Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Stations of the Cross – An Introduction

Painted Stations of the Cross
New York, Church of Saint Ignatius Loyola

Enter any Catholic church in the world and you are likely to see a series of fourteen scenes arranged around its walls.  The scenes may take the form of sculptural reliefs, or mosaics, paintings or, in some cases, they may just be in the form of fourteen simple crosses, but they will be there.  They are the Stations of the Cross.  But what does that mean?

The Stations of the Cross is a form of prayer that takes its shape from the pilgrimage made by early believers to the sites in Jerusalem that are associated with the Passion of Jesus.  The traditional Stations refer to sites that have been visited for many centuries as the points at which certain events, both Biblical and traditional, occurred as Jesus moved through the city, from his condemnation by Pontius Pilate to his burial.

This very old and revered series of sites is known as the Via Dolorosa (the Sorrowful Way) or the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) and has been followed by pilgrims from the days of Constantine (and probably before) up to today.  This very day some group of Christian pilgrims is walking the same streets of Jerusalem in a prayerful tracing of the steps of Jesus just as did their fourth century predecessors in faith.

Modern pilgrims on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem led by members of the Franciscan Order

Over the centuries the fame of this pilgrimage exercise spread widely as the pilgrims returned home and described their experiences.   Along with the experience of being at the site of the Crucifixion and Resurrection the idea of following the footsteps of the Lord was a powerful inducement for many to set out on the pilgrimage themselves.  But for most people of the Middle Ages, and the centuries since, the trip was beyond their ability, either financially or physically.  Still, they yearned for a way in which they could somehow mark their own devotion and sorrow and the Stations of the Cross were born. 

Interior, showing Mosaic Stations of the Cross on the outer church walls
New York, Church of Saint Jean Baptiste

It took several centuries for the prayer form to develop fully.  This was helped considerably by the Franciscan order, which from 1342 was entrusted with the care of the holy places in the Holy Land, a role which they continue to fulfill to this day.  By the beginning of the sixteenth century both the Via Crucis in Jerusalem (where, however, its performance was severely limited by the Turkish authorities) and the Stations in Europe had assumed their well-known number of fourteen. 

Interior, showing Stations of the Cross in Painted Bas-Relief along the side walls and across the back
New York, Church of the Holy Name of Jesus

However, it was not until the seventeenth century that placing the Stations inside the church building became common.  “Realizing that few persons, comparatively, were able to gain these* by means of a personal pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Innocent XI, in 1686, granted to the Franciscans, in answer to their petition, the right to erect the Stations in all their churches, and declared that all the indulgences that had ever been given for devoutly visiting the actual scenes of Christ's Passion, could thenceforth be gained by Franciscans and all others affiliated to their order if they made the Way of the Cross in their own churches in the accustomed manner.  Innocent XII confirmed the privilege in 1694 and Benedict XIII in 1726 extended it to all the faithful. In 1731 Clement XII still further extended it by permitting the indulgenced Stations to all churches…..  At the same time he definitely fixed the number of Stations at fourteen. Benedict XIV in 1742 exhorted all priests to enrich their churches with so great a treasure.”1

Interior, showing Sculpted Stations on the side walls
Bronx, New York, Church of Saint Nicholas of Tolentine

The Stations of the Cross are a prayer form in which one physically and spiritually walks the way of the Cross with Jesus, eventually circuiting the entire church.  Usually it is prayed as a solitary act, but it can also be prayed in community.  When prayed communally, the people remain in their seats while the priest travels from Station to Station.  However, the prayer is the same. 

At each Station there is a short opening prayer, said by the individual or antiphonally between the priest and the people in a communal celebration.  The traditional opening prayer at each Station is “We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you/ Because by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world.”  

The person or the group will read a meditation on the event which that Station commemorates.  This may be a traditional meditation, such as that of Saint Alphonsus Ligouri or Saint John Henry Newman, or it may be a recently composed one. 

Then there may be a period of silent reflection and prayer, followed by the recitation of the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the Glory be to the Father (doxology).  

Between Stations in communal services verses of the Stabat Mater is frequently sung.  This is a hymn, composed in the thirteenth century (and set to both a simple chant melody and many elaborate polyphonic settings by composers as varied as Palestrina, Pergolesi, Haydn and Verdi), which is in itself a meditation on the scenes of the Passion,    Closing prayers include both a specific closing prayer for the devotion and general prayers for the intentions of the Pope.  Communal celebrations may sometimes have more elaborate closings.    

