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The Via Crucis

The Stations of the Cross in the Biblical Artwork of Wales

I

It may seem somewhat strange to begin a paper on the Via Crucis in Wales not here, but a considerable distance away, in Portugal. However, the pilgrimage centre of Bom Jesus do Monte, close to Braga, provides us with a useful introduction to our subject. The first church, a modest one, seems to have been built there some time in the 15th century, and it soon became a focus for devotion to the Santa Cruz (Holy Cross). Little by little, the idea of transforming the small church into a shrine to honour the Passion of Christ took root here, encouraged by the foundation in 1629 of the Confraria do Dom Jesus do Monte. Over the next century, along a steep, winding pathway up the Monte Espinho, a series of chapels was built, recalling, step by step as it were, Jesus’ journey with the cross to Calvary. The purpose was clear; to re-create here on the outskirts of Braga the city of Jerusalem on that fateful day, so that those who for whatever reason could not undertake a pilgrimage to the Holy Land could in spirit walk with Jesus along the Via Dolorosa, and in that way enter into the mystery of the Passion. The whole complex (and the crowning basilica wasn’t finished until 1857) is on an astonishing and awe-inspiring scale. The chapels are linked by steep pathways and flights of steps, Within the chapels are tableaux of lifesize, polychromed figures, vividly and uncompromisingly depicting the various ‘Stations of the Cross’.

Let us now come back from Portugal to Pantasaph, close to the north Wales coast. Here in 1849 the Earl of Denbigh (or Viscount Fielding, as he was then) began the building of a church to commemorate his marriage three years earlier to a local heiress. In 1850 his conversion to Roman Catholicism resulted in the unfinished church being completed by the leading Catholic architect of the day, A W N Pugin, and it was opened in 1852. Lord Denbigh gave the church into the care of the Franciscan Capuchins, who in 1875 created on the adjoining hillside a Via Dolorosa similar in spirit to Bom Jesus, but on a smaller scale. Here along the pathway fourteen Stations were erected, originally a series of relief panels, but, since 1963, a series of mosaics. At the summit is a crucifix, the cross of iron, and the figures bronze.  Portugal or Wales, Bom Jesus do Monte or St David’s, Pantasaph; the inspiration and the purpose is the same. Here the pilgrim can enter, in a spirit of prayer, into the events of Good Friday, and walk the Via Dolorosa, the Way of the Cross. It can be a personal and a private pilgrimage, undertaken by an individual at any time, or it can be a communal exercise of piety and devotion, a congregation of the faithful praying and singing together as they pass from Station to Station, pausing at each to pray and meditate on the various incidents there depicted. Perhaps here, in the Stations of the Cross, more than almost anywhere else, we find a conjunction of the mental, the vocal, the spiritual and the visual senses – and the tactile, too, as many pilgrims kneel at each Station and reverence the image.

Booth containing the third station, Pantasaph.

II

At this stage perhaps it would be helpful to say something briefly about the origin of this devotion, and its Biblical source and inspiration. From the earliest period of the Christian era a visit to Jerusalem and the Holy Land has been a goal of pious believers, but there is no direct evidence as to the existence of any set form of devotion centred upon the Via Dolorosa. It is noteworthy that, for example, the 4th century pilgrim St Sylvia says nothing about it in her Peregrinatio ad loca sancta, though, as the Catholic Encyclopaedia freely admits, she describes minutely every other religious exercise she witnessed or joined in when she was there. Again, when in the 5th century, the bishop of Bologna, St Petronius, constructed a series of linked chapels at the monastery of San Stefano, the chapels were built to represent the more important shrines of Jerusalem, and not the gospel narratives of Jesus’ way to the cross. San Stefano may provide the germ of the idea, but it doesn’t seem to have come to fruition before the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries, and then, as with so many devotional exercises, it was associated with the Franciscans. In 1342 the friars of the order were entrusted with the guardianship of the Holy Places, and certainly by the time the English pilgrim William Wey first visited Jerusalem in 1458 something resembling what we now know as the Stations of the Cross was undertaken by pilgrims along the Via Dolorosa from the reputed site of Pilate’s house to Calvary – though, for some unknown and puzzling reason, originally the journey was undertaken in reverse.

