Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Stations of the Cross: The Fifth Station, Simon of Cyrene Helps Jesus to Carry the Cross

James Tissot, Simon of Cyrene and His Sons
French, c, 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum
This is one of the few images of the subject of Simon and his sons that I have seen.  
Here they are depicted as young men.

The writers of the three Synoptic Gospels tell us that a man named Simon from Cyrene in what is today the North African country of Libya was forced by the Romans to assist Jesus in carrying the heavy cross. 1  

St. Mark adds the interesting detail that Simon was “the father of Alexander and Rufus” (Mark 15:21), which suggests that these were people who were well-known to the early Christian community and that this is a record of the experience of their father.  Clearly, the pressing of this man, who was probably a mere bystander, by the authorities in charge of the crucifixion suggests that even they could see that Jesus was weakening and were worried that He might not be able to make it to the execution site without some help. 

Early images of the Passion that featured the figure of Simon of Cyrene were largely symbolic.  They show the cross as fairly small, a notional cross rather than a crushingly heavy one.  

Early Christian Sarcophagus with Scenes of the Passion
Late Roman, c. 350
Vatican, Pio-Christiano Museum

This carried over into the Byzantine tradition.

Simon of Cyrene
From Orationes of St. Gregory Nazianzen
Byzantine (Constantionople), 11th Century
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Coislin 239, fol. 18v

It remains true in the Latin West as much as in the Greek-speaking church of Constantinople.  In the West the cross is bigger, but still notional.  It appears to be virtually weightless, imposing no strain on the bearer.

From the "St. Peter Gospels"
Austrian (Salzburg), c. 1025-1049
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 781, fol. 179v

From a Book of Hours
German (Bamberg), c. 1204-1219
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 739, fol. 23r

Some of them also pointedly reference the coercive character of Simon’s entry into the Passion narrative.  Simon is grabbed by his hair or by his wrists in the process.

From a Psalter
German or Swiss, c. 1208-1228
New York,  Pierpont Morgan Library
MS G 8, fol. 9v
Here Simon is being grabbed by his hair and a wrist.

Queen Mary Master,
From the "
Queen Mary Psalter"
English (London), c.1310-1320
London, British Library
MS Royal 2 B VII, fol. 252v
In this detail, Simon is being dragged by his wrist from the representation of a building.

From the second half of the fourteenth century the mood changes and Simon is now seen as being somewhat willing to assist Jesus.  Both he and the activity begin to be less notional and more realistic, hence more affective to the viewer, who can now begin to put himself or herself into the scene.  

From a Speculum humanae salvationis
French (Alsace), c. 1370-1380
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 511, fol. 22v

Boucicaut Master
From the Hours of Jeanne Bessonnelle
French (Paris), c. 1400-1425
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 1161, fol. 168r

The image developed by the Boucicaut Master seems to have been formative for French illuminators for a large part of the fifteenth century.

From the Pèlerinage de la vie humaine by Guillaume de Digulleville
French (Rennes), c. 1425-1450
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 376, fol. 217v

Master of Marguerite d'Orléans
From a Book of Hours
French (Rennes), c.1430
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 1156B, fol. 137r

Master of Marguerite d'Orleans
From the Hours of Marie de Rieux
French (Poitiers), c. 1440-1450
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 190, fol. 47r

But this was not the only reflection of the new attitude.

Wall painting
German, 15th Century
Üffeln, Marienkirche

Follower of the Master of the Lorsch Calvary
German (Middle Rhineland), c.1440
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cloisters Collection

Anonymous Carver
German (Tyrol), Second half of the 15th Century
Sterzing, Parish Church Unsere Liebe Frau im Moos and Santa Maria in Vipitin
Close ups of the heads of Jesus and of Simon are astonishingly lifelike.

This change would have been in keeping with the well-known affectivity of late medieval religious sentiment, which focused on sympathetic identification of the devout person with the sufferings of Christ.  It is also around this time that the Stations of the Cross began to gain in popularity and participation.

Master of Jouvenal des Ursins and Workshop
From the Hours of Jeanne de France
French (Angers), c. 1452
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS  Nouvelle acquisition latine 3244, fol. 256

High Altar of the Cross
German (Thüringia), 1460
 Erfurt, Evangelical Reglerkirche (formerly Catholic church of Saint Augustine)

Masters of the Delft Half-Length Figures
From a Book of Hours
Dutch (Delft), c. 1460-1480
TheHague, Koninklkjk Bibliotheek
MS KB 131 G 8, fol. 31r

Master Francois and Collaborators
From Speculum historiale by Vincent of Beauvais
Franch (Paris), 1463
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 50, fol. 231v

Master of Charles of Neufchatal
From a Book of Hours
French, 1465-1475
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 28, fol. 19r

Master of the Boston City of God
From a Book of Hours
Holland (Utrecht), c.1470
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 131 G 4, 57v

Jean Colombe
From the  Hours of Anne of France
French (Bourges), 1473
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 677, fol. 192r

Jean Colombe
From Vita Jesu Christi by Ludolf of Saxony
French (Bourges), c. 1475-1500
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 179, fol. 113v

Jean Poyer
From the Hours of Henry VIII
French (Tours), c. 1495-1505
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS H 8, fol. 94v

Circle of the Master of Delft
Dutch, c.1500
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Oak Panel
French, c. 16th Century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cloisters Collection

Raphael, Procession to Calvary
Italian, 1504
London, National Gallery

In the sixteenth century artists began to examine the intimacy of the connection between Jesus and the man who is helping him.  Simon appears as a devoted and sympathetic actor in a two person drama.

Sebastiano del Piombo
Italian, c.1516
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Italian, c. 1560
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Italian, c. 1565
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Later images seem to vacillate between the extremes of indifference and compassion. 

James Tissot, Simon the Cyrenian Compelled to Carry the Cross with Jesus
From Series of Life of Christ
French, 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum
In spite of Tissot's title in is a bit difficult to tell exactly which figure is Simon.  I suspect it is the man in the middle ground, dressed partially in blue, who is holding out his arms, as a guard points to the cross.

Eric Gill
English, c. 1913-1918
London, Westminster Cathedral
Gill's image is the only one I have seen that includes Simon's two sons, Alexander and Rufus.  They are depicted as boys following their father.

© M. Duffy, 2016, updated pictures and additional material added 2021 and 2023.
1.  Matthew 27:32, Mark 15:21, Luke 23:26.  The Gospel of John is silent.

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition© 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

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