The Artists’ Way and the Way of the Cross

Pungent incense, flickering candles, and ornate angels surround the main altar of the old church in southern Spain. The Carmelite priest turns to give a final blessing after Mass and invites the faithful to stay for the Way of the Cross. It’s the Friday before Holy Week. Outside amid the hubbub, all of Seville is putting the final touches on their Holy Week processions. Next week thousands of sevillanos and visitors will crowd the narrow streets, craning their necks to get a glimpse of the statues of Our Lord’s passion as they are carried by.

Only a few have come to Mass today and fewer still stay for the Way of the Cross. Several ladies in dark dresses, two youths, a man with a wooden leg, and a barrel-chested fellow have gathered near the first station at the front of the church. The priest and acolytes join them. Spanish custom dictates that someone volunteer to carry the crucifix from station to station. The burly man with the thick chest steps forward. The Way of the Cross has begun.

After every station, the group sings verses of a mournful Spanish hymn. The words and melody are somewhat different than those found in English-speaking countries, but the minor key and pathos are still present:

Stabat Mater dolorosa

Juxta crucem lacrymosa

Dum pendebat Filius…

[At the cross her station keeping

Stood the mournful Mother weeping

Close to Jesus to the last…]

The devotion of the Way of the Cross, also known as Via Crucis or Via Dolorosa, in all probability dates back to the era of the first Christians. It’s believed that Our Lady visited these special places on the way to Calvary after Our Lord’s ascension.

The first known stations were built at the Monastery of San Stefano in Bologna, Italy, in the fifth century. In medieval times, Crusaders returning home built stations representing the places they’d seen in the Holy Land. In 1342, the guardianship of these holy places in Palestine was finally entrusted to the Franciscans. The friars increased the number of stations visited and shaped the devotional practices connected with them. In the 16th century, the devotion had become quite popular; for the first time, the 14 stations were clearly outlined in pious manuals published in the Low Countries.

The first pope to recognize the devotion officially was Innocent II in 1686. He granted the Franciscans the right to erect Stations of the Cross in or near any of their churches and the possibility to grant indulgences for this devotion. Subsequent popes granted similar permission to all churches and religious orders.

Over the centuries, innumerable artists and artisans have created plaques, paintings, and life-sized statues depicting the different moments in the Way of the Cross. Such works of art have always served the faithful as starting points for meditation during the devotion itself.

The following works capture some of these events and serve as inspiration for our own journey into the last moments of Christ’s earthly life. (Variances exist between the wording used for any given station and the work of art itself.)


“Christ Carrying the Cross,” circa 1475/1480, engraving, Martin Schongauer (1445?-1491), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Sylmaris Collection, New York

Visually complex, the people, lances, horses, and dogs in this engraving all seem to engulf Our Lord. He’s obviously overwhelmed. So heavy is His cross that it almost crushes Him. Our Lord began His Calvary in terrible physical condition; He’d been scourged to the point of semi-consciousness and, because of the terrible lashes, His back and shoulders were in no condition to have any weight put on them. In his meditations on this station, Pope John Paul II writes that Christ’s “body [is] atrociously bruised and lacerated, blood [is] trickling down his face from his head crowned with thorns. Ecce Homo! [Here is the Man!]” This engraving vividly presents us this Man of Sorrows.

The artist, Martin Schongauer, was a German painter, draftsman, and engraver, one of the best before Albrecht Differ. Differ considered Schongauer to be his master and studied his work carefully. In fact, Differ made a special journey to Colmar, Schongauer’s hometown, only to find the master had just died. A disappointed Differ met with other family members before returning to his own studio. After Schongauer’s death, many of his paintings were either lost or disappeared, but fortunately 100 or so of his engravings are still extant.

This one of “Christ Carrying the Cross” is considered to be a masterpiece. In it, Schongauer introduces a complex range of tones—from white to gray to heavy black. Christ is placed just in front of the darkly shaded figures. This is in contrast to the much lighter figures on the left, especially the young boy who looks over at Our Lord. Schongauer also includes figures that appear to be in motion. This technique invites the viewer to follow their activities and thereby discover the minute details of how Christ suffered. In the midst of the action and confusion, Jesus alone looks out of the painting at the viewer, as if to draw us into the scene and remind us that He suffers for our sake.


