The Stations of the Cross - a Meditation and Sonnet
The Stations of the Cross - Via Crucis
I am not Roman Catholic. In fact, I am not religious at all. But a love of great art and architecture has taken me to some of Europe's finest churches and cathedrals. Some years ago, in Rome, I visited one of the many cathedrals (I forget which one but it wasn't St Peters) to see two large alter-pieces by Caravaggio. While there, I noticed a series of small engravings, fourteen in number and very ancient, placed at regular intervals around the nave. They were numbered (I to XIV) but not signed or titled. Each depicted a scene from the last few hours leading up to Jesus' crucifixion.
My wife (who was raised Catholic) explained that these 'Stations of the Cross' can be found in every Catholic church and though they vary in style and execution, they always follow exactly the same sequence:
- Christ is condemned to death;
- the cross is laid upon him;
- His first fall;
- He meets His Blessed Mother;
- Simon of Cyrene is made to bear the cross;
- Christ's face is wiped by Veronica;
- His second fall;
- He comforts the women of Jerusalem;
- His third fall;
- He is stripped of His garments;
- His crucifixion;
- His death on the cross;
- His body is taken down from the cross;
- His body is laid in the tomb.
I became fascinated with the tradition and over a period of time found out more about it, for example:
- The Stations of the Cross (or Way of the Cross, Via Crucis) provides, in each church, an echo of the Via Dolorosa, a pilgrimage to the holy places in Jerusalem, allowing the faithful to visit, in spirit, the scenes and events of Christ's last days on Earth.
- Tradition says that after His death, Mary visited these places each day, in remembrance of His persecution and suffering.
- There is a correct way to approach the Stations, with an appropriate prescribed prayer and meditation at each one.
- There is no 15th resurrection station (everyone asks this!) because the intention is to focus on the Passion of Christ, the judgment, humiliation, crucifixion and burial.
For me, the fascination was in the huge variety of realisations of this relatively simple concept of fourteen tableaux. If any proof were needed, it showed me that art and human ingenuity flourishes when restricted, not when totally free. To an extent, there was a correlation between the wealth of the church or cathedral and the ornateness of the Stations, but this was not always true, as I have seen many exquisite pieces in quite humble settings, especially in small country churches, made by unknown local craftsmen. I have memories only, not photographs, because I don't think it is appropriate to click away like a tourist in someone's place of worship. Here are a few:
- tempera (egg white & pigment) paintings directly applied to the plasterwork
- conventional framed oil paintings
- wood carvings, sometimes painted, often set into small alcoves
- bas-relief sculpture, either mounted on the walls or cut directly
- gilded marble statuary, nowadays usually behind glass
- calligraphy, in Latin and/or a modern language, often with illuminated capitals
I have even seen a few churches where only the Roman numerals were carved into the masonry but with no accompanying text, illustration or sculpture and no evidence of any having been removed. Possibly a rejected commission or a crisis of funding - who knows?
My modest contribution
As mentioned previously, my interest in the Stations is purely artistic and historical. You could say they are wasted on me! Nevertheless, I thought it would be good to add something personal to this huge legacy of artistic creativity. Unfortunately, I have no skill in drawing. painting, the plastic arts or calligraphy. So, what to do?
Some years ago, in Madrid Cathedral, I had the sudden notion to write a poem where each line in some way related to one of the stations. The magic number fourteen clearly pointed to a Sonnet, a controlled and intense poetic form in fourteen lines. I resolved to walk round the Stations, in sequence, taking as long as required, but not to leave the church without completing at least a workable draft.
I took as few liberties as possible, though in the final couplet I borrowed from the tradition that the body of Jesus was taken down from the cross in Mary's presence, and it was she who arranged the body in the tomb. For what it's worth, here is my effort. Thank you for reading:
Stations of the Cross
We are the Power of Law, and you are wrong -
this shall be yours to carry evermore.
Its weight will drag you down where you belong,
among our feet. Your mother will implore
in vain, your friend extend a helping hand,
the gentle one will wipe your sweated brow,
but still you stumble in your journey, and
who will believe your words of comfort now?
Is it fatigue that drops you, or despair
when soldiers rob you of your last effects
and bind you to your burden, leave you there
until the spirit shudders, then defects?
You will not hear the voice of one whose womb
gave life to you, to lay you in the tomb.
Dave McClure, c2002
(the friend - Simon of Cyrene, the gentle one - Veronica)
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