The Stations of the Cross are a series of 14 images depicting specific moments of Christ’s Passion, starting with the Condemnation by Pilate and concluding with the Entombment.
Traditionally, the images are displayed sequentially on the nave walls of Catholic churches or externally, along a processional route for example. They function for the faithful as a means of contemplating and praying the Via Dolorosa within their own church, originally conceived as a substitute in medieval times for those unable to make the difficult pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
The Stations are regarded as a Franciscan concept, dating from the 14th c., when the Franciscans were given Guardianship of the Holy Places in Jerusalem1. The Stations are used mainly in Lent and Holy Week in conjunction with specific prayers and responses, for example the Meditations on the Stations of the Cross by Cardinal John Henry Newman (1860).
V. ‘We adore Thee O Christ, and bless thee.
R. ‘Because by Thy holy cross Thou hast redeemed the World…’
Many Stations are carved or cast in low relief (such as those by Eric Gill in Westminster Cathedral, London) or painted (Tiepolo’s series in S. Polo, Venice). The particular choice of events depicted was determined by the Franciscan S. Leonardo of Porto Maurizio in the early 18th c.2
In this series of Stations, the traditional medieval panel-painting process has been made explicit by deliberately exposing the linen lining material and the white gesso ground as a border surrounding the painted image.
This exposure of technique is to emphasize that these Stations are a modern, not medieval work and also to take a formal delight in contrasting humble textures of wood, cloth, chalk against the opulence of the gold-leaf and egg tempera colours.
The background to each panel is water-gilded in 24ct gold leaf over a bole ground. The pigments used for the egg tempera include Lapis Lazuli for the Virgin’s robe and Christ’s loin cloth, whilst various earth colours (iron oxide pigments) have been used for the earth/foreground, i.e., Raw Sienna, Red Ochre, Raw Umber etc. Each Station was painted on a seasoned oak panel, 41 x 36 cm.
The general composition and iconography for this series of Stations of the Cross was inspired by the work of 13th /14th c. Italian painters of the Sienese School (i.e., Duccio’s narrative panels from reverse of the Maestá altarpiece, c.1308-11 and Ugolino di Nerio’s S. Croce altarpiece, c.1324-25.) In addition, some of the rare Passion iconography found on late 13th c. painted crosses (Croce Dipinta) has also been used for several of the Stations. These large wooden crosses display a little-known but extraordinary fusion of archetypal Byzantine imagery and its free re-interpretation by medieval painters rising to the new challenges of mendicant affective devotion.
The unusual type of cross depicted in these Stations, with its rough-hewn, lopped branches refers to the obscure medieval legend of ‘The Green Tree and Dry’ in which the dead wood of the cross is temporarily revivified and puts forth new shoots when Christ’s blood falls upon it, hence it is a symbol of redemption. It is associated with Tree of Life imagery and the belief that the wood of the True Cross was made from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which was subsequently withered by God’s wrath.
Several significant representations of the Rough Hewn cross occur in 11th and 12th c. English, German, French and Italian manuscripts and sculpture. The most notable English examples being the Crucifixion miniature from Judith of Flanders Gospel Book, c.1050 (MS. 709,fo.Iv,Pierpoint Morgan Library) and the extraordinary 12th c. morse ivory ‘Cloisters Cross’ from the Benedictine Abbey at Bury St. Edmunds (Cloisters Museum, New York).
Having researched this field of iconography for her Masters Dissertation, Helen felt it was appropriate to reclaim this English imagery for the site of the commission, St. Mary’s Church, Attleborough, Norfolk. The church not only has a wall-painting of the Tree of Life but was founded in the 12th c. as a seminary dedicated to the Holy Cross.
Robed in white as the sacrificial lamb, Christ stands with passive acceptance between Pilate and the soldier guarding him, awaiting his predestined execution.
Of all of Christ’s trials (before Ananas, Caiaphas and Herod) the trial before Pilate was the most legally important - only Pilate could implement the death sentence passed by the Sanhedrin.
This traditional scene was frequently depicted in 14th c. Italian painting (before which there were anti-Semitic variants concentrating on the trials before the Jewish priests in both Italian and Byzantine art3).
