The Way of the Cross

Jesus walks to Calvary
In all four gospels Jesus is handed over for crucifixion and then proceeds immediately to the hill of Calvary. In the synoptic gospels and some early images it is Simon of Cyrene who carries the cross to Calvary (example), but in John's gospel Jesus carries his own cross the whole way. The great majority of images in the second millenium adopt John's version and use the burden of the cross as a way of emphasizing Jesus' physical pain and emotional distress. The picture above is an example. Simon (the bald man) merely offers a bit of help as Jesus falls under the weight of the cross while soldiers torment him.

At the far left in the picture is one of the "Daughters of Jerusalem" whom Jesus addresses along the way (Luke 23:28). They and Simon are the only other people mentioned in the gospel accounts of the ascent to Calvary, but over the years many others were added, including St. John and the Virgin Mary (behind Simon in the picture above and in this stained glass) and a woman named Veronica (kneeling in the foreground). It was said that she wiped Jesus' face with her kerchief, and that in gratitude Jesus left on the cloth an image of his own face. See my St. Veronica page for a study of this legend and the images that reflect it.


Starting in the 15th century Catholic faithful began to practice a devotion known as the Way of the Cross or Stations of the Cross. A number of "stations" would be placed within a church or in an outdoor setting, each of them using a wooden cross to mark a stage in Jesus' ascent from the Pilate's throne up to Calvary. Singly or in groups, the faithful could make a sort of mini-pilgrimage from one Station to the next. In the 18th century Benedict XIII granted an indulgence to those who performed this devotion, and Stations came to be erected in many churches. It was never required that the wooden crosses be accompanied by images, but that came to be the practice.1 Thus a visitor to most Catholic churches in the United States will find fourteen of these images along the left and right sides of the nave, usually with brief titles. For a complete set of Stations from a traditional North American church, follow (this link). More recently built or decorated churches tend to have much simpler Stations.


Churches in Latin countries used to observe the Way of the Cross with processions during Holy Week featuring life-size santos such as the one in Mexico shown in the third picture on the right and this one in Spain. During the rest of the year the santos would be displayed in the church. In many localities the custom continues to this day. The santos are known by various names in their local sites: El Cristo Nazareno, Cristo de los Afligidos, etc. See our sister site on Oaxaca's santos of Christ Carrying the Cross and Christ Fallen Beneath the Cross.

Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2016-09-07, 2018-08-08.



Leonardo Corona, La Salita al Calvario, late 16th century. See the description page for details and interpretation.


Simon of Cyrene car­ries the cross in this 6th-century mo­sa­ic. See the de­scrip­tion page for more about this im­age.

This 5th-cen­tu­ry iv­ory is the ear­li­est im­age I have found of Jesus carry­ing the cross him­self. See the de­scrip­tion page.

The Santo Nazareño in Cuilapan, Mexico. See the de­scrip­tion page for more about this par­ti­cu­lar san­to.



1 Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. "Way of the Cross."