By Wey’s time the devotion had already spread to Europe. A series of chapels, each painted with the principal scenes of the Passion, had been erected at the Dominican friary in Cordova by 1420 and by the early 16th century such ‘stational chapels’ were becoming commonplace. There was originally some fluidity in regard to both the number and the subject-matter of the scenes depicted. The present number of fourteen was not finally fixed until 1731, when pope Clement XII decreed that it should be so. Earlier the subjects varied greatly.(William Wey, for example, mentions some rather peculiar ones in Jerusalem itself, such as The House of Dives, or the School attended by the Virgin Mary.) At one point the number actually seems to have reached no fewer than 37, but by the close of the 16th century it was approximating to today’s fourteen, if the numerous devotional manuals published at that time is anything to go by, though, as we have already noted, the final authorisation of that number had to wait until the 18th century. By the 19th century the Stations of the Cross were ubiquitous in Roman Catholic churches, and, with the Anglo-Catholic Revival within the Anglican church, by the end of that century they were becoming commonplace in churches which are identified with it. Thus, later in this presentation, when we come to consider the artwork associated with the Stations of the Cross, we are dealing exclusively with that which dates from the 19th and 20th centuries, from after Catholic Emancipation in 1829, and from the Anglo-Catholic Revival of some fifty years later.

So what constitutes the fourteen Stations of the Cross? If we list them in order, they are as follows:

  1. Jesus is condemned to death by Pilate.
  2. Jesus receives the cross.
  3. Jesus falls the first time.
  4. Jesus meets his mother.
  5. The cross is laid on Simon of Cyrene.
  6. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.
  7. Jesus falls the second time.
  8. Jesus speaks to the women of Jerusalem.
  9. Jesus falls the third time.
  10. Jesus is stripped of his clothes.
  11. Jesus is nailed to the cross.
  12. Jesus dies on the cross.
  13. Jesus is taken down from the cross.
  14. Jesus is laid in the tomb.

It can be seen immediately from this list that, although in spirit the fourteen Stations follow a logical, chronological order, and that most can be allied to verses or passages in the gospel narratives, that is not true of all. None of the canonical gospels, for example, make any reference to Jesus falling under the burden of the cross, though the inference is perhaps there in Luke 23:26, the compelling of Simon of Cyrene to assist in the bearing of it. Nor is there any mention of Jesus’ meeting with his mother, though, again, such a meeting can be inferred from Luke 23:27, which mentions the ‘great company of people, and of women’ who followed him, weeping. Finally, and most notably, there is Station VI, the meeting of Jesus with Veronica, who wipes his face with her veil, on which his features then remained imprinted. It would probably have been almost impossible to omit this particular episode from the Stations. As Gabriele Finaldi wrote eight years ago, by the fifteenth century the Veronica, as the vernicle or sudarium was popularly known, had become ‘the most reproduced image in Christendom, and perhaps the most famous relic in Rome’. He recalled the comment of Montaigne in the middle years of the 16th century, that ‘no other relic has such veneration paid to it. The people throw themselves down before it on their faces, most of them with tears in their eyes and with lamentations and tears of compassion’. It was through the image imprinted on the sudarium, copies of which proliferated from the 13th century onwards, that most Christians in the west felt that they ‘knew’ what Christ looked like. The widespread ‘imaging’ of Christ in this way coincided with the development of the Stations of the Cross. The sudarium was not, of course, the only ‘image’ of Christ known to medieval Christians. The other was the Mandylion of Edessa, which for centuries held a position in the eastern Church similar to that which the Veronica came to hold in the west, and the legend of the mandylion is considerably older than that of its western counterpart. Nevertheless it is the story of the Veronica, because of its associations with the Passion of Jesus, which was that which was inevitably incorporated into the Stations.

