What are the Stations of the Cross?
In the Christian religion, the Way of the Cross or the Stations of the Cross are used in the Roman Catholic Church to signify either a series of pictures or tableaux representing certain scenes in the Passion of Jesus Christ, each corresponding to a particular incident, or the special form of devotion connected with such representations.
Taken in the former sense, the Stations may be of stone, wood, or metal, sculptured or carved, or they may be merely paintings or engravings.
Some Stations are valuable works of art, as those, for instance, in Antwerp cathedral, which have been much copied elsewhere.
They are usually ranged at intervals around the walls of a church, though sometimes they are to be found in the open air, especially on roads leading to a church or shrine. In monasteries they are often placed in the cloisters.
The 14 Stations of the Cross
The use of the stations did not become at all general before the end of the seventeenth century, but they are now to be found in almost every church.
Formerly their number varied considerably in different places but fourteen are now prescribed by authority. They are as follows:
1. Christ condemned to death 2. The cross is laid upon him 3. His first fall 4. He meets His Blessed Mother 5. Simon of Cyrene is made to bear the cross 6. Christ's face is wiped by Veronica 7. His second fall 8. He meets the women of Jerusalem 9. His third fall 10. He is stripped of His garments 11. His crucifixion 12. His death on the cross 13. His body is taken down from the cross 14. Laid in the tomb.
The object of the Stations is to help the faithful to make in spirit, as it were, a pilgrimage to the chief scenes of Christ's sufferings and death, and this has become one of the most popular of Catholic devotions.
It is carried out by passing from Station to Station, with certain prayers at each and devout meditation on the various incidents in turn. It is very usual, when the devotion is performed publicly, to sing a stanza of the "Stabat Mater" while passing from one Station to the next.
The Way of the Cross as Pilgrimage
Inasmuch as the Way of the Cross, made in this way, constitutes a miniature pilgrimage to the holy places at Jerusalem, the origin of the devotion may be traced to the Holy Land. The Via Dolorosa at Jerusalem (though not called by that name before the sixteenth century) was reverently marked out from the earliest times and has been the goal of pious pilgrims ever since the days of Constantine.
Tradition asserts that the Blessed Virgin Mary used to visit daily the scenes of Christ's Passion and St. Jerome speaks of the crowds of pilgrims from all countries who used to visit the holy places in his day. There is, however, no direct evidence as to the existence of any set form of the devotion at that early date, and it is noteworthy that St. Sylvia (c. 380) says nothing about it in her "Peregrinatio ad loca sancta", although she describes minutely every other religious exercise that she saw practised there.
A desire to reproduce the holy places in other lands, in order to satisfy the devotion of those who were hindered from making the actual pilgrimage, seems to have manifested itself at quite an early date. At the monastery of San Stefano at Bologna a group of connected chapels were constructed as early as the fifth century, by St. Petronius, Bishop of Bologna, which were intended to represent the more important shrines of Jerusalem, and in consequence, this monastery became familiarly known as "Hierusalem".
These may perhaps be regarded as the germ from which the Stations afterwards developed, though it is tolerably certain that nothing that we have before about the fifteenth century can strictly be called a Way of the Cross in the modern sense.
Several travellers, it is true, who visited the Holy Land during the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries, mention a "Via Sacra", i.e., a settled route along which pilgrims were conducted, but there is nothing in their accounts to identify this with the Via Crucis, as we understand it, including special stopping-places with indulgences attached, and such indulgenced Stations must, after all, be considered to be the true origin of the devotion as now practised.
It cannot be said with any certainty when such indulgences began to be granted, but most probably they may be due to the Franciscans, to whom in 1342 the guardianship of the holy places was entrusted. Ferraris mentions the following as Stations to which indulgences were attached: the place where Christ met His Blessed Mother, where He spoke to the women of Jerusalem, where He met Simon of Cyrene, where the soldiers cast lots for His garment, where He was nailed to the cross, Pilate's house, and the Holy Sepulchre.
Analogous to this it may be mentioned that in 1520 Leo X granted an indulgence of a hundred days to each of a set of scuptured Stations, representing the Seven Dolours of Our Lady, in the cemetery of the Franciscan Friary at Antwerp, the devotion connected with them being a very popular one.
"Stations" in the History of the Catholic Church
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 1458 and again in 1462, and who describes the manner in which it was then usual to follow the footsteps of Christ in His sorrowful journey.
It seems that up to that time it had been the general practice to commence at Mount Calvary, and proceeding thence, in the opposite direction to Christ, to work back to Pilate's house. By the early part of the sixteenth century, however, the more reasonable way of traversing the route, by beginning at Pilate's house and ending at Mount Calvary, had come to be regarded as more correct, and it became a special exercise of devotion complete in itself.
