Memoria Tile

Saint Thomas More

Catholic Student Parish
 421 Monroe Street, Kalamazoo, MI 49006 (269) 381-8917


Memoria Cross

Reflections from the artist

Writer Henry James once proposed three questions to ask when viewing an artwork: “What was the artist trying to achieve?” “Did he or she succeed?” And lastly, “Was it worth doing?” Memoria (Remembrance) is clearly not a traditional cross, and a few words are needed to understand the inspiration and intention behind the work.

Memoria was designed to serve as an aid to meditation and contemplation. The concept underlying the piece is this: each of the 34 paintings reveals a magnified detail of a view of nature or a glimpse of an object that might have been remembered by Jesus in His last moments on the cross. In my imagination, these final visions were flashes of beautiful and comforting memories of His life on earth. If you wonder where this idea came from, so do I. The title Memoria refers to Jesus’ remembrance of His time here, but also refers to viewers’ remembrance of Jesus’ life and teachings. Each image was chosen to evoke several episodes in the New Testament to contemplate. The piece is intended to be open to multiple interpretations, and will have different meanings to different people at different times. Overall, I wanted it to radiate a sense of mystery, wonder, hope, and solace.

Conceptually, though not literally, the crucifixion is entirely present in this piece. It takes place on a specific day in human history at the turning point between Jesus’ life and death. Many of the images may be interpreted as references to the events surrounding the crucifixion, although these all refer to earlier memories as well. A hand, placed at the heart of the piece, represents many New Testament stories of healing and love. It was also intended to serve as a touchstone or reminder of the spirit of personal connection, sympathy, and devotion present in the Good Friday observance in this church. That is the intent of Memoria. To what degree it succeeds is a subjective matter. I’ve found it useful in understanding art to not rush to judgment, but try to remain open and let it act on me. One of my personal criteria for success was that the pieces could be seen as individual flashes of memory, but flowed from one to the next in a way that created a unified whole. I also wanted there to be enough variety and interest in both form and content to quietly engage viewers over a period of many years.

Critically important to me was that the piece had a sense of authenticity, that the concept was believable. It’s not too surprising that historical accuracy should matter to me, given that I worked as a museum exhibition designer for thirty years. The piece involved hundreds of hours of research into the plants, animals, settings, and artifacts that conceivably could be seen during Jesus’ lifetime in the area in which He lived. For more background on specific images, please see About the Work.

If some of these images look very much like something glimpsed in your own life, that is intentional, too. I wanted the piece to have the immediacy and freshness of life in the present.  Despite the many differences, I imagine that being alive then had much in common with being alive now, and I tried to reflect this. Images also have symbolism that may relate to your changing life experiences. If you find yourself going through choppy seas, dark times, money troubles, dry spells, thorny issues, or unexpected storms in life, there are images here to contemplate. If you are experiencing joy, healing, abundance, or gratitude, there are symbols for those states, too. Was it worth doing?

For me, the project was an adventure that took me down new roads, and sparked a year’s worth of fascinating conversations and readings that might not have ever occurred otherwise. I learned a tremendous amount, and gained new perspectives. I am grateful to Father Ken Schmidt and the Art Committee for granting me the honor of doing this work. Their support and enthusiasm, along with that of my husband Jeff Bernstein and my friends, was invaluable. I wish to dedicate my work on this project in remembrance of my mother, Marie Schenden, a constant source of positive, gentle, loving kindness.

I have invested my own meanings into this piece for over a year. Now it belongs to you, the people of St. Tom’s. Its worth can only be judged over time by what it comes to mean to you. You will see things I never intended, and make connections I didn’t make. I sincerely hope that you will enrich Memoria with your own interpretations, and find in it a worthwhile addition to your inner lives.

Jean Stevens
Fall 2011

About the Work

  • Each of the paintings is 2’x2’, making the cross 16’ high and 14’ wide.

  • The paintings are done in oil, on panels made of plywood engineered to remain flat in marine conditions.

  • Sanding and priming the panels took two weeks. Each panelreceived six coats of primer on both sides, the equivalent of painting one panel 408 times.

  • The project took approximately eight months of full-time work. The painting itself took about half of the time; the other half went to planning, research, and design.

  • The plants, animals, and food items shown are modeled on types that could have been found in Jesus’ lifetime in the area in which He lived.

  • The water jar is a replica of a twin handled jug excavated from archaeological digs. It was made in Israel using the same process used 2,000 years ago.

  • The oil lamp is a replica of the Herodian lamp used throughout Judea from c. 50 B.C. to 50 A.D. A wheel-made lamp with no decorations, it would have been the lamp most commonly seen by Jesus.

  • The column capital is a reference to the Second Temple in Jerusalem, built in 516 B.C. and renovated by Herod from 20-19 B.C. to 63 A.D. It was described as having Corinthian columns. Destroyed in 70 A.D., a portion of the outer Western Wall remains, known as the “Wailing Wall.”

  • The wood is cedar, one of the woods found in ancient Judea.

  • The scripture is based on a section of the Great Isaiah Scroll, the most complete of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It dates to 100 B.C., and is thought to have been copied by members of the Essene sect of ascetic Jews in Qumran, who spoke an Aramaic dialect of Hebrew. I chose a portion of the scroll that includes part of Isaiah 61:1-2, which Jesus read aloud in Luke 4:20-22.

  • The desert is modeled on the Judean Desert, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947.

  • The colors of the River Jordan and Sea of Galilee were derived from photos taken by a friend who traveled to Israel just as I was writing the proposal.

  • The alabaster vial is from Jerusalem, and before painting, I filled it with oil of nard.

  • The thorny plant is Ziziphus spina-christi, believed to have been used to make the crown of thorns. It grows in Israel today, and for most of the year, a profusion of flowers and fruits nearly hides the thorns.

  • The coin is a Tribute Denarius depicting the Roman Emperor Tiberius who ruled during Jesus’ lifetime. It dates from 14-37 A.D., and is likely the coin Jesus was referring to when He said “Give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”

  • The clay cup is a reproduction of one found in the ruins of the Qumran settlement, near the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. Over a thousand pottery pieces were discovered, used by the Essenes, who lived there from the 2nd century B.C. to the 1st century A.D. This simple unglazed clay cup seemed a likely candidate to me for the Holy Grail.

  • In the night sky, I added a large star with rays in the shape of a cross to refer to the Nativity, presage the crucifixion, and echo the piece’s main cross form.

  • The work began and ended with water. The first panel painted was the Sea of Galilee. The last panel painted was the water jar in the upper left corner, and I imagined the entire piece being poured out from that source.

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