I was intrigued last week to read, in my parish bulletin, a short but fairly comprehensive history of the Stations of the Cross. In preparation for today’s blog post, I spent a great deal of time hunting about on the internet for further information I wanted, with respect to a particular aspect of that history. The end result of this search has turned out to be rewarding, though not in the way I had anticipated.
For those unfamiliar with the term, the Stations of the Cross are a pious practice in which Catholics reflect and pray, recalling the various events surrounding Christ’s Passion and Death on Good Friday. It is in a sense a spiritual pilgrimage back to Jerusalem at the time of Jesus. The Stations typically include His condemnation by Pilate, His walking to Calvary, and His Crucifixion, with each event representing a pause or “Station” along the Way of the Cross. Although they can be used at any time, the Stations are most often turned to on Fridays during Lent.
The number and names of the Stations have changed, as the practice has developed over the centuries. You can read more about how this took place in the entry located in the Catholic Encyclopedia. Today, there is a generally accepted list of fourteen or perhaps fifteen Stations, if one includes the Resurrection, though this last is a more contemporary addition to the list. The portrayal of the Stations in art, such as in paintings and sculpture, has led to their becoming what we might term a standard decoration for churches.
In the history of how the present-day set of Stations developed, which as stated above I read in my parish bulletin, there was a mention of the Franciscan Friary in the city of Antwerp, in present-day Belgium. In the early 16th century, the friars placed seven sculptural groups or “stations” in their cemetery, representing the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin Mary. This is a separate, but related, pious custom, in which Catholics reflect on how Mary, the Mother of Jesus, witnessed the sufferings of her Son, and good mother that she was, experienced her own suffering.
The origin of this custom originally stems from the prophecy of Simeon, as recounted in the Gospel of St. Luke at 2:34-35. “And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary His Mother, ‘Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted. And you yourself a sword will pierce, so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.’ ” The practice of prayer and reflection on the Seven Sorrows aided in the selection of what eventually became the list of the Stations of the Cross, since there was some overlap between the two lists.
Naturally enough, given my interest in art history, I wanted to find images of these Renaissance-era stations which the faithful could visit in Antwerp, particularly since they had been honored by Pope Leo X in 1520 as being worthy aides to this devotional practice. Unfortunately, despite trying every combination of search terms I could think of, this proved an unsuccessful effort. While there are many online entries about these sculptures, finding images of them or even figuring out the location of the friary cemetery where they were displayed turned out to be something of a hopeless quest.
Eventually, I managed to learn that the friary had been sacked and closed by Napoleon in 1810, and its church turned into a storage facility; it was later demolished in the mid-19th century. As for the cemetery and its famous Seven Sorrows, I could find no trace of what happened to these sculptures. It is well-known that Napoleon and his troops liked to commit acts of blasphemy against the Catholic Church, and so it is possible that they might have been destroyed, although hopefully a better-informed reader than I will be able to tell me what finally happened to them.
Yet the search for information on these objects, fruitless as it proved to be, was not in vain. In the process of researching about them, I not only learned more about the history and practice of mediation on the sufferings of Christ, but also about how Christians had reflected not only on the modern-day list of those sufferings with which I was already familiar, but on many others. For example, some lists included events such as Judas betraying Jesus, St. Peter’s denial, and Jesus being mocked and beaten by King Herod. The process brought home to me a couple of things which may be worth keeping in mind during our Lenten devotions.
The Stations of the Cross are designed to be a devotional tool to aid in prayer, and they do a very good job of helping us to recall the sequence of events which ended with Jesus’ Crucifixion. However they are by no means an exclusive list of what happened to Him, or indeed all that He suffered. The structure of the Stations is supposed to aid, not limit, our reflections on what Christ went through on our behalf.
While they are a traditional Catholic devotion, for those other Christians among my readers who are not familiar with the Stations of the Cross, there is certainly no reason why you cannot use them yourself, as a way to help you think about the timeline on Good Friday as you pray. The more we are able to reflect on what Jesus went through, beginning with this list and then expanding on it in our own private moments of contemplation, the more we are able to recognize what He went through: emotional suffering, physical torture, betrayal by people He loved, false accusations, public insult and humiliation, and so on. And the more we realize that it is by our sins that we put Him in those situations, then hopefully all the more we will repent of those sins, and amend our lives so as to carry our own burdens in life, in the way that He bore His Cross for all our sakes.
“Christ Carrying the Cross” by El Greco (c. 1580’s)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York