During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries several reproductions of the holy places were set up in different parts of Europe. The Blessed Alvarez (d. 1420), on his return from the Holy Land, built a series of little chapels at the Dominican friary of Cordova, in which, after the pattern of separate Stations, were painted the principal scenes of the Passion. About the same time the Blessed Eustochia, a poor Clare, constructed a similar set of Stations in her convent at Messina.
Others that may be enumerated were those at Görlitz, erected by G. Emmerich, about 1465, and at Nuremburg, by Ketzel, in 1468. Imiations of these were made at Louvain in 1505 by Peter Sterckx; at St. Getreu in Bamberg in 1507; at Fribourg and at Rhodes, about the same date, the two latter being in the commanderies of the Knights of Rhodes.
Those at Nuremburg, which were carved by Adam Krafft, as well as some of the others, consisted of seven Stations, popularly known as "the Seven Falls", because in each of them Christ was represented either as actually prostrate or as sinking under the weight of His cross. A famous set of Stations was set up in 1515 by Romanet Bofin at Romans in Dauphine, in imitation of those at Fribourg, and a similar set was erected in 1491 at Varallo by the Franciscans there, whose guardian, Blessed Bernardino Caimi, had been custodian of the holy places.
In several of these early examples an attempt was made, not merely to duplicate the most hallowed spots of the original Via Dolorosa at Jerusalem, but also to reproduce the exact intervals between them, measured in paces, so that devout people might cover precisely the same distances as they would have done had they made the pilgrimage to the Holy Land itself. Boffin and some of the others visited Jerusalem for the express purpose of obtaining the exact measurements, but unfortunately, though each claimed to be correct, there is an extraordinary divergence between some of them.
With regard to the number of Stations it is not at all easy to determine how this came to be fixed at fourteen, for it seems to have varied considerably at different times and places. And, naturally, with varying numbers the incidents of the Passion commemorated also varied greatly. Wey's account, written in the middle of the fifteenth century, gives fourteen, but only five of these correspond with ours, and of the others, seven are only remotely connected with our Via Crucis:
1. The house of Dives 2. The city gate through which Christ passed 3. The probatic pool 4. The Ecce Homo arch 5. The Blessed Virgin's school 6. the houses of Herod and Simon the Pharisee
When Romanet Boffin visited Jerusalem in 1515 for the purpose of obtaining correct details for his set of Stations at Romans, two friars there told him that there ought to be thirty-one in all, but in the manuals of devotion subsequently issued for the use of those visiting these Stations they are given variously as nineteen, twenty-five, and thirty-seven, so it seems that even in the same place the number was not determined very definitely.
A book entitled "Jerusalem sicut Christi tempore floruit", written by one Adrichomius and published in 1584, gives twelve Stations which correspond exactly with the first twelve of ours, and this fact is thought by some to point conclusively to the origin of the particular selection afterwards authorized by the Church, especially as this book had a wide circulation and was translated into several European languages. Whether this is so or not we cannot say for certain.
At any rate, during the sixteenth century, a number of devotional manuals, giving prayers for use when making the Stations, were published in the Low Countries, and some of our fourteen appear in them for the first time.
But whilst this was being done in Europe for the benefit of those who could not visit the Holy Land and yet could reach Louvain, Nuremburg, Romans, or one of the other reproductions of the Via Dolorosa, it appears doubtful whether, even up to the end of the sixteenth century, there was any settled form of the devotion performed publicly in Jerusalem, for Zuallardo, who wrote a book on the subject, published in Rome in 1587, although he gives a full series of prayers, etc., for the shrines within the Holy Sepulchre, which were under the care of the Franciscans, provides none for the Stations themselves.
He explains the reason thus: "it is not permitted to make any halt, nor to pay veneration to them with uncovered head, nor to make any other demonstration". From this it would seem that after Jerusalem had passed under the Turkish domination the pious exercises of the Way of the Cross could be performed far more devoutly at Nuremburg or Louvain than in Jerusalem itself.
It may therefore be conjectured, with extreme probability, that our present series of Stations, together with the accustomed series of prayers for them, comes to us, not from Jerusalem, but from some of the imitation Ways of the Cross in different parts of Europe, and that we owe the propagation of the devotion, as well as the number and selection of our Stations, much more to the pious ingenuity of certain sixteenth-century devotional writers than to the actual practice of pilgrims to the holy places.
With regard to th particular subjects which have been retained in our series of Stations, it may be noted that very few of the medieval accounts make any mention of either the second (Christ receiving the cross) or the tenth (Christ being stripped of His garments), whilst others which have since dropped out appear in almost all the early lists. One of the most frequent of these is the Station formerly made at the remains of the Ecce Homo arch, i.e. the balcony from which these words were pronounced.Source
The Catholic Encyclopedia (1914 ed. in the public domain), "The Way of the Cross" with minor edits.