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Way of the Cross History

Way of the Cross History


– Father Johann G. Roten (exerpt from Representation and Identification: HAP Grieshaber's Polish Way of the Cross)

From Adrichomius to Leonard of Port Maurice

In the end it was Leonard of Port Maurice or Porto Maurizio (Italy) (1676–1751), a Franciscan of the Riformella, who established what we know as the 14 Stations of the Cross. During his long life as missionary, Saint Leonard erected more than 570 Stations of the Cross. Best known among them is the 1750 Holy Year Way of the Cross in the Coliseum blessed by Benedict XIV. The propagation of the 14 stations became the apanage of the Franciscans, but indulgences accorded to the 14 stations between 1686 (Innocent XI) and 1742 (Benedict XIV) greatly helped the dissemination, and ultimately the recognition of the Way of the Cross as we know it. Already in 1628, another Franciscan, Salvatore Vitale, set up 14 crosses in front of San Miniato al Monte in Florence. It is believed that the stations were introduced in 1616 in Sardinia by the Capuchins, and that Spain was the first country to accept the 14 stations at the beginning of the 17th century.

But why this late development in settling the Stations of the Sorrowful Way? Before becoming visible and tangible, the Way of the Cross was a spiritual pilgrimage based on the writings of theologians, mystics, and missionaries. The memory of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection had always been central to the Christian message. It was present in sanctuaries throughout the West commemorating sepulcher and cross, but also in the writings of known figures like Bernard (devotion of the five wounds), Francis (bearing the wounds of Christ’s Passion), Bonaventure (Ps.-Bonaventure’s, Meditations on the Life of Christ), and Ludolf of Saxony and his Vita Christi. Mystery plays borrowing from Ludolf’s Life of Christ, and Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, the most widely read devotional work after the Bible, brought the Sorrowful Way to the attention of the people, and anchored it in the devotional practice of the masses.

Slowly but surely the hunger for a visual reenactment of the Holy Week led to concrete realizations of the spiritual pilgrimage. At the time when after the Crusades the pilgrimage to the Holy Land was no longer possible, devout and pious meditation helped by actual representations of the Passion took over. Known is the Cruysganck of Louvain in 1505, when Peter Sterckx put up 8 stations represented by bas-reliefs; known also is the manuscript of Saint-Trond (second half of the 15th century) which mentions twelve episodes or places. Even more important for the subsequent developments were John Pascha’s Spiritual Pilgrimage (1563), and the contribution of Adrichomius or Christiaan van Adrichem († 1585).

John Pascha († 1532) attempts an imaginary and meditative journey to the Holy Land in 365 days. On day 188 the pilgrim visits Gethsemane. Distances are measured, e.g. the nailing to the cross is at 3’306 feet from the house of Pilate. Pascha’s stations 4 to 15 correspond to the present order of the Way of the Cross. Adrichomius who attempted a scholarly reconstitution of Jesus’ Via Crucis in his book Jerusalem sicut Christi tempore floruit (1584) incorporated the order of stations set out by Pascha. He retained the following 12 Stations:

  • The Condemnation in Pilate’s palace
  • The Imposition of the Cross
  • The First Fall
  • The Meeting of Jesus and Mary
  • Simon of Cyrene
  • Veronica
  • The Second Fall
  • The Daughters of Jerusalem
  • The Third Fall
  • The Stripping of Garments
  • The Nailing to the Cross
  • Jesus on the Cross

Adrichomius’ writing about Jerusalem at the time of Jesus was translated in many languages and publicized the Spiritual Pilgrimage throughout the Latin Church. Our present stations of the Deposition and the Entombment go back to the manuscript of Saint-Trond.

The Spiritual Travelogues

In spite of these marked developments, a great variety of Ways of the Cross persisted in the 16th and 17th centuries, some regarding number and names, others varying according to start and conclusion of the Sorrowful Way. Special attention attracted the groupings of 7 and 19 stations. Propagated by the Jesuit Charles Musart (1582–1653) the 7 stations were spread out over the seven days of the week leading from the Garden of Olives to the House of Annas and Caiphas, then to Pilate, Herod, and again to Pilate, and on to Calvary. The Seven Pillars, Seven Falls, or Seven Crosses were most popular in countries of Central Europe. The second grouping of 19 stations added to the twelve stations of Adrichomius the six stations of the captivity (Garden of Olives to Herod), and the burial of Jesus. Poland recognized 18 stations, for Peru, in 1659, a total of 27 stations are mentioned.

