History of the Stations of the Cross

A travel report dating from 384 by the Spanish nun Egeria constitutes the oldest source for the practice in Jerusalem of following the stages of the road Jesus took carrying the cross from Pilate’s palace to the hill of Golgotha. Egeria accurately described what she saw and what was significant for her. In later times chapels arose at the stopping places, the stations of this pilgrimage, initially marked only by simple inscriptions.

Returning Crusaders introduced the custom in Europe. The Franciscans saw it as their mission to promote this form of devotion, and series of paintings depicting moments on the way of the cross started appearing in ever more parish churches. Initially the subjects and the number (from five to forty-three) varied. Gradually a series of fourteen stations became definitive. Nine of those are borrowed from the biblical passion story and five originate in folk tradition (Jesus meets his mother, Veronica wipes the face of Jesus and Jesus falls three times). In the meantime, the series was extended by two stations: the deposition and the entombment. In order to give expression to the intrinsic and mysterious connection between death and (new) life, an additional, fifteenth station came into use in the twentieth century: the resurrection.

Making the meditative rounds along the stations often takes place on Fridays during the forty days of preparation for Easter (the period of Lent), and especially on Good Friday. Fragments from the passion story are read, as well as short prayers and meditations that connect the sufferings of Jesus with current forms of suffering. Art Stations of the Cross breaks through the walls of church buildings and returns the pilgrimage to the streets.

text: Klaas Holwerda


art – passion – compassion – justice

Art Stations of the Cross is a contemporary pilgrimage in the heart of Amsterdam, one of the world’s busiest crossroads. This journey along fourteen stops offers a modern revival of an ancient liturgical tradition, in which leading artists give a present-day reflection on Jesus’ road to the cross. Initiated by Professor Aaron Rosen and the Rev. Dr. Catriona Laing, Art Stations of the Cross has taken place in London (2016), Washington, DC (2017) and New York (2018), each time with a new selection of artworks particular to that city.

Art Stations of the Cross zooms in on Amsterdam as a city of water with its harbor and its canals that traverse the city’s center. Of old, the patron saint of Amsterdam is Saint Nicholas, protector of sailors; hence, the route of the stations starts inside the Basilica of Saint Nicholas and ends in the Oude Kerk (Old Church), originally named Saint Nicholas Church. Water lends our capital great beauty, but it can also – as in the Bible – stand for evil. This evil, hatched out behind the stately facades of canal houses and executed in dark alleys, has caused much harm in the lives of the people who fall victim to it. 

In this pilgrimage, the water that flows through Amsterdam’s veins stands symbolically for the water problems of our world. A number of works address the plight of refugees for whom water forms a life-threatening barrier. Other works link water with the decline of the oceans, with the plastic that poisons the seas and its reefs, and the threat of rising water and advancing tsunamis. Or with slavery and world trade, in which greed all too often sets the tune. The same applies to trafficking and the sex industry. Art Stations of the Cross seeks to connect suffering in its many manifestations with Jesus’ heavy road from his conviction to Golgotha. It lays bare the underbelly of our world so that we can begin to relate to our world in new ways.

The route along the stations is meant first of all as a journey of contemplation and reflection. We hope that visitors will set out like pilgrims, in search of compassion and shared humanity, in search of more love and more God. Pilgrims embark on their journey without knowing what lies ahead. They are open to surprises, new insights and correction. The stations confront us with the suffering of Jesus and of humans like us. It is our hope that you will allow yourself to become quiet, come to yourself and let your heart speak. This kind of rest is dearly needed in our information-saturated world. Take the time to let the artworks speak to you. Looking at art takes time anyhow; it is meditative by nature.

At the same time, the pilgrimage is also meant to stimulate compassion and engagement. After all, the path of Jesus was a profound answer to the question Does the world really matter to me? Hence the stations are not exclusively for the church, as of old in Europe. For this reason Art Stations is set up along fourteen secular as well as religious locations, with inspired art from Christian as well as other sources. Whatever our background, we all share a common humanity, and we can learn from one another’s experiences and insights.

Many times we hear in the Gospels that Jesus was ‘moved with compassion’. This manner of kindness means not only that you see what needs to be done, but also that you deeply sympathize, feel it in your bones, and then experience an urge to help soften the suffering. A process of uninhibited goodness that, once set in motion, knows its own truth.

We hope that Art Stations of the Cross will become a meaningful experience to you. Do let yourself be challenged, surprised and moved in artistic, moral and spiritual ways.

text: Marleen Hengelaar and Anikó Ouweneel