We have seen how the devotion of the Stations of the Cross gradually evolved until it was to all intents and purposes codifed by the 17th century and fixed by papal fiat in the 18th. However, after a long period of stasis which stretched into the 20th century, the devotion has once again started to evolve. Two separate but not unrelated ‘strands’ can be identified. The first, particularly associated with pope John Paul II, though not, as we shall see, originating with him, is the inclusion in very recent years of a Station XV, the Resurrection of Jesus, and that is already represented in Wales, at Newcastle Emlyn and on Caldey Island, by imagery which in fact pre-dates John Paul’s pontificate. The pope was only reflecting what was a growing unease or dissatisfaction with a devotion which did not draw, as do the gospel narratives, the account of the Passion and meditation upon it, to the logical and theological conclusion. Arguably it was acceptable for a devotion usually performed on Good Friday to centre exclusively upon the events of that day, but once the devotion extended throughout Lent (usually performed on Fridays) then some emphasis upon the Resurrection was needed.

The second strand is the embracing of the devotion in recent years by churches of the reformed traditions, especially in association with ecumenical acts of witness on Good Friday itself. (When I was a parish priest in Montgomeryshire more than a decade ago, we used the Stations in just such away along the lanes of the village, in association with the congregation of the local Presbyterian – ie Welsh Calvinistic Methodist – chapel.) However the emphasis within the reformed traditions upon the Biblical narrative has had the result of the ‘purging’ of the Stations of the non-Biblical material, and thus, for example, act of witness performed annually through the streets of Cookham – made famous by Stanley Spencer – comprises eleven Stations not the traditional fourteen, and these exclude the three falls of Jesus and the Veronica. Instead, the ecumenical Stations carry the narrative forward to include the Resurrection and the Ascension. Interestingly, perhaps, the Cookham Stations still include Jesus’ meeting with his mother, using as the associated Biblical text the prophecy in Luke 2:35, ‘And a sword will pierce your own soul too’. We can confidently expect that the devotion will continue to evolve in years to come.

III

I want to devote the last part of this brief presentation to some comments on the ‘work in progress’ on the artwork here in Wales which is associated with or inspired by the Stations of the Cross. That artwork, as I said earlier, spans much of the 19th and 20th centuries, but the selection that I have made for this presentation concentrates particularly but not exclusively on the latter part of that period. I am going to ‘throw’ images at you, following the order of the Stations themselves, so that you can see how various artists have responded to the challenge of working within a prescriptive framework, but who, in many cases, have managed to express fresh and sometimes challenging and disturbing insights into the subject that they have been called upon to explore.

[To see many of the examples mentioned in the text please select 'Stations of the Cross' under 'type' on the Imaging the Bible in Wales database.]

Station 1. Jesus is condemned to death by Pilate

  1. St David’s Church, Neath. By the artist Will Roberts, who was a member of choir of that church. Roberts was a product of the Swansea School of Art, and a friend and collaborator of the Jewish artist Josef Herman, then working at nearby Ystradgynlais. The product of mining communities and deeply influenced by them, Roberts, working in the years after World War II, had a great sense of place and a concern for the lives of individuals. “Will we ever cease to find what is new in the familiar, the commonplace” he once asked, and in his Neath Stations give a positively affirmative answer to his own question.
  2. St Mary’s, Monmouth. A recently installed series. Here Jesus stands alone before an invisible Pilate. Only the droplets of water falling back into the basin as he ‘washes his hands’ of the matter, condemning Jesus to death, signifies his presence.
  3. Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Lampeter. By the refugee artist Jaroslav Kretchler, a Czech teacher of woodcarving, 1940. The Kretchler Stations were controversial, as here, and again later in the series, he depicted Adolf Hitler. Here Hitler appears as Pilate, the profile portrait familiar from that on the stamps of the German Reich at that time.

Station II. Jesus receives the cross

Here again at St Mary’s Monmouth the artist has taken an unusual viewpoint. As before, Jesus has his back turned to us, waiting while two soldiers struggle to raise the weighty cross onto his back.

Station III. Jesus falls the first time

This is one of the set of Stations painted by an anonymous Belgian Franciscan for the monks of Caldey Abbey in the 1960s. With a sparing use of oil colour on slate, the Stations are set close together and intended, as they are located in the cloister, for personal and private prayer and meditation.