The constant reference to writings and events of the Latin Church may come as a surprise. What about the holy places of Christ’s Passion? They had been visited at intervals. Egeria, a Galician woman of the late 4th century, left us the account of her pilgrimage to the Holy Land, its sights, customs, and liturgical tradition, that of Jerusalem in particular. But it is much later that travelogues by pilgrims to the Holy Land will shed light on the liturgical worship at the holy places in Jerusalem during Holy Week. Ricoldus a Monte Crucis (1243–1320), Dominican missionary and travel writer, gives the first solid information about the Sorrowful Way in his Itinerary (1288–91). James of Verona, in his pilgrimage account (1335) mentions the indulgences attached to special places, so the location of the so-called Veronica, the place of the house where the Blessed Virgin was born, the school where she learned to read, and the place where she met Jesus on the way to Calvary.

In 1384 Frescobaldi, Gucci, and Sigoli, three Florentine pilgrims, give us an inkling of the actual veneration of Christ’s Passion. Accompanied by Franciscans (since 1333) the pilgrims gathered before daybreak in the courtyard of the Holy Sepulcher and followed the Sorrowful Way backward, from end to beginning typical of the Franciscan way of commemorating the Passion. The visit to the Holy Sepulcher occurred separately, and included the visit to the many chapels inside the Church. Other pilgrims refer to the Holy Circuit, a pilgrimage to the places Jesus honored with his presence, and which according to legend Our Lady had visited daily after the Ascension of her Son. The 1435 account by Hans Lochner mentions the addition of Veronica and the Daughters of Jerusalem to the Sorrowful Way. William Wey, an English intellectual, who visited Jerusalem in 1458 and 1462 was the first to introduce the name of station for places venerated between the Holy Sepulcher and the Eastern Gate.

The Pathos of the Times

These, and other accounts, convey an evolving picture of the local practices as they were perceived by pilgrims, scholars, and long-time missionaries to the Holy Land. They have influenced the development of the Way of the Cross in the West. History and archeology, still sketchy at best, were not the only sources in developing the Way of the Cross as we know it. The Byzantine influence of George of Nicomedia and Symeon Metaphrastes (9th and 10th centuries) promoted the meditation of the wounds of Christ, and the sorrows of Our Lady on Calvary captured in the Sorrowful Mother and the Pietà. Mystics in the West had their own veneration of Christ’s Passion. Henry Suso (1295–1366), betrothed to Christ crucified, walks the monastery carrying the cross, and accompanies Our Lady to her house after the burial of her Son. Rita of Cascia (1381–1457) uses her cell to walk and meditate the Way of the Cross.

The history of the Latin Church between the 14th and the 16th centuries seems to have been permeated by an atmosphere of pathos and tragedy allotting a special place to the Passion of Christ in spirituality and the arts. The mystery plays of the Nativity were replaced by those of the Passion. Artists developed a keen interest in the symbols of the Passion, from the purse of Judas to the various instruments of torture. The veneration of Christ’s suffering led to the representations of Jesus Christ as the mystical wine press and fountain of life. His prostration and dazed condition were pictured in the popular renderings of Christ Seated on Calvary, the God of Pity, and Christ on the Cold Stone. Above all, the crowned and triumphant Christ on the Cross of the Byzantine tradition gave way to the torn and tortured suffering Christ of Franciscan inspiration.

These varied sources of influence bring us back to the question of authenticity. Does our Way of the Cross reflect what scripture tells us about the Passion of Christ? The gospel accounts taken from the four evangelists cover most of the scenes mentioned in the fourteen stations. The stations which are not captured in a gospel text are the meeting of Mother and Son (4th Station), the scene of the woman wiping the face of Christ (6th Station), and the three falls of the condemned (Stations 3, 7, and 9). The five Stations, though historically probable and in no way contradicting the biblical text, are mostly of later, foreign to Palestine, and apocryphal origin (Acts of Pilate, Gospel of Nicodemus).

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