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Way of the Cross

soldier

The influence of the Way of the Cross on soldiers of the First World War can hardly be overestimated. Their graves were always marked with a cross - a symbol for both Germans as well as the British, Protestants and Catholics alike. Many testimonies are proof that 14/18 soldiers identified themselves to a large extent with the suffering Christ. The Passion is a theme in soldiers' existence in war, sometimes latently present, sometimes vehemently so.

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In order to make this strong link between these two tragedies tangible to the general public, I therefore transformed Christian-iconographic elements and archetypical armaments into common symbols in the shape of fourteen reliefs in copper.
Originally, I called the project "The Passion of the Soldier 14/18". At a given moment, I changed my mind: the great conflict in Flanders was mainly a British-German affair. Because of the characteristic shape of the helmets (flat-round and deep-round), the antagonism could be represented in an expressive, comprehensible way. A combination of English and German words in the title seemed very meaningful: "The Passion Des Soldaten". Every station of the cross has a number, a religious and a war-related title and is inspired on a war photograph. During the creative process, I was confronted with an overwhelming amount of analogies. Both tragedies have many symbols in common, all to do with suffering and death. Thinking and working, I was able to discover different levels.
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I: Escalation

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II: Mobilisation

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III: The louse

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IV: The beloved

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V: The refugee

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VI: The commemoration

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VII: Captive

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VIII:Womanly comfort

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IX: Wounded

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X: Re-examination

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XI: Barrage

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XII: Impasse

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XIII: Voie Sacree

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XIV: Mass Grave

During the creative process, I was confronted with an overwhelming amount of analogies. Both tragedies have many symbols in common, all to do with suffering and death. Thinking and working, I was able to discover different levels...
1. ...The level of personal effects, objects, armaments, things The crown of thorns seems to be made of barbed wire, hammers look like spades, nails are associated with bullets and hypodermic needles. The ladders used for the descent from the cross cast their shadows before them at every stage of the war: the infantryman was ordered to attack from his trench using a ladder; the rail track and the duckboard also have the same structure as a ladder. During the first months of the war, the lance of the Roman soldier was used by the German Uhlans and the French cavalry – after this period the weapon was outdated. The sponge soaked in vinegar for moistening Jesus' lips, can be interpreted as the equivalent of the rum and schnapps given to the soldiers just before the attack. The thirty pieces of silver are similar to the millions of 'gold marks' financing the war. Judas's kiss makes us stop and think about propaganda. And last but not least: there is the immense quantity of blood flowing across the battlefields...
2. ...The level of supporting roles in the two tragedies...The beloved, though physically absent still present in the mind of the soldier, has connotations with mother Mary. The refugee is, just like Simon, an outsider participating in the suffering of the war. The successive generations, commemorating the dead soldiers of 14/18, are the equivalent of the millions of Christians, celebrating the death and suffering of Jesus, as imprinted on Veronica's cloth. The weeping women have their analogy in the archetypical women giving comfort to the soldiers: the whore and the nurse...
3. ...The level of drama... Soldiers in 14/18 regarded themselves as players in the Passion. Most of them identified with the suffering Christ...
4. ... The level of the thread of the story... The outset of the Passion (Jesus is condemned and Jesus takes on his cross) has a lot of elements in common with the First World War: the unavoidable escalation and the mobilisation of huge armies. The same prevails for the Jesus' encounters with his mother Mary, with Simon, with Veronica and the weeping women (see level 2). The three levels his suffering, (represented by the three times he falls, falling deeper each time), make us think about the misery of the soldier in 14/18, which was getting worse as the war progressed. And of course: Jesus' bitter end is his death on the cross, as for the millions of soldiers their death in the trenches was the end to their gruesome suffering.
5. ...The essence... Just as Jesus was sacrificed for humanity, the 14/18 soldier considered his death as a sacrifice for his people. In the hard reality of war, this meant that soldiers were used as cannon fodder.
6. ...The level of propaganda... The Passion of Jesus has been used as propaganda, especially in Germany. In particular two depictions made a deep impression on me. Firstly, a devotional picture of a soldier on a cross. The text reads: "Ihr habt für uns euch hingegeben, Ihr seit gestorben, damit wir leben." In this case, devotion and propaganda are inseparable. The other document is a poster, representing a Madonna, without the classic attributes of mother Mary, but sitting holding a dead soldier on her lap.
7. ...The level of visual art ...The theme of the Passion of Jesus has been developed by several visual artists to commemorate the First World War. Everybody knows the commemorative stones, the gravestones, the stained-glass windows, the reliefs… The cross and the pieta are omnipresent as icons.
8. ...The level of the word..., spoken or written, simple or literary. A huge number of testimonies confirm the strong link between the two tragedies. Within this context, British poetry is the most impressive, although their tone is sometimes more cynical than devout.