Station IV. Jesus is met by his mother

  1. St John the Baptist, Newport. Painted by A R Henderson, an associate of Sir Ninian Comper, and, as can be clearly seen in this example, much influenced by him. The person of Christ and the Roman legionaries appear in ‘historical’ costume, but the setting and the dress of the other characters in many cases is reminiscent of the 15th century.
  1. St Saviour, Roath. A detail from the series executed by the Penarth artist Frank Roper (d.2000) who, working largely in cast aluminium, produced, as we shall see, several outstanding sets of Stations in Wales in the 1960s and 70s.

Station V. The cross is laid on Simon of Cyrene

  1. An earlier example, but with very similar inspiration to the work of A R Henderson, this is from Cecil Hare’s series dating from 1919 at St German’s, Roath, in Cardiff. As with Henderson’s work, the Netherlandish influence from the 15th century is apparent.
  2. Our Lady of Sorrows, Dolgellau. Two of the series of small, cast Stations, paired (here also is Station VI) which are perhaps more suitable for private devotion than public use. The style evident in Station V has some resonances with the work of the Welsh artist-poet David Jones.

Station VI. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus

  1. This representation, in a series painted from 1962 onwards by the local artist Kenneth Smitham at St Mary’s, Cardiff Docks choses, more dramatically than the conventional image of Veronica displaying the veil with the imprinted face of Jesus, the moment when she reaches up to wipe his face. Smitham’s Stations contain some particularly humane and moving imagery.

Station VII. Jesus falls the second time

  1. This is Frank Roper’s interpretation of the moment, from his 1959 series at St Martin’s, Roath. Exactly 40 years after the Hare paintings we have been examining, Roper’s work shows how far the imagery had evolved in a relatively short time.

Station VIII. Jesus comforts the women of Jerusalem

  1. Another from the new series at St Mary’s, Monmouth. Here the artist has captured the grief of the women and again, we see Jesus only from behind.
  2. Although this set of Stations is not in Wales, but in the convent of St Mary the Virgin, Wantage, it has relevance to this study. The artist was Mother Maribel, for many years the superior of the convent, who had trained at the Slade, and continued to work, mainly as a sculptor, throughout her life in religion. (One of her few painted works is here in Wales, the great mural of the Ascension at St Katherine’s, Milford Haven.) Over many years she worked on this series for her convent, a series which became more complex and confident as the years passed. What is important about Maribel’s work is her way of depicting the cross.

Concerned about the traditional depiction of Jesus carrying the cross, Maribel and her assistant, Bertie Herring, had carried out a series of practical experiments. Speaking at his Memorial Service in September 1966, Maribel outlined their conclusions: ‘Most pictures and sculptures represent the impossible. A whole cross of wood would be more than any man could lift, let alone carry…’ She had undertaken further research. ‘I found out that the uprights of the crosses which had to go some way into the ground were left on Calvary and that the victims carried only the cross bars which more than halved the weight…’ This is what she depicted, as can be seen here in Station VIII, where both Jesus and Simon of Cyrene together are bearing the cross-piece. This is typical of Maribel’s painstaking thought and research, and it gives rise to two reflections. Firstly, the weight of tradition – rather than the weight of the cross – is what has prevailed, as the later examples we have already examined still show Jesus bearing the weight of the whole cross. Secondly, and perhaps rather more profoundly, the insight that Jesus was crucified on a cross which had been used possibly many times before and probably was used many times afterwards, is an enriching aid to meditation, emphasising as it does Paul’s assertion in Philippians 2:7, ‘And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross’. Mark, alone among the evangelists, seems to notice the significance of this ‘second-hand cross’, when he says ‘And the scripture was fulfilled, which saith, And he was numbered with the transgressors’ (Mk 15:28).

Station IX Jesus falls the third time

  1. This dramatic representation, from the Eastam Stations at St Mary’s, Cardiff actually vividly depicts the impossibility of the traditional representation, to which Maribel had drawn attention at more or less the same time as this series was painted.
  2. By contrast, Maribel’s own depiction of the same moment, though more realistic, is no less moving.