“Saint Veronica,” circa 1470/1475, oil on panel, Hans Memling (1430/1435¬1494), The National Gallery of Art, The Samuel H. Kress Collection, Washington, D.C.

A sad Veronica with downcast eyes holds a white cloth with an imprint of a man’s face. Our Lord looks out to the world offering a tangible reminder of the story. According to a long-standing tradition, Veronica wiped the blood and sweat from Jesus’ face with her kerchief. She’s an enduring example of a woman who witnessed a tragedy, seized the moment to give of herself, and came away with much more. John Paul II, in his meditations on this station, writes:

Tradition has bequeathed us Veronica…. In obedience to the dictates of her heart, she wiped his face… [and] an imprint of Christ’s features remained on the handkerchief…. A different significance can be attributed to this detail if it is considered in the light of Christ’s words about the final judgment. There will undoubtedly be many who will ask: “Lord, when did we ever do these things for you?” And Jesus will reply: “Whatever you did for the least of these brethren of mine, you did for me.” In fact, the Savior leaves his imprint on every single act of charity, as on Veronica’s handkerchief.

In the painting, Hans Memling works wonders with the drapery of Veronica’s headgear, clothing, and kerchief. A translucent veil covers her forehead and the chin cloth, tucked behind her ears, falls gracefully around her neck. A blue cloak is draped around her shoulders in such a way that it actually hides them. The cloak then continues its downward fall and ends in full folds around her. Veronica’s tapered fingers hold the face cloth of Jesus. The central prominence of this cloth and Veronica’s composed sadness serve to underline the importance of her act and its effect on her. As if to further emphasize her composure, Memling has placed Veronica in the midst of an idealized landscape with stylized foliage, plants, and a river. Although he was Dutch, Memling’s use of this type of background also reflects Italian influences on his work—specifically that of Raphael.

The name “Veronica” is made up of two words, “vera” and “icon,” meaning “true icon.” The cloth then is an icon of Christ’s features, and in turn, Veronica bears a name directly linked to her good deed.


“The Small Crucifixion,” circa 1511/1520, oil on panel, Matthias Grfinewald (1455?-1528), The National Gallery of Art, The Samuel H. Kress Collection, Washington, D.C.

Matthias Grtinewald, a master of the German renaissance, created some of the most memorable religious imagery in the history of Western art. Compared with his other works, this Crucifixion scene is small and in poor condition. It’s also the only one in the United States. Comprised of three boards joined together, the overall panel has suffered termite damage and is now warped. Over the years, the oils have been retouched several times. In spite of such vicissitudes, the work’s visual impact is enormous.

Part of the success of the work lies in its detail. Many renditions of this scene can seem somewhat subdued with a resigned Jesus resting peacefully on the Cross. Not so Grtinewald’s Crucifixion. The startling contortions of Jesus’ body on the Cross remind us of His frightful and very real agony. The twisted fingers and feet bespeak the tremendous physical and spiritual pain He has endured. Our Lord’s loincloth hangs in tatters, while His body is lacerated and bloodied from the scourging. Covered with a crown of sharp thorns, the sacred head hangs motionless over a distended chest. His lips are parted as if He has just uttered His last cry of anguish.

Beneath the cross stand St. John to the right and Our Lady to the left, with Mary Magdalene kneeling at His feet. All three show signs on their faces of deep sorrow. St. John’s and Our Lady’s hands are clasped tightly as if they’ve just finished wringing them in anguish. St. John’s robe is torn and Mary’s mantle is pulled low over her dark eyes. The lower areas of her mantle are also tattered. These tears and tatters are a Judaic sign of great mourning. Our Lord has died. Save for a sliver of moon above the right crossbeam, the entire background is ominous and dark. This ties in closely with what is known from sacred Scripture: “It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And the sun was darkened, and the curtain of the Temple was torn in the middle” (Luke 23:44-45).

Romano Guardini in his commentary on this station brings us right to the foot of the Cross. His words connect well with Granewald’s work:

For three long hours Jesus endures (Luke 23:44-45). By the cross stand his Mother, and his dearest friend. “Behold thy son,” he says to her. And “Behold thy mother” to John (John 19:26-27)…. What went on in the soul of Jesus during this time, no man knows. Then he cries: “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). No man unveils this mystery, how God’s Son can be by God forsaken.

