The Stations of the Cross or the Way of the Cross, also known as the Way of Sorrows or the Via Crucis, refers to a series of images depicting Jesus Christ on the day of his crucifixion and accompanying prayers. The stations grew out of imitations of the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, which is a traditional processional route symbolising the actual path Jesus walked to Mount Calvary. The objective of the stations is to help the Christian faithful to make a spiritual pilgrimage through contemplation of the Passion of Christ. It has become one of the most popular devotions and the stations can be found in many Western Christian churches, including Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, and Roman Catholic.
Commonly, a series of 14 images will be arranged in numbered order along a path and the faithful travel from image to image, in order, stopping at each station to say the selected prayers and reflections. This will be done individually or in a procession most commonly during Lent, especially on Good Friday, in a spirit of reparation for the sufferings and insults that Jesus endured during his passion.
The style, form, and placement of the stations vary widely. The typical stations are small plaques with reliefs or paintings placed around a church nave. Modern minimalist stations can be simple crosses with a numeral in the centre. Occasionally the faithful might say the stations of the cross without there being any image, such as when the pope leads the stations of the cross around the Colosseum in Rome on Good Friday.
The Stations of the Cross originated in pilgrimage to Jerusalem and a desire to reproduce the Via Dolorosa. Imitating holy places was not a new concept. For example, the religious complex of Santo Stefano in Bologna, Italy, replicated the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and other religious sites, including Mount of Olives and Valley of Josaphat.
After the siege of 1187, Jerusalem fell to the forces of Saladin, the first sultan of Egypt and Syria. Forty years later Franciscans were allowed back into the Holy Land. Their founder, Saint Francis of Assisi, held the Passion of Christ in special veneration and is said to have been the first person to receive stigmata. In 1217, St. Francis also founded the Custody of the Holy Land to guard and promote the devotion to holy places. Their efforts were recognized when Franciscans were officially proclaimed custodians of holy places by Pope Clement VI in 1342. Although several travellers who visited the Holy Land during the 12–14th centuries (e.g., Riccoldo da Monte di Croce, Burchard of Mount Sion, James of Verona), mention a “Via Sacra”, i.e., a settled route that pilgrims followed, there is nothing in their accounts to identify this with the Way of the Cross, as we
understand it. The earliest use of the word “stations”, as applied to the accustomed halting-places in the Via Sacra at Jerusalem, occurs in the narrative of an English pilgrim, William Wey, who visited the Holy Land in the mid-15th century, and described pilgrims following the footsteps of Christ to Golgotha. In 1521, a book called Geystlich Strass (German: “spiritual road”) was printed with illustrations of the stations in the Holy Land.
During the 15th and 16th centuries the Franciscans began to build a series of outdoor shrines in Europe to duplicate their counterparts in the Holy Land. The number of stations varied between seven and thirty; seven was common. These were usually placed, often in small buildings, along the approach to a church, as in a set of 1490 by Adam Kraft, leading to the Johanniskirche in Nuremberg. A number of rural examples were established as attractions in their own right, usually on attractive wooded hills. These include the Sacro Monte di Domodossola (1657) and Sacro Monte di Belmonte (1712), and form part of the Sacri Monti of Piedmont and Lombardy World Heritage Site, together with other examples on different devotional themes. In these the sculptures are often approaching life-size and very elaborate. Remnants of these are often referred to as calvary hills.
In 1686, in answer to their petition, Pope Innocent XI granted to the Franciscans the right to erect stations within their churches. In 1731, Pope Clement XII extended to all churches the right to have the stations, provided that a Franciscan father erected them, with the consent of the local bishop. At the same time the number was fixed at fourteen. In 1857, the bishops of England were allowed to erect the stations by themselves, without the intervention of a Franciscan priest, and in 1862 this right was extended to bishops throughout the church.
The early set of seven scenes was usually numbers 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 11 and 14 from the list below. The standard set from the late 16th to 20th centuries has consisted of 14 pictures or sculptures depicting the following scenes:
- Jesus is condemned to death
- Jesus takes up his Cross
- Jesus falls for the first time
- Jesus meets his Mother Mary
- Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the Cross
- Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
- Jesus falls for the second time
- Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem
- Jesus falls for the third time
- Jesus is stripped of his garments (sometimes called the “Division of Robes”)
- Jesus is nailed to the Cross
- Jesus dies on the Cross
- Jesus is taken down from the Cross
- Jesus is laid in the tomb
Although not traditionally part of the Stations, the Resurrection of Jesus is sometimes included as an unofficial fifteenth station. One very different version, called the Via Lucis (“Way of Light”), comprising the Fourteen Stations of Light or Stations of the Resurrection, starts Jesus rising from the dead and ends with Pentecost.
Out of the fourteen traditional Stations of the Cross, only eight have a clear scriptural foundation. Station 4 appears out of order from scripture; Jesus’s mother is present at the crucifixion but is only mentioned after Jesus is nailed to the cross and before he dies (between stations 11 and 12). The scriptures contain no accounts whatsoever of any woman wiping Jesus’s face nor of Jesus falling as stated in Stations 3, 6, 7 and 9. Station 13 (Jesus’s body being taken down off the cross and laid in the arms of his mother Mary) differs from the gospels’ record, which states that Joseph of Arimathea took Jesus down from the cross and buried him.
To provide a version of this devotion more closely aligned with the Biblical accounts, Pope John Paul II introduced a new form of devotion, called the Scriptural Way of the Cross, on Good Friday 1991. He celebrated that form many times but not exclusively at the Colosseum in Italy, using the following sequence (as published by the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops):
Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane;
Jesus is betrayed by Judas and arrested.
Jesus is condemned by the Sanhedrin.
Jesus is denied by Peter.
Jesus is judged by Pilate.
Jesus is scourged and crowned with thorns.
Jesus takes up his cross.
Jesus is helped by Simon of Cyrene to carry his cross.
Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem.
Jesus is crucified.
Jesus promises his kingdom to the repentant thief.
Jesus entrusts Mary and John to each other.
Jesus dies on the cross; and
Jesus is laid in the tomb.
In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI approved this set of stations for meditation and public celebration.