The Stations are frequently prayed communally on the Fridays of Lent and during the early afternoon of Good Friday, prior to the principal liturgy of that day, The Celebration of the Passion of the Lord.

Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo
Title Page, Via Crucis
Italian, 1749
London, British Museum
In the Catholic Church the devotion became an extremely popular one and many devotional booklets have been printed through the centuries to assist the faithful with making this mini-pilgrimage in a prayerful manner.  Some of them have been illustrated by notable artists, as for example Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, who illustrated a booklet of the Stations in 1749,2 in which he drew upon a painted series of the Stations he had done two years previously for San Polo in Venice, or Eric Gill, who, in 1917,  provided prints based on the Stations which he carved for the recently built Westminster Cathedral in London from 1913-1918.3 
Eric Gill, Jesus Meets the Women of Jerusalem
English, 1917
London, British Museum

The French artist, James Tissot, published prints based on his illustrations of the life of Jesus, which focuses heavily on the Passion through scenes based on the Stations of the Cross in 1897.

James Tissot, The Body of Jesus Is Removed from the Cross
French, c. 1886-1892
New York, Brooklyn Museum

One of the recent developments in the tradition has been to move the Stations out of the churches and into the outside world.  Thus, there are outdoor Stations of the Cross at many shrines and retreat houses throughout the world.

Outdoor Stations of the Cross, USA

Outdoor Stations of the Cross, the Philippines

In Rome, on the night of Good Friday there is an outdoor celebration of the Stations by torchlight at the Coliseum, presided over by the Pope.

Pope Benedict XVI at the Coliseum, 2006

Pope Francis at the Coliseum, 2014

In New York on Good Friday an outdoor version of the Stations as a prayer for peace begins in Brooklyn and moves over the Brooklyn Bridge into Lower Manhattan.   
Way of the Cross on the Brooklyn Bridge

In some locations, the Way of the Cross is staged with individuals assuming the identity of the characters in the story.  

High School Students Enacting the Stations of the Cross
in Miami, FL

I note in a brief survey of the sites that were returned on the search for “Stations of the Cross” that the devotion is also being picked up by some churches in the Reformed tradition, such as Presbyterians, and in the Anglican/Episcopal and Lutheran traditions as well, though many times the visual references are of a temporary nature, as the images are not made a permanent part of the church fabric. Currently (2016), the Stations are the theme of a special Lenten exhibition in London, with 14 relevant works of art, both contemporary and historic, on display in churches and other locations all across the city.4

Stations of the Cross
Irvine, CA, Presbyterian Church

Virginia Maksymowicz, Stations of the Cross
American, 2005
Lancaster, PA, Saint Thomas Episcopal Church

Generally speaking, the booklets and the actual Stations in the majority of churches are of little artistic note.
Partial Set of Modern Mass-Produced Stations of the Cross
Catalog, Abbott Church Supplies

However, we should not be too dismissive of them, for they were often the only works of art that were visible in the lives of many of our ancestors and, in places, continue to be so.5

I propose that during these last weeks of Lent I will survey how the iconography that lies behind the typical scenes of the Stations developed over time through the work of artists who illustrated the Passion in manuscript, panel and canvas paintings and in sculpture outside of the confines of the Stations themselves.  I will try to show the breadth of the stream on which so many of the images in our churches drew for inspiration.

  Click on the links below to view the fourteen Stations, which are:
2.       Jesus Carries the Cross 
3.       Jesus Falls the First Time 
9.       Jesus Falls the Third Time 

I will be combining some of the traditional Stations, where there is not enough differentiation between the subject matter to make distinctions between images,  as for instance in the three falls of Jesus (the Third, Seventh and Ninth Stations).

© M. Duffy, 2016
* the graces and indulgences attached to prayerfully following the Via Crucis in Jerusalem.

1.   Alston, George Cyprian. "Way of the Cross." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. Retrieved: 8 Mar. 2016 <>.

2.       “Stations of the Cross, by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo”. Bulletin, St. Louis Art Museum, Vol.  13 (2) 1977, pp. 38–39.

3.       Collins, Judith. “Eric Gill's Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral”. The Journal of the Decorative Arts Society 1890-1940, no. 6, 1982, pp. 23–30.

4.    Stations of the Cross, 10 February to 28 March, 2016.  See   

5.   Zalesch, Saul. “The Religious Art of Benziger Brothers”. American Art, Vol. 13 (2). 1999, University of Chicago Press, Smithsonian American Art Museum, pp. 59–79. For an interesting discussion of the art available to many, indeed to most, Catholic churches in the late nineteenth- and early-twentieth century.

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