“This is the Mount of Calvary: a very devout handbook for a Christian man, to teach him how men ought to climb the Mount of Calvary and help our LORD to carry His heavy cross, when He has become very weary through the grievous dread of death.”
from an early handbook on the Way of the Cross
The fourteen Stations of the Cross we know today came into being by a slow process, only emerging in their current form in the 16th century. The actual number of stations and falls of Christ varies considerably, from 3 up to 37, and their connection to actual locations in Jerusalem shifts over the centuries.
A key influence on the shaping of the modern stations was the seven reliefs carved about 1490 in Nuremberg by Adam Krafft. They were widely copied and influenced later depictions as the devotion grew in size and spread. These seven falls scupltures were prompted by the pilgrimage of Martin Ketzel, who left an account of his journey. The distance Christ walked from the place of judgment to Calvary became so import to the devotion that Ketzel return to Jerusalem to measure it again after losing his notes. The distance varies considerably from chronicle to chronicle, ranging from 450 paces to 1050 paces. This is another indication that, due to the changing layout of the city, the actual path shifted from age to age.
Krafft’s original stations are now in the Germanic National Museum, but at one time they lined the road in Nuremberg as a popular devotion.
Elsewhere, the stations still numbered seven, but sometimes had a slightly different composition. In his study of the Stations, Herbert Thurston quotes the captions of prints depicting a different set of falls. Mary is depicted in each with a sword through her heart.
1. This picture shows the first painful fall, when the LORD JESUS, tied as He was with bonds, was thrown down off the bridge into the brook Cedron.
2. This picture shows the second painful fall when the LORD JESUS in the open street fell, heavily to the ground on His way from Herod to Pilate.
3.This picture shows the third murderous fall, when the LORD JESUS fell heavily swooning upon the steps.
4. This picture shows the fourth pitiful fall, when the LORD JESUS, after the scourging, fell fainting beside the pillar.
5. This representation shows the fifth lamentable fall, when the LORD JESUS fell to the ground under the cross upon which he had been condemned to die. [This station includes Simon.]
6. This picture shows the sixth painful fall, when the LORD JESUS was cruelly thrown down naked upon the cross
7. This design shows the seventh heart-breaking fall, when the LORD JESUS, already nailed to the cross, was again cast down to earth. ‘O Mary help us, Amen.
Note that the first fall is the plunge from a bridge over the Cedron (Kidron) creek. Mel Gibson visualized this moment–to the puzzlement of many–in The Passion of the Christ. Although not found in the Gospel accounts, the bridge fall appears in some versions of the Seven Falls devotion, as well as in The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which was an influence on the film.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has several 15th century prints that correspond to these seven falls / seven sorrows. Note Mary with a sword in her heart in each scene:
The role of the Blessed Mother in much of this Way of the Cross art and literature is prominent, and the “Seven Dolors” of Our Lady remains a popular devotion. The current Seven Sorrows devotion is certainly one example of it, but Antonius Sanderus observed that a Sorrowful Mother practice existed as early as 1520 in Antwerp, where Franciscans set up seven sculptures in their cemetery depicting these moments. Some of the elements of this devotion will be familiar, particularly the use of the Stabat Mater:
So great is the devotion of the populace to these Stations, that people are to be found making them at all hours of the day. Especially on Fridays, after Compline, the friars all go two and two to the altar of our Lady of Sorrows, and there two cantors intone aloud the Stabat Mater, to which the community respond very beautifully in harmony. Then they all go out to the Stations, a great crowd of people following behind. The whole assembly kneels down before each Station in turn, and three Our Fathers and Hail Marys are said by each person in silence. At the end is sung the antiphon, Sancta Maria, etc., by way of conclusion.
Two popular devotions–the Sorrowful Mother and the Way of the Cross–developed and mingled under a variety of influences: pilgrim accounts from the Holy Land, popular piety, and a deeply Franciscan spirituality of the cross.
The falls of Christ were an important focal point of the devotion because the weight of the cross is the weight we all carry. It bears us down to the ground just as the cross crushed Jesus. But he stood again and continued his difficult journey to calvary. Devotions don’t last if they don’t speak to people. The lesson wasn’t that even the Master of the World could be crushed by a burden. The lesson was that he got up.