Mary’s Way of the Cross: A Medieval Account

In the numerous pilgrim accounts up through the early 13th century, there is no indication of a fixed Way of the Cross as we know it today. By the late 13th and 14th century there are some hints of a route taken by Christ to Calvary, with certain moments noted. These include the earliest mentions of the place where Simon helps carry the cross, where Jesus met the weeping women, and where Mary swooned, but they are merely noted as holy places, not as a unified Way to follow. The medieval version of a packaged tour included locations we now associate with the Stations of the Cross and many we don’t, including a house where the rich man from the parable of Lazarus was supposed to have lived.Screen Shot 2019-04-02 at 4.10.25 PM

By the end of the 14th century, with the Holy Land in the more restrictive hands of the Turks, and the Franciscans maintained tight control over their holy sites and the pilgrims, in part to get Christians in and out of the city quickly to avoid conflicts. Pilgrims to Jerusalem were locked into the Church of the Sepulcher, where they were free to worship and perform devotions. Then, in the middle of the night, they were guided by torchlight to many of the familiar locations in reverse order, with narration provides in French, German, Latin, and Italian.

This peculiar path was eventually linked to the actions of the Blessed Mother, who would weary herself on a nightly perambulation among all the places visited by her Son in his final hours. We see the first hints of this in some early apocryphal accounts of Mary visiting Christ’s tomb. These were gradually expanded to her wandering among all the locations of his life.

Dominican theologian Felix Fabri left a detailed account of Mary’s daily journey as it was understood in the 15th century, and if it doesn’t reliably tell us anything about the actions of the Blessed Mother, it tells us a great deal about the piety of the age and how it shaped the Stations of the Cross.

The Book of the Wanderings of Brother Felix Fabri (original title: Fratris Felicis Fabri Evagatorium in Terræ Sanctæ, Arabiæ et Egypti peregrinationem) was published in four volumes in 1893, translated by Aubrey Stewart. In it, Fabri outlines the three pilgrim promises made by Mary, who “survived her Son’s Ascension fourteen years, which years she passed as a pilgrim, moving actually in the body from place to place.”

The pilgrimages were yearly, monthly, and daily.

Yearly, she went to Nazareth to visit the site of the annunciation, and then to “mountains of Judaea” to visit Elizabeth, then returned to Jerusalem chanting the Magnificat.

Monthly, she went from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to visit the location of the nativity.

Finally, there was her daily route around Jerusalem. This path aligns with the itinerary of the Franciscans when Fabri visited in the 15th century, and which he recounts in great detail.

What follows is Fabri’s detailed version of the Blessed Mother’s daily peregrinations, almost certainly recorded by this meticulous Dominican from the accounts of his Franciscan guides. (Fabri, as a cleric, lodged with the Franciscans rather that in the pilgrim hospice.) I have paragraphed it for ease of reading, but left the late-Victorian English otherwise untouched. It provides the framework for the Via Dolorosa as it was understood to pilgrims in the 15th century.

The Daily Pilgrimage of the Blessed Virgin Mary Through Jerusalem

She was careful every day to visit the holiest places in Jerusalem and the neighbourhood. In the early morning, as dawn drew nigh, after having received the sacrament from St. John on the Lord’s Mount of Sion, she went forth with her maidens, and entered that great chamber which had been made ready for the Last Supper, where she meditated upon the immense boon thus conferred upon the human race, looked into the deepest mysteries, and kissed the place where her Son had sat.

From thence she would go to the house of Annas the high priest, and after praying there entered the hall of Caiaphas, and mused, not without sorrow, upon the sufferings undergone by her Son in that building. Thence she went down from the Mount Sion out of the city, and came to the rock of the Cross, which she embraced and sweetly kissed, pitying that dearest One who was crucified thereon, and rejoicing nevertheless in His precious devotion to those whom He redeemed.

From thence entering into the garden of the Lord’s tomb, she would go to the place where the body of her Son and Lord was anointed and preserved in spices, where she kneeled and kissed the stone; and swiftly rising from thence, made her way to the Lord’s tomb, whose cave she entered, and, embracing His sepulcher, was filled on that spot with unspeakable joy. Leaving these places, she went down the hill of Calvary towards the city gate, and on her way, not unmindful of her Son, how He was led out of the city along that path burdened with the heavy cross, and in the places where she had seen her Son either fall beneath the load of the cross, or be assailed by some especial outrage, she would kneel down and pray. Thus she would enter the city by the gate of judgment, go up to Pilate’s judgment hall, and kiss the places where He was scourged and crowned, with thanksgiving.

Coming out from thence, she would go to the house of Herod, and kiss her Son’s footprints there. From hence she would go up to the temple of the Lord and, after praying there, would leave the temple on the other side, and come to the Golden Gate, where she reflected upon her Son’s entrance on Palm Sunday. Passing out through this, she went down into the valley of Jehoshaphat, and there prayed for the whole human race, that they might be worthy to stand there unconfounded on the dreadful judgment day; for she knew that on that day no prayers, not even her own, would have any weight; wherefore she addressed the Judge beforehand on that spot.