Station X. Jesus is stripped of his garments

  1. This is a traditional depiction, in glass mosaic, dating from the 19th century, at St Joseph’s Catholic Church in Colwyn Bay, which, despite the medium, clearly owes much to the inspiration of earlier Netherlandish work, as with other examples we have considered.
  1. The second example, from St Martin’s, Haverfordwest is an important work of art. Several of the original 19th century series in this church had been damaged or destroyed, and the Welsh artist Archie Rees Griffiths, towards the end of his life, was commissioned to replace them. Griffiths, from a working-class south Walian background (he had begun his own working life in a tin-plate works) was a distinguished product of the Swansea School, is particularly notable for his depiction of miners and life in the south Wales valleys, and as Peter Lord has said of him, in his work ‘Christian iconography and Social [- one might almost say Socialist -] Realism met’. The life of working people and their sufferings are identified with that of Jesus and his.

Station XI. Jesus is nailed to the cross

  1. This identity with suffering humanity – in this case the Czech people and the people of Poland in particular – is taken up here at Carmel in Lampeter by Jaroslav Kretchler in 1940. It is Hitler who nails Jesus to the cross; Jesus here as representative of the occupied peoples of Europe, and Jesus the Jew as representative of the Jewish communities then suffering through Nazi ideology.
  2. Rhys Griffiths, too, though here more conventionally, takes up the theme of suffering, chosing in his composition one of the most difficult of perspectives on the human body to bring off. (The inspiration here, ultimately, was William Etty’s early 19th century painting, The Deluge, and, perhaps, John Petts’ 1933 ‘Reclining Nude’, which is based upon it. Both the Etty and Petts naked and vulnerable human figures resonate with Archie Rhys Griffiths’ Christ, and, being female, have important implications for Griffiths’ understanding of the human nature of the suffering Son of God.).
  3. This powerful, close-up depiction, by Will Roberts at Neath, focuses on the agony of crucifixion itself as a punishment. Here Roberts’ style is strongly reminiscent of that of his contemporary, Ceri Richards.

Station XII. Jesus dies on the cross

  1. This is one of the series in stained-glass and aluminium, which Frank Roper, assisted by his wife Nora, executed for the Catholic church in Newcastle Emlyn in 1972-73. Each window is different in its coloration, and, although on the surface the imagery is conventional, the execution and figuration is not. A notable feature of this series is the swirling pathway which appears in each of the fourteen – Roper’s own interpretation of the ‘Way’ of the cross.

Station XIII. Jesus is taken down from the cross

We stay with Roper, this time with his 1961 series for St Saviour’s, Roath. All but one of his sculptures was executed in aluminium or bronze, and he was a master of detail within a small scale, as this composition clearly reveals.

Station XIV. Jesus is laid in the tomb

The last of the traditional series, this is a further example of the remarkable set by Will Roberts. Who is the praying figure? Nicodemus? Joseph of Arimathea? It is likely that Roberts intended it to be everyman and everywoman.

Station XV. Jesus is raised from the dead

  1. Here, to conclude, is the first of two examples of the Station which is now becoming increasingly common. This again is the work of Frank Roper, clearly inspired by the seminal painting of c.1454 by Piero della Francesca. Roper added this work to his Newcastle Emlyn series, placing it prominently not in the church itself, but in the narthex and close to the font – and thus an important reflection on the theology of baptism.
  2. The same inspiration as that of Roper’s probably underlies this Caldey Island image, though here the Franciscan artist has perhaps better captured the unconquerable dynamism and energy of the resurrection of Jesus.
It is, I hope, clear from these examples that the limitations of the subject matter in no way confines or restricts the inspiration of the artist. Every human emotion, every physical sensation and experience, is to be found in the Stations of the Cross, especially now with the inclusion of the 15th, the alleluia of joy.

John Morgan-Guy
Seminar, April 2008

 

Mosaic Panel showng Jesus being laid in the tomb, set in a recess with devotional objects.
Jesus is Laid in the Tomb, Pantasaph Franciscan Friary, Flintshire