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Stations of the Cross renewed

Jesus crowned with thorns
Jesus crowned with thorns

The 14 Stations

In Catholic churches, you will find 14 plaques depicting the passion of Christ. They are usually displayed in prominent positions around the walls of the church so that in the season of Lent, the entire congregation can collectively reflect upon the redemptive sufferings of Christ. They are numbered to sequent the last days of Jesus’ life, beginning with His condemnation by Pontius Pilate, and ending with His death and entombment. For further clarity they often have a legend or title beneath each one such as “Jesus carries His cross.”

stations awaiting restoration
a set of 14 stations of t he cross (unrestored)

On our travels to various churches, we have noticed that the more contemporary examples omit the titles, in favour of the “art.” The legends are an important addition, as it is beneficial for children to be able to “read” the legends as well as the images. The purpose of this meditation is to stir us to penitence for the ways in which we have fallen short in our relationship with Christ.

Jelly Beans

In my profession, I see more than most the casualties of well –intended amateur restorations. The solemn devotion of the stations of the cross have not escaped such treatments One example I have seen, is that of the weeping women, who had been jollied up with jelly bean colours. This vibrancy did not reflect the grief of the weeping women, and did little to convey the gravity of Jesus words to them: "Daughters of Jerusalem weep not for me but for yourselves, your children and your children's children. For the days are coming when they will say Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore..." (LUKE 23:vs 28-29.) It seems he was addressing the culture we now find ourselves in. Bad restoration can subvert the message intended by such images. On a practical note, that stitch in time that saves nine’ – can take more than nine stitches to put right. And those fiddly Pharisee beards should not ever be scribbled in with laundry sharpies…permanent means permanent! Joking apart, long term it is more prudent to employ adept professional restorers...

before and after restoration of Jesus face
before and after restoration of Jesus face

Blackened and Tanned

This February we completed the restoration of an antique set of Belgian Stations of the cross. Father mentioned that the parish children were keen to see the “story of Jesus” more clearly, as the figures had become so dull with age, it was clouding the narrative.

David began by restoring all of the oak frames, before handing them over to me for polychrome of the figures.

The stations, being over 100 years old, had been restored on previous occasions before coming to us. Tanned faces were oxidising to various shades of green to dark brown, some blackened by heavy handed application of staining agent. These old top coatings were removed to reveal the original colours. Once done, old repairs and previous “touch ups” also became visible. One toucher – upper had been imprecise with the application of paint, allowing it to bleed from one figure into another. Similarly, the Roman Numerals sequencing the stations had been sloppily done and the size of the numerals varied; these also had to be re-done. Having noted the original palette (range) of colours used, I was confident that the colour changes made to stations would be authentic to the originals. As I restored the figures, their newly revealed facial expressions gave fresh life to the characters.

station of the cross restored
station of the cross restored

Museum of jelly bean art...

While working on this antique set, I found that each station had a small initial carved into the base of the figures, denoting that a small team of sculptors had produced them. The consistent quality of the anatomical forms pointed to the traditional skills of classically trained by-gone artists. The composition of each scene was well-considered with nothing superfluous to the telling of Christ’s passion.

These are a far cry from the abstract expressionism of those stations of the cross found at the church known as the ‘Hidden Gem’ in Manchester. My hope is that they will one day be consigned to a contemporary art gallery; displayed as a blip of modernistic intellectual error in the church’s long history of classical religious art. They could be displayed in the "jelly bean gallery"." or maybe the 'midget gem' gallery...? It is a museum which could be filled quite quickly with such 'stuff!'

That said, with restoration completed, we returned these antique ‘gems’ of stations of the cross the week before Ash Wednesday, and hope that the children in the church will approve!

About the Stations of the Cross

The Catholic devotion known as the stations of the cross are a meditation on the sufferings of Christ from his condemnation by Pontius Pilate's to Christ's entombment. Tradition says that Christ’s mother, Mary visited the holy sites of her son’s passion on a daily basis. No doubt the holy women and apostles would have wanted to accompany her, and inevitably the devotion grew by their example.

By 1342, the Franciscans became guardians of the Holy land sites, where pilgrims who visited could gain an indulgence. By the 1500’s the Muslim Turks blocked access to the Holy Land, yet it proved providential in helping to spread this devotion across Europe. Many artists were commissioned to produce (now famous) works of art to this purpose.

In 1686, Pope Innocent XI, realizing that few people could travel to the Holy Land due to the Muslim oppression, granted the right to erect stations in all churches. In this way the faithful could gain the indulgences attached. Today, anyone who is unable to visit a church, may practice this devotion and gain the same indulgence at home, by piously reading and meditating on the passion and death of our Lord for one-half hour.

Number 15?

In recent years, a 15th station is occasionally added which depicts Christ's Resurrection. Personally, I think this muddles the seasons of Lent and Easter which liturgically are connected but separate. The penitential season of Lent precedes the joyful season of Easter.

The 14 Stations of the cross are an ideal 'spiritual exercise' for Lent; as a means of provoking our desire to do penance, and seek God's mercy and forgiveness. (Note to self - I am giving up Midget Gems and Jelly beans for Lent......)

See more Stations of the Cross restored


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