Step into a Christian church and you’ll find 14 distinct images lining its walls. These Stations of the Cross mimic the Way of the Cross along Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, the actual path Jesus walked to Mount Calvary, inevitably toward his crucifixion. For those who can’t make it to Jerusalem, they are a way for Christians to make the pilgrimage in their own neighborhood. Each station is accompanied by corresponding prayers. In all the churches I’ve visited (and outside a few of them, in Salzburg, Austria, for instance, or Zakopane, Poland), the stations capture a range of emotions for those fateful hours two millennia ago: brutality (Station 11: Jesus Is Nailed to the Cross) and humanity (Station 6: Veronica wipes the face of Jesus); suffering (Stations 3, 7, and 9: Jesus Falls the First, Second, and Third time) and humiliation (Station 10: Jesus Is Stripped of His Garments) and sadness (Station 4: Jesus Meets His Mother). Some curiously change the widely used textual captions. Some are extraordinarily simple, maybe with just one figure or a symbol; others are dramatic pieces of art that took years to create. The materials employed cover a vast range, including wood, mosaic tiles, marble, and many others. These are my favorites.
#1 Maria of Jesse Church (Delft, the Netherlands)
The striking Maria of Jesse Church, completed in 1882, features two towers that rise up above Delft’s skyline and beckoned me to them. But it’s really the inside that made this place so memorable for me. The interior was quite sober until 1905, when the walls received a vibrantly colorful paint job (most noticeably, the red, yellow, and green bricks) and were decorated with finely executed murals of more than 100 prophets, apostles, order founders, martyrs, and bishops. The gorgeous bas-relief Stations of the Cross are astounding. Sculpted figures almost liquid-like in their movements, painted in rich colors, fill wide panels. Their expressions are clear: the disgust on the faces of the Jewish high priests, the stoicism of Roman soldiers just doing their job and the savagery of those enjoying it, the sorrow of His followers, and even the reluctance of Pontius Pilate as he washes his hands of the whole matter.
#2 Basilica of St. Nicholas (Amsterdam, the Netherlands)
One of the most beautiful churches in Amsterdam makes an unforgettable first impression for those arriving in the city through one of the world’s most beautiful train stations. Flanked by slender five-story townhouses on either side, the Basilica of St. Nicholas, completed in 1887, dominates the scene with its two tall towers, rose window, and octagonal dome. Inside, the Stations of the Cross took the artist, Jan Dunselman, seven years to complete, from 1891 to 1898. These tremendous square paintings, set on the walls under brick arches, are the largest Dunselman ever created. In his pursuit of new materials, he applied them to the rough back of linoleum. He also chose parishioners as models for the figures so that, even today, Amsterdammers may still be able to find the face of an ancestor.
#3 St. Francis de Sales Roman Catholic Church (New York, New York)
Actor James Cagney was once a parishioner at this beautiful church on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Built in 1903 in the Italian Renaissance style, St. Francis de Sales Roman Catholic Church is fronted by an imbalanced double staircase to accommodate the slope of the street. The church is named for the patron saint of the deaf, journalists, and adult education who was canonized in 1665. Inside, everything is mostly white and cream, except for the bursts of color in the magnificent stained-glass window above the simple altar, the stained-glass windows at the gallery level above, and the stained-glass windows of individual saints along the side aisles. The other pops of color can be found in the Stations of the Cross. Grouped in pairs between the aisle windows, these stations combine painted backgrounds with bas-relief statues that almost spill out of their fames. The eye-catching bold colors used in the figures’ robes and the gestures of the figures—pointing, praying, whipping—create a striking series that necessitate a meditative loop around the church.
#4 Basilica of St. Anne de Beaupré (Beaupré, Québec)
Miracles happen at the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré. One of the most beautiful churches in Canada stands in a tranquil spot on the St. Lawrence River, about 20 miles east of Québec City. Every year, half a million people come here on a pilgrimage to beseech St. Anne (Mary’s mother) to help them or a loved one with some sort of affliction. Apparently, it works: Crutches and canes and braces are wrapped around pillars inside, no longer needed by those who left notes thanking Anne for curing them. It’s a tremendously powerful image, as are the Stations of the Cross. But for those, I had to go outside and across a street, and then start climbing up a hill. The quiet path under maple trees that explode into fiery colors every autumn takes visitors along the Way of Cross as it winds up toward the top. Set on stone bases wedged into the grassy hillside, each station is composed of no more than five bronze life-size figures. Cast in French workshops, the stations were completed in 1945, one year before the cathedral was finished and 32 years after they were first begun. It’s a peaceful and reflective complement to the basilica itself.
#5 Our Lady of Victory National Shrine & Basilica (Lackawanna, New York)
Just over the border of Buffalo, New York, the tremendous Our Lady of Victory National Shrine & Basilica stands in magnificent glory. Its massive solidarity is balanced by delicate artistic finishes. Completed by Christmas 1925—and its $4 million price tag paid in full—the church was named the second minor basilica in the United States less than a year later. Outside, the verdigris-green domes and roofs, horn-blowing angels, and marble arcades, towers, and sculptural groups make for an astounding component of Lackawanna’s profile. Inside, the dazzling display of artistic genius continues in the marble walls, floors, and statues; ceiling murals; 134 stained-glass windows; and twisting red marble columns at the altar. The Stations of the Cross flank the sides of the sanctuary, each a work of impeccable craftsmanship. Each station is carved from a single piece of white marble (rather than each figure carved separately and then assembled). The life-size figures are set against a dark sky with a few golden stars. Two marble Corinthian columns supporting a broken pediment above frame each scene. It took an Italian sculptor one full year to design and execute each station—14 years of work for which every visitor to this basilica is forever grateful.
- Church of St. Francis Xavier (New York, New York)
- St. Patrick’s College Chapel (Maynooth, Ireland)
- St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption (Covington, Kentucky)
- St. Willibrord’s Church (Utrecht, the Netherlands)
- Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar (Buenos Aires, Argentina)
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