This mystery of Christ’s being forsaken and then dying is difficult to comprehend. The intensity of Grtinewald’s painting calls us to contemplate this paradox more deeply, in all its jarring reality. The physical torment, the mental anguish, the consuming darkness—we can never fully understand the Divine Love that would be so humbled for our sake. It is the ultimate sacrifice of the Lamb of God, the only Son of the Father, for our sins.


“The Deposition,” circa 1510/1515, oil on canvas, Gerard David (1460?-1523), The Frick Museum, New York; “Piedad (Pieta),” circa 1560-1570, oil on canvas, Luis de Morales (1509?- 1586), San Fernando Fine Arts Museum, Madrid, Spain

The word deposition comes from the Latin verb deponere, meaning to take down, to depose, to re-move, or to put away. In this painting, four women and three men are involved in this tragic task—the taking down of Our Lord from the Cross. Descending the ladder is Joseph of Arimathea. He’s wearing a purse with the Latin initials DIAH, Decurio Joseph Arimathaeoe Hebraeorum. This detail harkens back to the Gospel passage: “Now when it was evening, there came a certain rich man of Arimathea, Joseph by name, who was himself a disciple of Jesus…” (Matthew 27:57). Joseph holds the ladder with one hand and with his other helps carefully to lower the body of Our Lord. A white loincloth is wrapped around Christ’s body with a pale blue sheet underneath.

Immediately to the right stands Nicodemus wearing a dark hood and mantle. He supports Christ’s legs. Off to the left stands a grief-stricken St. John. He holds up Our Lady as she tenderly kisses her son’s hand. Behind the Virgin are two women. One is dressed in a nun’s habit with hands folded prayerfully. (In all probability, she’s Mary of Cleophas.) The other is helping to support Our Lord’s body and is perhaps Mary Salome. She wears an almost transparent, turban-like headdress. Off to the right stands Mary Magdalene. She wipes a tear from her eye with one hand and holds the nails of the Crucifixion in the other. The three Marys just mentioned, Mary Magdalene, Mary of Cleophas (mother of James the Lesser and Joseph), and Mary Salome (mother of James the Greater and John, sons of Zebedee), were on Mount Calvary looking on from a distance “when our Lord died” (Mark 15:40). Because these three women were present at Our Lord’s death, David followed the accepted artistic tradition of including them in this scene of the deposition.

At everyone’s feet lie bones and a skull, referring to Golgotha, the place of the skull. They also traditionally symbolize death or mortality, serving as a reminder of the final destination of all men. Darkness is beginning to creep over the land, casting a further pall on the scene. The symbols of death and suffering (bones, skull, cross, and nails) along with the facial expressions and impending darkness contribute to the overwhelming sense of despair. Jesus’ suffering in life may be over, but we’re left with the mourners gathered here whose suffering is only intensified by His death.

Until the mid-19th century there was some debate as to whether or not Gerard David actually did this painting. Now widely accepted as his, only minor debate remains as to when the painting was done. Usually attributed to his middle period, it was during those years that David settled in Bruges and became master of the Guild of St. Luke. This Belgian master was famous during his lifetime for his treatment of volume, space, and light. Notice his balanced positioning of the figures and the light fading under the clouds on the horizon. Unfortunately, his fame diminished rapidly after his death.

“Piedad” by Luis de Morales is one of the most heart-rending Pietas ever painted. Tucked away in an oft-overlooked museum in Madrid, Spain, it’s well worth a visit. Morales, called “el Divino” because of the dominant religious themes found in his works, was from Extremadura, a region in southwestern Spain, next to Portugal. Extremadura literally means an extreme and hard land and refers not only to its geographical location—extremely far from the central Meseta—but also to its climate and landscape—extremely hot or cold and barren. Scant biographical information is available for Luis de Morales, but it’s known he worked in Badajoz. In Morales’s day, Badajoz was a city of around 12,000 inhabitants and the seat of a small, poor diocese. In spite of his off-the-beaten-track origins, Morales appears to have received artistic training in Seville, then a cultural mecca. He may have studied under the Flemish Mannerist painter Peteer de Kempeneer who visited Seville during those years. De Kempeneer was one of several Flemish masters heavily influenced by the style and forms of the Italian artists, especially Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. Thanks to these varied influences and his innate talent, Morales’s religious works are superb.

