Peter Bisson, SJ, artworks by Leland Bell
In the Church of the Immaculate Conception in M’Chigeeng First Nation on Manitoulin Island, the fifteen Stations of the Cross are paintings by the noted Anishinaabe artist Leland Bell of Wiikwemkoong First Nation, also on Manitoulin Island. The stations begin with Jesus Dibakona Tchi Nibod or Jesus Is Condemned to Death, and culminate in Jesus Abitchiba or Jesus Risen from the Dead. I would like to share with you my inner responses, which are based in Ignatian spirituality, to these works of Anishinaabe art and spirit.
The first ways that these images affect me is by their serenity and graceful simplicity. This peacefulness is built with strong, uniform colours in clear forms highlighted by black outlines. The colours and the forms affect me like ritual. Even when the subject is violence and suffering, which is common in Stations of the Cross, the serenity of the images suggests that something bigger is going on.
This impression is strengthened by the frequent background presence of Grandfather Sun or three circles that suggest the Trinity. From the background they seem to be holding together in a loving way all the figures acting in the foreground.
As the images draw me in, I notice the wavy lines on various shapes, especially around people’s mouths. These suggest to me that the words being spoken mean more than what I hear, and the actions being done mean more than what I see. Then I reflect that a special effort is needed to see truly, not only to see these images, but indeed to see the whole world truly. These effects, combined with the serenity that also points to a bigger, spiritual meaning, lead me to think that I am not beholding paintings or images, but visions. The images are spiritual media that draw me to see the whole world in a contemplative way, as in a vision, much as does the Contemplatio at the end of the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius. The Contemplatio seeks a point of view where everything in the world somehow shows God madly in love with us and offers us opportunities to love back.
Next the visions draw me to the central figure in each station, Jesus. My eye is especially drawn to him as he is usually the only figure dressed in white, except in the concluding resurrection station where a red cloak partly covers his white robe. His image remains serene even when bad things are being done to him. More is going on with him than suffering. This “more” pulls me into Jesus’s interiority, into what moved him, what motivated him, what he valued, how he made decisions. In the Spiritual Exercises, the Second Week has us contemplate the life of Jesus in order to get to know him personally. Furthermore, in this part of the Exercises there are three meditations especially oriented towards getting to know the interiority of Jesus.
They move us gradually from knowledge of his way, to commitment to his way, to loving commitment to him, to his person. I feel that Leland Bell’s visions invite me into Jesus as do these meditations.
Finally, that every element in the stations seems to have spiritual significance beyond the image, especially Jesus, says to me that everyone has the right to speak directly to the Creator, just as Jesus does. In his notes at the beginning of the Exercises, Saint Ignatius strongly recommends that spiritual guides get out of the way so as to let the Creator deal directly with the creature, and to let the creature deal directly with the Creator. Surely a world where Creator and creature can speak directly with one another would be a better world!