Via Crucis – The Stations of the Cross

Via Crucis- Stanice krsta
Via Crucis - Spiritual practice
Illustration: Adam Kraft, Station of the Cross in Nuremberg – Christ Meets Virgin Mary (circa 1505), source

On the occasion of Easter celebration according to the Gregorian calendar, we have decided to dedicate a few lines to one of the most prominent and visually most recognizable practices of piety among the Catholics – the Stations of the Cross, i.e. the practice of Via Crucis. It is a spiritual practice that involves physical participation of the faithful with the aim of reaching oneness with Christ in the last stages of his suffering. The Stations of the Cross are represented as a visual aid that guides a believer through meditation on specific episodes of the Passion. The stations are: 1. Jesus is condemned before Pilate; 2. Jesus is given his Cross; 3. Jesus falls the first time; 4. Jesus meets His mother, Mary; 5. Jesus and Simon Cyrene; 6. Jesus and Veronica; 7. Jesus falls the second time; 8. The women of Jerusalem weep over the Lord, 9. Jesus falls the third time; 10. Jesus is stripped of his clothes; 11. Jesus is nailed to the Cross; 12. Jesus dies on the Cross; 13. Jesus is taken down from the Cross; 14. Jesus is placed in the tomb.

Via Crucis – Spiritual practice

The practice represents juxtaposition of different and chronologically distanced elements of devoutness of Passion, which were synthesized and made official by the Catholic Church only in 17th century. Although the events of the Christ’s Passion took place in Jerusalem, the Stations of the Cross, which serve to keep their memory, were introduced to the Holy Land only after the institutionalization of the practice by the papal bulls of Pope Innocent XI. The place of their origin is Europe in the times of massive returns from the Crusades and they grew out of the late medieval religious sentimentalism and increased interest in the unavailable sanctuaries of the Holy Land. The crusaders’ homecoming to Europe gave rise to memorial complexes that aspired to imitate their originals as realistically and accurately as possible, since they became practically inaccessible to the Christians. These imitations of the Holy Land in Europe are plentiful and come in various forms. Upon his return from the Holy Land in 1423, Dominican St. Alvaro of Cordova used the landscape surrounding his monastery to place memento of the Golgotha with three crosses on top, dubbing it „trayecto doloroso“. Franciscan Bernardino Caimi erected a modest replica of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at the Sacred Mountain of Varallo in Lombardy to denote the place of Christ’s suffering. The chapel piqued people’s interest so much that it became a model for the religious complexes Sacri Monti and resulted in the next 300 years of construction work that spawned 42 lavishly decorated chapels. The principal idea of all these phenomena is reviving Christ’s suffering by emulation and descriptive topography of the places where Christ spent his last moments of earthly life. The emulation is meant to create a suitable atmosphere for meditating on the Passion, so that the faithful, by means of emphatic identification with Christ, could have equal spiritual benefits as if they physically visited the Holy Land. The Stations of the Cross belong to such group of memorial monuments that serve as a visual guide through meditation, determining the trajectory of the penitential walk. Just like their monumental relatives Sacri Monti, the stations were also erected in the open space, becoming part of the interior decor only in 17th century after the reform. 

The oldest surviving examples are found in northern Europe, primarily in Germany and Leuven in Belgium. Chronologically oldest are those dating from the late 15th century; however, they are preserved only partially which made it impossible to reconstruct the selection and exact look of the other scenes they presented, based on only one-two surviving stations. The oldest examples preserved in full are kept in Bamberg (circa 1503) and Nuremberg (circa 1505). The Nuremberg ones are the most famous surviving late medieval stations in Europe, made by the workshop of a talented sculptor of the international gothic style, Adam Kraft – a contemporary and friend of Dürer’s. Both German examples illustrate the selection of seven scenes of Christ’s Passion, matching today’s seven Stations of the Cross: Jesus is taken to be executed; Jesus meets his mother; Simon carries the Cross; The women of Jerusalem weep for Christ; Jesus meets Veronica; Jesus falls beneath the Cross; Jesus is crucified. Such selection of the scenes clarifies that in Germany, the focus of meditation was Christ’s arduous carrying of the Cross and not so much the other places he stayed at during his trials.

Stations were not placed randomly: the distance between them was designed to be equal to that between the places where the actual events took place in Jerusalem. The need to determine the length of Christ’s last earthly walk is one of the earliest signs of particular interest in His carrying the Cross.  The distances were measured in steps, so in 1422 Martinus Polonius, a pilgrim, measured 450 steps from Pilate’s house to Golgotha. In doing so, Polonius commenced compiling of numerous illustrated books and manuals that restated the distances between the places of suffering; more often than not, the compilers never actually set foot in the Holy Land but rather compiled the manuscripts consulting the earlier works on the same subject. The stations in Bamberg and Nuremberg, with their choice of scenes and distances between the presented episodes of the Passion, match the ones from the work about the spiritual pilgrimage by Jean Van Paschen, who also only browsed through the works of earlier authors, never going on a pilgrimage himself. Comparing the distances between the locations in Jerusalem stated in Paschen’s work and the ones between the stations in Nuremberg, leads us to an interesting assumption that the first station in Nuremberg was not the starting point of the walk but one of the neighbouring houses.   