The powerful image of Christ standing with bound hands originates from 12th – 13th c. Byzantine iconography, however the motif of rope was highly symbolic to the Franciscans, who wore it has part of their habit. St. Francis chose a rope as a belt because St. Matthew’s described how ‘They brought him [Christ] bound and delivered him to Pontius Pilate’.
The rope around Christ’s neck dates from the 4th c. Palestinian liturgy for Good Friday where the Patriarch (representing Christ) is led by a rope in public. This motif is later depicted in 10th c. Cappodocian and 12th c. Byzantine iconography before appearing in Italian art, c.1260-70.The route of transmission may have been via Pisan trade or Franciscan interaction in the Levant4.
The Roman soldier shoves Christ into position to take the extreme weight of the rough wooden cross. Christ obliges, roped around the neck like an animal to the slaughter.
This Station and all those up to the tenth (‘Christ Falls for the Third Time’) are derived from images of the ‘Way to Calvary’ - an important theme in late medieval Passion cycles5. From the mid 13th c., Italian artists fused Northern Gothic and Byzantine iconography with their own ingenuity to create new, far more expressive scenes.
The scant Gospel descriptions of Christ’s journey to Golgotha have all been traditionally depicted as Stations, irrespective of any contradiction (the synoptic accounts say Simon of Cyrene carried the cross whilst John’s says Christ carried his own cross.)
However, from end of 11th c. Christ is frequently depicted carrying his own cross and this can be considered in relation to the Crusading propaganda of the day (First Crusade 1095-99) and the call for every Christian to ‘take up his cross’ and follow Christ6. This image also refers directly to the Rule of the Franciscan Order - for the friars to take up their cross as St. Francis had done, as well as the Order’s close involvement with the Crusades.
Christ collapses under the weight of the Cross on to one knee. The Son of Man appears isolated from all humanity.
In this Station the physical suffering of Christ is introduced. Christ will fall three times, here - and in Stations 7 and 9. Such imagery dates from late 13th c. Italian painting and corresponds to the emotive devotional texts, liturgy and sermons which all emphasize the weight and size of the cross and Christ’s exhaustion.
Now outside the city walls of Jerusalem, Christ turns back to look at his distraught mother before continuing the journey she has always known he must take and cannot prevent.
The presence of the Virgin in this scene adds a further emotional charge to the narrative as she brings to life the events of the Passion from a maternal perspective. As there was no equivalent imagery in Byzantine art, such representations of the Virgin, particularly in Italian mid 13th c. painting, are evidence of the great strength of the cult of Virgin in late medieval Europe and its influence upon western art.
Unable to continue, the soldiers enlist a man from the crowd of bystanders to take up the cross for Christ.
Simon’s physical strength contrasts with the increasing fragility of Christ, shown again with bound wrists as the condemned prisoner. The hilly background evokes Golgotha. Simon’s act is mentioned in the synoptic accounts and is represented first in Byzantine iconography before being transmitted to Western Europe in the early medieval period7.
7 Derbes, p.119.
In the intensifying heat of the morning, a woman steps out of the crowd to wipe the stinging sweat from Christ’s eyes.
This scene depicts the legend of the woman who wiped the face of Christ with her veil and found that his features had miraculously been imprinted upon it. Being the ‘true image’ (vera icon) this is the name associated with the woman, Veronica. This legend is similar in essence to the earlier Byzantine legend of the Holy Mandylion, a napkin upon which Christ miraculously left his image as a healing gift for King Abgar of Edessa.
Increasingly exhausted, Christ now collapses onto both knees whilst two Roman soldiers look on indifferent to the event, assuming this is yet one more Jewish criminal they must execute.
The humiliation of Christ, with the rope around his neck is also a reference to how St. Francis (regarded as the Alter Christus) was also dragged by a rope as a self-imposed public penance in imitation of Christ’s journey to Calvary. Friars in Assisi still ritually wear a rope around their necks during the Good Friday procession.
And Jesus turned to them and said ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep rather for yourselves and for your children’ (Luke 23.28)
It is only Luke’s account that describes how Christ stopped to speak to the women of Jerusalem. This scene was represented in 11th c. Byzantine manuscripts but the image here is an original and personal interpretation inspired by the Somali women and their children in North West London. The relationship between Christ and the child necessarily forms the central focus.
[N.B. The direction of Christ’s journey and the cross changes to point to the left - this denotes the change in direction of the faithful as they move from the first seven Stations across to the opposite nave wall of the church to follow the next seven towards the altar.]