In this Pieta, note the touching realism of Our Lord’s side wound and the tenderness and great sorrow with which Our Lady holds her only son. While other paintings in this series depict crowds of people surrounding Jesus, here’s a rare and intimate moment shared between mother and son alone. We can only imagine the sorrow of Our Lady in this scene, of which she was warned by the angel Gabriel before Jesus’ birth. She has been anticipating this moment all of Jesus’ life, and now it has come. Tears roll down her cheeks—her heart has been pierced through. This work reflects the fervent and impassioned spirituality that flourished in 16th-century Spain. These were the years of the famous Spanish mystics and saints—St. Peter of Alcantara, Fray Luis de Granada, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and St. Ignatius of Loyola—and of another first-rate painter of religious themes, El Greco. Morales’s art mirrors this upsurge of spirituality in the peninsula.


“The Entombment,” 14th century, tempura on panel, Master of Forli (14th century), Metropolitan Museum, The Robert Lehman Collection, New York

Little is known about this painting and its anonymous master. He lived in the 14th century and was from Forli, a town in the northeastern region of Italy, not far from the city of Bologna. Very much like a Byzantine icon, the fixed postures and gestures are dramatic. Our Lady bends deeply to bid her son farewell. There are the traditional three Marys surrounding the Virgin. It is difficult to identify any of them by name. One holds the blessed Virgin’s head in her left hand, the other lends Our Lady her shoulder and helps to lower Our Lord into the tomb. Christ’s rib cage stands out, and His head has dropped way back—both stark details of this burial. Barely visible underneath is the shroud that has been extended the length of the tomb. According to Judaic custom, the body was to be wrapped in a shroud, washed carefully, and anointed with perfumed essences. The shroud was normally a long piece of linen, much longer than it is wide, and was first placed over the head and then over the body. Nicodemus (with beard) and Joseph of Arimathea (wearing a dark tunic) help to lower the body of Christ carefully into the tomb. A third male figure, probably St. John (only his halo is visible), is off to the far left. It appears he is holding Our Lord’s feet.

The four biblical accounts of the burial vary somewhat, but all record the presence of Joseph of Arimathea and Our Lord’s body being wrapped in a shroud or a linen cloth. Mark also mentions that the three Marys were present at the burial or shortly thereafter: “Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James and Joseph and (Mary) Salome brought spices, so that they might go and anoint him” (Mark 16:1). John alone mentions the presence of Nicodemus at the burial, and in his account, Nicodemus also brings perfumed essences.

A final look at this painting reveals Mount Calvary, a sculpted mass of rock rising in the background. Above are two grieving angels, hands pressed against their cheeks—an unusual detail of the sorrow they were experiencing. Done with tempera on a wooden panel, the condition of the work reflects its age. A wide diagonal scratch runs from the left margin through the head of Nicodemus to the face of the Virgin. There are also holes in the paint surface that have been repaired with gesso (gypsum). In spite of the scratches and missing paint, the work captures the somber mood of the moment.

“If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). This is one of the most difficult challenges in life: to take up the cross. At times an impenetrable mystery, it is nevertheless what Our Lord enjoins us to do. We the faithful must accept our own crosses or risk losing all. Rev. Tomas Morales Perez, S.J., Spanish founder of the secular institute La Familia de Santa Maria (The Family of Holy Mary), writes of how to achieve this acceptance of the cross in one section of his book, The Liturgical Itinerary. In the chapter dedicated to the feast day of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary (September 15), he says that to better understand the liturgy for this feast day, we must go to Our Lady and her sorrows. “If we stand guard with Mary at the foot of the cross of Jesus…she makes it so that we are born anew…. She suffers in her heart what he suffers in his body… Slowly, without haste, we then venerate with increasing love the sufferings of Mary. Thus do we obtain the joyful effects of the passion of Christ.”


  • Maria Stella Ceplecha

    Maria Stella Ceplecha is a freelance writer and a Spanish language and culture professor from St. Paul, Minnesota. She lives part of the year in Avila, Spain.

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