The idea behind the practice Via Crucis, i.e. placing the Stations of the Cross, was that they served as some sort of private devoutness of pilgrims, who walked the Holy Land, wanting to reproduce the visited sanctuaries at home. The stations were not erected only for religious reason to enable spiritual purification in the local ambient; they were also a status symbol of their commissioner, who in this way marked his journey and provided meditational route for other members of his community who were denied the real, physical one.

Images of Christ’s passionate walk presented on the stations seem rather violent and dramatic; it is no accident, knowing they were created under the direct influence of religious dramas that thrived in 15th century. In the late Middle Age, religious theatre, which developed from liturgical rituals, gradually became accessible to the commoners, who embellished it with details from the Gospels: Christ’s fall beneath the Cross, His heart-breaking encounter with Virgin Mary while he is carrying the Cross, His encounter with Veronica who wipes his face – these are all details from folk imagery that complemented descriptions of the Passion from the gospels. Multiplication of figures in religious paintings and violence that was not directed against Christ only but also those close to him Virgin Mary, John and the mourning women who followed him are actually folk elements introduced to art to enable a better emphatic understanding of the painting. These can be found in the works of literature devoted to meditations on Christ’s Passion. 

In Germany, the motif of Christ falling under the weight of the Cross is particularly interesting, as it can only be found in the art of the Rhine Province. Outside this territory, it is only featured in the work of the Flemish artist Hans Memling; this comes as no surprise, knowing that he immigrated to Flanders from the above mentioned German region. Christ’s falls beneath the Cross are probably the most dramatic scenes of His Passion, in that they most poignantly illustrate the agony of his journey to death. The most famous illustration of this theatrical episode is an engraving by Martin Schongauer Christ Carrying the Cross (1475-1480), an example of late German gothic art, which in this period reaches its culmination precisely with the scenes of Christ’s Passion. Meditations on Christ’s agonizing falls gave birth to a particular type of the Station of the Cross, presenting seven scenes of Christ’s staggering beneath the Cross – “the Seven Falls” (Sieben Fußfälle), indicative only of the Rhine Province. 


Illustration: Martin Schongauer
Illustration: Martin Schongauer, Christ Carrying the Cross, an engraving, 1475-1480, collection of the Metropoliten Museum in New York.

The form consisting of twelve stations developed from the literary work of a Dutch catholic priest, Christian van Adrichem, wherefrom it was taken over by the Spanish during their rule in the Netherlands. In Spain, the practice gained such popularity that believers walked the stations barefoot every Friday, sometimes even placing them in secular places. While in 17th century the practice of erecting the stations slowly declines, in Spain it becomes ever more popular and spreads to all territories under their rule.  Another factor that helped popularization of the practice was an Italian Franciscan –Leonard of Port Maurice. He was so inspired by the encounter with Spanish Franciscan friars who told him about the practice’s popularity in their country, that between 1712 and 1751 he erected 572 Stations of the Cross across Italy. West European engraving templates with dramatic illustrations of Christ’s suffering also reached Russian and Ukrainian regions, wherefrom by routes not yet precisely understood, they became introduced to the church decor of Serbian baroque art. Diverse presentations of Christ’s walk to Golgotha are more prominent in Serbian Baroque than other scenes of the suffering and they match some episodes found on West European Stations of the Cross. They date from the second half of the 18th century and can be seen on the isolated parts of the dome above a naos, on church furniture and, particularly, in the highest row of icons of an iconostas. 

Today’s appearance and shape of the Stations of the Cross in the catholic church interiors developed from a complex history that involved departure from the ritual corpus, assimilation with new details, and reintroduction of the final product to the religious ritual.  Just like many other similar religious practices, the Stations of the Cross are a mixture of the most favoured ritualistic and folk elements, a synthesis of the finest elements of the educated church and the uneducated folk culture. 



 Amédée (Teetaert) da Zedelgem, Saggio storico sulla devozione alla Via Crucis, a cura di Amilcare Barbero, Centro documentazione dei Sacri Monti, Calvari e complessi devozionale europei, Ponzano Monferrato, 2004. 

Bodin Vuksan, Barokna tematika srpskog ikonostasa 18. veka, doktorska disertacija, Filozofski fakultet Univerziteta u Beogradu, Beograd, 2006, 137-171.

Gertrude Schiller, Iconography of Christian art, vol 2. , The Passion of Jesus Christ, London, 1972.

Massimiliano Brandys, Via Crucis, Enciclopedia Cattolica, XII, Citta‘ del Vaticano, 1954, 1348-1351. 

Miroslav Timotijević, Srpsko barokno slikarstvo, Matica srpska, Novi Sad, 1996, str. 322-331.

R.A.K. (sic), Martin Schongauer’s ’Christ bearing the Cross‘, Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, vol. 14, n. 2, 1955, pp. 22-30.

Fra. Rafael Barišić, Pobožnost Sv. Križnog puta, Zagreb, 1892.

Herbert Thurston, The Stations of the Cross: An account of their history and devotional purpose, London, 1906.

Crispino Valenziano, Via Crucis- una storia progressiva per memoria e imitazione, La vita in Cristo e nella Chiesa, n. 2, Roma, 2002. 

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