His physical journey to reach Golgotha is almost over. Totally exhausted Christ collapses again. Impatient and scornful, the two soldiers cajole him to move on. One soldier tugs the rope around his neck choking him, whilst the other threatens to stab him and cruelly treads on his bare toes.
This scene concentrates on the physical suffering in the 14th c. Franciscan tradition of emphasizing Christ’s physical pain and torture. Such depictions differ from earlier/Byzantine representations which focused more on the divine nature of Christ but were less effective in provoking the emotions of the viewer.
Having reached the place of his crucifixion, Christ stands before the cross and is stripped of his seemless robe. His mother uses her veil to cover his nakedness and preserve his dignity - but in so doing diminishes her own by unveiling her head. The Jewish priest orders Christ to mount the cross.
This scene is partly based on rare 13th c. Italian Passion iconography, which (unfortunately) includes the anti-Semitic image of the Jewish priest, this has been retained as a point of art historical discussion in order to highlight the influential role of art in shaping political and social attitudes.
The Stripping of Christ first appears as a theme c.1260 in a fresco in the lower church at Assisi. The motif of the unveiled Virgin is an original concept developed from the early 14th c. fresco by the school of Pietro Cavallini in which the Virgin uses a spare veil as a loincloth (S. Maria Donnaregina, Naples.)8
8 Derbes, p 141.
Christ not only finds the strength to climb the ladder to be nailed to the cross but does so willingly, offering his hand to the executioner perched on the cross-beam (patibulum). The agonized Virgin attempts to, but cannot restrain him from his eager acceptance of his death. The executioner’s brute assistant stares at the Son of God with callous ignorance.
This image is based on a small scene by the pre-Duccio painter, Guido da Siena, c.1274-809. This unusual iconography developed from Byzantine depictions of the Preparation for the Crucifixion dating from the 6th c. Again, it must be noted that we see another example of entrenched medieval anti-Semitism in the substitution of Roman soldiers for the two Jewish executioners. The central, non-canonical role of the Virgin is not only referencing the medieval cult of the Virgin but continues to make manifest her role as Mother and intercessor. The nails and ladder became significant features in medieval art and represent the arma Christi or relics of the Crucifixion, allegedly brought to Europe by Crusaders in the early 12th c.
9 Derbes, p.146.
Christ has died, Man will be redeemed.
The blood from his wounds flows onto the rough-hewn wood of the cross and miraculously new growth shoots forth from the dead wood.
This Crucifixion scene may appear unusual and novel but is in fact derived from the medieval legend of ‘The Green Tree and Dry’. According to the legend, the cross was made from the dead wood from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Paradise. The dead wood is revivified by Christ’s blood, bursts into life and is therefore a symbol of redemption. (It is not however the ‘Tree of Life’, that was the other tree in Paradise and a symbol for Christ himself.)
Graceful in the sleep of death, Christ’s body hangs in the Byzantine S-shape of the Christus Patiens type. In the tradition of both Byzantine and 13th c. Italian crucifixes, the body-form of Christ is segmented and stylized in a manner that perfectly expresses his torture, elongation and suffocation upon the cross. And yet his form also conveys the deep peace upon the completion of his sacrifice to redeem man. This imagery was probably brought into the western canon of art from the Byzantine East by the Franciscans who recognized a new depth of expression and sophistication of form unknown in the art of 13th c. Western Europe.
With the utmost care those closest to Christ remove his body from the cross. The dead weight is supported by Joseph of Arimithea, precariously balanced on the same ladder Christ climbed a few hours before. The Virgin and St. John the Evangelist receive his sacred body with the greatest love and gentleness. The skull of Adam has emerged into the light of redemption from its legendary burial place beneath the cross.
This image is entirely inspired by Pietro Lorenzetti’s fresco masterpiece of the Deposition in the lower church of the Basilica of San Francesco at Assisi, c. 1320-1330.
Within the dark, rock-hewn tomb, the body of Christ is prepared for burial. St. John supports the beloved head and shoulders of Christ, whilst St. Peter takes the weight at the feet of Christ. The Virgin kisses her divine son whilst the Magdalene holds the hand that healed and blessed.
This final Station follows the early 14th c. Entombment scenes by Duccio and Ugolino di Nerio et al of the Sienese School.