The Seven Words
F. Holland Day (American, Norwood, Massachusetts 1864–1933 Norwood, Massachusetts)
each approx: 14.0 x 11.5 cm (5 1/2 x 4 1/2 in.)
Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949
Not on view
From 1895 to 1898 Day undertook a project that was without precedent: an extended series—some 250 negatives—showing scenes of the life of Christ, from the Annunciation to the Resurrection, in which he played the title role. In 1890 Day had traveled to Oberammergau to see the famous once-a-decade Passion Plays and may well have seen a similar multimedia presentation that toured the East Coast, including Boston, later in the 1890s. For his own production, Day starved himself, let his beard grow long, and imported cloth and a cross from Syria. Just prior to the reenacted Crucifixion, he made this series of close-up self-portraits—the most powerful images in his entire series—which represent Christ’s seven last words:
FATHER FORGIVE THEM; THEY KNOW NOT WHAT THEY DO.
TODAY THOU SHALT BE WITH ME IN PARADISE.
WOMAN, BEHOLD THY SON; SON, THY MOTHER
MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAST THOU FORSAKEN ME?
INTO THY HANDS I COMMEND MY SPIRIT.
IT IS FINISHED.
For many people, Day’s self-portraits as Christ were—and remain—unsettling, as one tries to reconcile their fact and fiction. Day defended the use of photography for sacred subjects as a matter of artistic freedom, and Steichen wrote, "Few paintings contain as much that is spiritual and sacred in them as do the ‘Seven Words’ of Mr. Day. . . . If we knew not its origin or its medium how different would be the appreciation of some of us, and if we cannot place our range of vision above this prejudice the fault lies wholly with us. If there are limitations to any of the arts, they are technical; but of the motif to be chosen the limitations are dependent on the man—if he is a master he will give us great art and ever exalt himself."