vertical center of the picture, which gives it the effect of containing -- even pushing down on -- the figures and everything in the landscape. Orange traffic cones and barriers keep our eyes from following the horizon off the left and right edges of the composition and remind us that this scene is from the 20th century.
Mother Mary convulses with grief in the foreground while another Mother Mary (we see her in two phases of torment, literally split in two by the ferocity of her feeling) pulls her from behind and throws her head back to utter a cry, which is nearly stifled by the blade of light coming over the horizon at her neck. The viewer must cross over the water (often a metaphor for rite of passage) to reach the side in which the landscape is calm and serene under a brilliant light, leaking from between the clouds. This is a sign of hope, as well as the promise of resurrection.

Bad news from Bolivia, a country that already has enough misfortune. Word from missionaries and others (we consider it prudent not to mention names) is that social convulsions that climaxed this past week have caused President Hugo Banzer to impose martial law. Banzer, who ruled as a dictator from 1971 to 1978, has “taken an action that suspends almost all civil rights, disallows gatherings of more than four people and puts severe limits on freedom of the press,” one source told NCR. “One after another, local radio stations have been taken over by military forces or forced off the air.” Several people were killed; many others wounded or detained.

The moves come after a week of protests and strikes that brought much of the country to a standstill. State officials responded that they would give in to the protesters’ main demand and cancel a controversial contract that put the city of Cochabamba’s public water supply in the hands of foreign investors. The concession was quickly reversed by Banzer’s national government, an affront that forced the governor to resign.

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, April 21, 2000