Stations: historical note

Historical Notes

Denis Egan, parish priest at Corpus Christi, Headington, Oxford, from 1980 – 1998.

Fourteen Stations of the Cross are a familiar sight in Catholic churches. The images or carvings fixed to the walls depict events on Christ's journey to his death on the cross; they invite us to pause at the 'station', to reflect and to pray, as pilgrims still do on the Via Dolorosa (way of sorrows) in Jerusalem. 'Making (or doing) the Stations', as the devotion is called, is a fruitful method of prayer, traditional on Fridays in Lent. A fifteenth station is sometimes added to represent the Resurrection, to encourage people to reflect on how the love of God overcame death in Christ. William Wey, one of the original fellows of Eton College who went on pilgrimage in 1458 and 1462, was the first to use the term 'station' (stop, standing) in connection with the devotion, apparently because it was always made standing.

As early as the 4th century it became the custom of pilgrims to Jerusalem to follow Christ's journey from Pilate's house to the place of his execution. The pilgrimage of the Empress Helena, Constantine's mother, in 326-8 is recorded in detail by her contemporary, the Church historian and biblical scholar, Eusebius (who had attended the Council of Nicaea in 325). The newly-discovered narrative, c.380, of the Lady Egeria (of Galatia) reinforces what we know from Eusebius and St Jerome concerning 'the intense feelings of veneration which the residents of Jerusalem had for the holy places pointed out by tradition.' For the terms in which she speaks of the sites shown her by the monks of Mount Sinai, see The Stations of the Cross pp 4-6, a seminal work by Herbert Thurston SJ, 1906. About this time we also have the specialist evidence of St Jerome (345-420), a scripture scholar unsurpassed in the early Church, who lived in Palestine for almost 50 years. 

Later on Muslim invasions, followed by the capture of Jerusalem in 637, made journeys to the Holy Land more dangerous. Hence the centuries-old practice of bringing the holy places into homes, churches and churchyards. Veterans of the crusades, for example, made tableaux for their homes, representing places they had visited in the Holy Land. Since comparatively few people were able to make their way to Palestine, the Stations of the Cross in churches ans cemeteries had come to constitute a 'miniature pilgrimage' which did not involve a perilous journey to a dangerous land. Lent and Holy Week became the favourite times for 'doing' the Stations.

The 'traditional' sequence of 14 stations which concentrates on the events of Good Friday was, in fact, a comparatively recent development in Christian history. There was originally considerable variety in the number and titles of stations: in 5th century Bologna (San Stefano) there were five; in the cemetery of the Franciscan Friary at Antwerp there were seven, representing the Seven Sorrows of the BVM. Later on, there were as many as 20 or more; including, for example, the house of Dives, Herod and Simon the Pharisee.

To introduce some order into possible chaos, the numbers and subjects of Stations of the Cross were codified into fourteen by a Franciscan, St Leonard of Port Maurice, in the 1720s and stabilised by Pope Clement XII in 1731. However, this was not regarded as mandatory, since a set of eleven stations was ordered for use in the Diocese of Vienne over 60 years later (1799). The papal decision may have been simply an approval of a popular custom which first appeared in manuals of devotion published in the Low Countries during the 16th century. The practice of 'doing Stations' became more widespread after St Alphonsus Liguori adapted them for his new missionary Order of Redemptorist priests (founded in 1732). For over two centuries the Redemptorist style and format were accepted as the approved Way of the Cross. However, other methods existed, notably one by Cardinal Newman.

It is a long-standing papal tradition that the Pope celebrates Stations of the Cross at the Coliseum in Rome on Good Friday. In 1991 Pope John Paul II omitted some of the traditional stations and substituted others so that each station was based on Scripture. The three falls of Jesus, his encounters with his mother and with Veronica were all omitted: they are not mentioned in Scripture. Important scriptural themes were introduced: Jesus praying in Gethsemane; Judas' betrayal; and Peter's denial; Jesus' scourging; Jesus is mocked; and the Resurrection (no. 15).