After this she crossed the brook, pointed out to her companions the place of her own sepulture, and, entering the cave, became filled with joy unspeakable, for that she knew that in this place she would first receive the joy of complete fruition, that here she would put on the robe of glory both in the body and in the soul, would be snatched away from this wicked world, and be exalted above the choirs of angels. Next, leaving her sepulcher, she would go a little higher up, and enter the grotto where the Lord Jesus thrice prayed when in the greatest anguish; there she also, mindful of His agony, would bend her knees on the footprints of her Son, and remain steadfast in prayer longer and more earnestly than elsewhere.

Finally, she would enter the garden and farm of Gethsemane, and kiss the places where her Son was taken captive. On leaving this place she would turn away from the valley and make for the church of the Mount of Olives; but at the place where Jesus looked at the city and wept, she likewise would turn her face towards the city, and lament its misfortunes with piteous sighs of compassion. Climbing up from thence, she came to Galilee and the cottage, where she reflected upon the glory of the resurrection of her Son, and the joy of His disciples.

When she had finished her prayer there, she came walking along the crest of the mount to the place where on the last day of her pilgrimage the angel met her, and announced to her that the time of her departure was at hand. From hence she went on, and came to the place of her Son’s Ascension, where she kissed with the utmost devotion the holy footprints marked plainly in the rock.

Now, because this place is especially fitted for prayer, she would leave it somewhat soon, that she might have longer time to spend there afterwards, and would cheerfully descend the other side of the Mount of Olives, and go through Bethpage to Bethany, to visit her acquaintances there, and the places where her Son had been—the house of Martha, the grave of Lazarus, the dwelling of Mary Magdalen, and the house of Simon the leper.

After having visited there, she again sought the high ground, and climbed upwards, slender and fragile as a wreath of smoke, being already worn away by her various penances, and burned within by the flame of pious love; thus in cheerful guise she would with unspeakable longing seek the top of the holy hill of Olivet, from whence she had descended, and would return to the place of the Lord’s Ascension, whither she would go as though herself about to ascend straightway and meet her Son.

When she was there, she would caress the aforesaid footprints with many kisses, lifting at one time her eyes, at another her hands, to heaven, and on that spot she would feel much joy at the thought that there the greatest honour possible was bestowed upon her Son and upon herself, when that flesh which had been born of her was taken up from hence and exalted above all the heavens. Leaving this place, she would make her way home, and walk down the mount, by the place where the apostles had put together the creed which she herself had taught them, where she would stand still for a little space and pray for those who professed the faith.

Passing on from thence to the place where the Lord taught them to say Our Father, she would stop and say that prayer, and as she went on would give thanks at the place where the eight beatitudes were preached of. From thence she would come down to the place where Christ sat with His disciples, and told them the terrible story of the last judgment; where she offered a prayer that He might be merciful in His second advent, and went on till she came to the dwelling where already at the outset of this pilgrimage of the most blessed Virgin Mary I have said was her place of rest and recovery of breath.

Now, at the time when the blessed Virgin Mary was alive there stood there a dwelling, inhabited by good peasants, who, observing the unfailing passing-by of the Virgin, invited her to sit and refresh herself in the shade, and she frequently would come out of the road, sit down, and rest her frail maiden limbs. And albeit she was not wearied or fatigued by labour, yet she concealed this privilege out of humility, even as she concealed the privilege of her virginity in her purification, and the privilege of freedom from pain when at the point of death, which privilege she even concealed by lying in bed as though weak with illness…

So having resumed her strength, which she had not lost, but which had been in abeyance at the aforesaid place, she came down the foot of the mount into the valley, where, after visiting the sepulchers of some of the prophets, she came to the sepulcher of her own most chaste husband Joseph, who was buried there in a cleft of the rock, before which sepulcher she would stand and remember him with pleasure. From thence, crossing the bridge over the brook, she would go up again to Mount Sion, and when there would go to the place where she herself and the disciples received the Holy Ghost on the day of Pentecost, where again she would be filled with fresh joy.

Thence she went down and sought the sepulcher of the prophet David, her ancestor, after which she would go into her own oratory, which was hard by, in which it is a pious belief that she had for relics two great stones which were brought to her from Mount Sinai by angels, one of them from the place where Moses saw the bush burn without being consumed, before which stone she offered fitting thanks for the glorious preservation of her own virginity; the other from the top of Mount Sion, where the ten commandments were given to Moses; before which stone she would meditate upon the excellence of those commandments, and thank God that it was through her that He was given to the world by whom every jot and tittle of the law was fulfilled, as we read in the fifth chapter of St. Matthew. She had these two stones, by means of which she could visit the desert of Sinai, because she was in truth a pilgrim.

After she rose from her prayers at this place she would return to her house, and bring her pilgrimage to an end for that day.

from The Book of the Wanderings of Felix Fabri (London: Palestine Pilgrim’s Text Society, 1893) 505-509.
Art: Adriaen Isenbrandt, Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows