During Lent many of us will pray the 14 Stations of the Cross, especially on Good Friday. They are a popular devotion taking us from Pontius Pilate’s praetorium to the burial of Christ in the tomb. Tradition holds that Our Lady regularly visited the scenes of her son’s passion in Jerusalem. The early Christian followers kept up this tradition. After the Emperor Constantine legalised Christianity in AD 313, his mother, Saint Helena (AD 248 to 330), was given the task of locating some of the relics of our Christian tradition. After spending a full year in Jerusalem, Helena returned to Rome, bringing with her large parts of the True Cross and other relics. As part of her stay in Jerusalem, she erected various “stations” within the city that marked important events in the life of Jesus. Saint Jerome (342 to 420), who was living in Bethlehem towards the latter stages in his life, witnessed how crowds of pilgrims from various regions visited the holy places of Our Lord and especially re-living the way of the cross.
As the Christian faith grew and spread, most Christians could not afford to travel to the Holy Land, hence from the fifth century on, various Christian communities and churches dedicated certain areas of their church or outside spaces to relive the events that led to the Crucifixion of the Lord. But it is not until 1342, when the Franciscans were appointed as guardians of the shrines of the Holy Land, that the devotional exercise of praying the Via Crucis really took hold. William Wey, an English scholar from Oxford, undertook two pilgrimages to the Holy Land in 1458 and 1462, and is credited with using the term “stations” for the first time.
The Via Crucis stations are important to us, as they feed our need for a re-enactment during Holy Week and prompt a spiritual pilgrimage during the days leading up to Easter. The memory of Christ’s condemnation in Pilate’s palace, His passion, death and resurrection are at the very core of our Christian belief. So a visual aid can truly help us to enter into the events of Holy Week. Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) said how images and art can serve a threefold purpose in our Church: first, he echoed a statement of Pope Gregory I in the sixth century, which stated that images are the Bible of the illiterate; second, art illustrates and helps us to remember the mystery of the Incarnation; and third, that the fire of devotion was kindled more effectively on the basis of “viewing than through hearing”.
Relating to Aquinas’s second point, we can see the great rise of western Christian art during his time. For the first time, artists painted and sculpted the incarnation of God in its full magnificence. During the Middle Ages, art moved to a more narrative form of the history of salvation. Artists depicted the baby Jesus, in his full splendour, fragility, nakedness and beauty, and detailed crucifixion scenes revealing the full horror of what happened later.
One of my favourite crucifixions is The Crucifixion With the Virgin and St John by Rogier van der Weyden, painted around 1455. It shows Christ on the cross before a draped blood- red cloth. His Blessed Mother is swooning before him and is being supported by St John. The figures on this monumental painting (325 × 192cm) are life-size characters and must have drawn the Carthusian monks – to whom Van der Weyden donated this work – into the scene at the foot of the cross. What better way to kindle the fires of devotion in us, than to stand in front of this painting?
During the 15th and 16th centuries, the Franciscans began to build a series of (mainly outdoor) shrines to commemorate the Via Dolorosa. The number of stations varied between seven and 30, with seven being the more common number. In 1731, Pope Clement XII finally permitted – and even encouraged – the faithful to have stations erected inside their churches. At the beginning it was stipulated that a Franciscan friar had to erect them, with the consent of the local bishop. Clement XII further stipulated that the number of stations was to be fixed at 14. This is still the traditional number of stations we have nowadays, though some churches have added the resurrection as the 15th station.
What has always fascinated me is that of the 14 stations, only eight have a clear scriptural foundation. For example station four is “Jesus meets His mother”. In scripture she is mentioned at the crucifixion, so logically she would sit between stations 11 and 12. We don’t know how many times Jesus fell but the Via Crucis maintains it happened thrice – at stations three, seven and nine. This is a beautiful example of how the pillars of scripture and Catholic Church tradition complement each other. The “extra stations” so to speak, were inserted for the sake of storytelling, serving as a deeper invitation into the Passion of Our Lord.
Thinking of the Stations of the Cross in your own parish church, I would imagine they are small panels of paintings or sculptured low reliefs. This allows churchgoers to enter into the sacrifice of Jesus during Holy Week within the confines of the church building, but some contend that much larger images are preferable.
A contemporary artist who argues in favour of large-scale images of the Stations of the Cross is Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz (born 1969). You probably know his Homeless Jesus, or the sculpture commemorating migrants and refugees entitled Angels Unawares, installed in St Peter’s Square. I spoke to him, as I know he is working on 14 large-scale stations, each 12 feet high. He told me: “If the stations are too small, they misrepresent what really happened during the Passion.”
This is a good example of how size may matter in art. Schmalz said his hope is that “when people see the large stations, they can lose themselves into the doorways of the mystical world, into which they are invited”.
A Roman soldier who is our size will look more threatening, more real, more cruel, than that same figure one 10th of its size. Schmalz will insert all the parables into the background of the stations. This multilayered narrative approach will accentuate the drama of Christ’s sacrifice for us. I share with you two photographs of Schmalz at work in his studio. Once finished, these clay sculpted pieces will be cast in bronze.
As Lent has started, we will pray the Way of the Cross in all our churches, especially on Good Friday, in addition to the prescribed liturgical service. It is a day when we as Catholics are joined by almost all other Christians in solemn commemoration of Christ’s suffering and crucifixion. And we can say that Good Friday is “good” because, terrible though the events on that day were as depicted in the Stations of the Cross, it was a day that had to happen for us receive the resurrection, our salvation … the Joy of Easter!
Patrick Van der Vorst is an authority on Christian Art and, until 2010, was a senior director of Sotheby’s.
This article first appeared in the March 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund