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. In this detail from a 13th-century triptych, all he does is lay his hands lightly on Jesus' back.

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. The thieves who were to be crucified with Jesus are not usually in evidence in images of this type, but they are an important element in Tintoretto's Ascent to Calvary.

THE STATIONS OF THE CROSS

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. It was never required that the wooden crosses be accompanied by images, but that came to be the practice. In 1742 Benedict XIV recommended that every church install a set of fourteen stations. Soon after that, Giandomenico Tiepolo painted the stations for San Polo in Venice.1

By the 20th century a visitor to almost every Catholic church in the United States and Canada would find the fourteen images along the left and right sides of the nave, usually oil paintings with brief titles (example). More recently built or decorated churches tend to have much simpler Stations.

SANTOS

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.

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

OTHER IMAGES

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.

MORE IMAGES

  • 1280-85: In the great central tympanum on the façade of Strasbourg Cathedral it is a woman who tries to help carry the cross. A Jewish official apparently tries to intervene.
  • 15th century: Devotional image of Jesus with the Cross
  • 15th century: The left-center panel of an altarpiece in Salamanca pictures Jesus carrying the Cross out of a city gate.
  • 1516-18: Relief sculpture in the main retable of Oviedo Cathedral
  • 1547-51: An altarpiece panel of the carrying of the cross.
  • 16th century: Jesus falls and Mary faints in this painting.
  • 19th/20th century: A Station of the Cross in a traditional North American church.

NOTES

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