Reflecting on Judson Church’s Lenten altar

BY ROSE ADAMS | Those unfamiliar with Greenwich Village’s Judson Memorial Church may recognize its stately, yellow-brick building on the south side of Washington Square Park. With 14 arching stained-glass windows and a 10-story bell tower, Judson looks like a relic from the Italian Renaissance. In a sense, it is: The church’s architect modeled the building off of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. But inside Judson’s walls, another type of renaissance has flourished.

“Judson’s history is very much a piece of the history of Greenwich Village,” Reverend Donna Schaper, the church’s senior minister, said. “It is unusually experimental, especially for a church.”

Since the 1950s, Judson has been on the cutting edge of art and activism. In 1960, it opened the first drug treatment clinic in the Village. Today, it’s a site for the New Sanctuary Coalition in New York City, which provides emotional and legal support for undocumented people.

Artist William Corwin’s Lenten altar at Judson Memorial Church. (Photo by Judson Church/Michelle Thompson)

Among Judson’s laundry list of artistic achievements are its world-renowned dance collective and its work with experimental artists, like Yoko Ono and Yvonne Rainer. Judson has become so well known for its cultural contributions that the first question on its Web site’s FAQ page is: “Is ‘THE Judson’ a church?”

The answer is yes, and the Judson’s latest arts display makes that clear. For the duration of Lent (which this year runs from March 6 to April 18), a multicolored altar will be standing in front of the congregation, its base stretching down the center of the sanctuary. On top of the altar, small animal statues balance imperfectly on wooden planks like pagan figurines in a burial ground.

“Usually in art you’re talking about religious symbols in an abstract way. But by doing this with Judson, it was a really great chance to see my work in a context where it’s being used spiritually,” said the artist, William Corwin. Corwin is a local sculptor and writer who has exhibited in various local and international venues.

“It’s incredibly empowering as an artist to see art being used for the purpose it was created for thousands of years ago,” he said.

The artistic Lenten altar links to Judson Church’s rich artistic history. (Photo by Tommy Mintz)

In creating the altar, Corwin tried to link Judson’s rich history and the spirit of Lent, the 40-day religious period commemorating Jesus’ time in the desert before his resurrection.

“I think, on a very spiritual and conceptual level, there’s an interaction between the idea of freedom as expressed in Judson and the idea of Lent as a time for reflection,” Corwin said. “A church is a safe place where people can be themselves and talk about what’s inside of them. And Lent is metaphorically about looking back on your life and assessing what makes you you.”

The processional cross in the altar’s center, entitled “Seraphim (Flaming Creature),” ties biblical symbols and Judson’s history together: It references both the seraphim angels from the Old Testament and a 1963 experimental film called “Flaming Creature” that featured many artists from Judson’s 1960s arts scene.

Ironically, Corwin’s use of religious symbolism is new for Judson.

“The exciting thing about Will’s work is it’s bringing a cross back into the sanctuary,” Schaper said. Judson hasn’t displayed a cross in its sanctuary since the 1970s. “People just love it,” she said. “It looks like a dancing angel, really.”

But, in staying true to the Judson’s open and accepting ethos, the altar doesn’t layer on too many Christian motifs. When Corwin told the reverend about all the religious images he planned to incorporate into the piece, she allegedly hesitated.

“ ‘Well, you got to be careful,’ ” Corwin said she responded. “ ‘You know, 10 percent of the congregation is Jewish.’ ”

The Lenten altar will be on view until April 21 at Judson, at 55 Washington Square South. To check the altar’s viewing hours, visit Judson’s calendar at .

One Response to Reflecting on Judson Church’s Lenten altar

  1. And another 10% is agnostic. That's why a love the place. If you ever see anyone there with a bible, you know they're just visiting once.

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