The Stations of the Cross

The Placelessness of Medieval Christian Piety

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Sarah Lenzi
Studia Traditionis Theologiae
  • Turnhout, Belgium: 
    Brepols Publishers
    , July
     242 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Sarah Lenzi’s book The Stations of the Cross—based on her dissertation in religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania—offers a potent evaluation of former research on the genealogy of this particular devotional practice. She effectively dismantles the only two large-scale investigations of the Way of The Cross: the first by the English Jesuit, Herbert Thurston, published in 1914; and the second by the French Franciscan, Albert Storme, in 1973, both of whom agree that the Stations of the Cross in the West was ultimately an imitation of pilgrimage to the “real,” physical Jerusalem. Their research has, according to Lenzi, had an immense influence on subsequent interpretations of this ritual, although their approaches are, first and foremost, of a devotional rather than strictly scholarly kind. But was, asks Lenzi, the practice of pilgrimage even an ideal practice worthy of imitation in a medieval context? This is, basically, the misunderstanding she attempts to set straight.

First of all, Lenzi argues that the Stations of the Cross had very limited relation to the actual place. On the one hand, the terminology of stations—or via dolorosa/via cruces—did not develop until the second half of the fifteenth century, and on the other hand, pilgrimage descriptions from Jerusalem usually show little or no concern in following Christ’s path to his crucifixion. Although structured routes seem to be the norm in the late fourteenth century, these do not follow the chronology of the Gospels: “This resulted in a somewhat frantic, often simultaneous absorption of numerous unrelated sites” (31). Not until the modern period did the Stations of the Cross in Jerusalem, and Christendom in general, reach a fixed practice with a set of fourteen stations. Secondly, Lenzi shows that pilgrimage to the Holy Land was not necessarily regarded as an ideal practice. From the very outset monastic writers were vexed. Some counseled against it and others raised serious doubt about the fundamental benefits of the practice. Was the outwardness of the journey, in fact, a distraction from the interior spiritual quest of a monk? Early medieval writers “came ultimately to understand the biblical references to Jerusalem as allegorical, making the physical city relatively unimportant and clearly providing no basis for undertaking journeys to the clay and dust physical space,” as Lenzi states (60). Neither did pilgrimage-reports describe pilgrimage as ideal or attempt to promote pilgrimage to others. Lastly, Lenzi disassembles the idea that the performance of the Stations of the Cross was an imitation of something. The practice of imitation was, first and foremost, connected to the constant medieval longing for closeness with Christ that constituted the fundamental drive behind the meditation manuals that bent time and established presence. The development of the Stations was driven by this desire, and should be regarded as “imitations of Christ rather than imitations of travel” (113). Most importantly there was, indeed, a close connection between imitation and imagination, as Lenzi so brilliantly states.

Lenzi’s book, thus, provides a very competent argument against the conception that the Stations of the Cross should be understood as imitations of pilgrimage, and instead, as a much more complex cultivation of an experience of God. Towards the conclusion of the book, Lenzi introduces the very inspiring idea that the Stations are characterized by a certain “placelessness,” ultimately bending the concepts of time and space in the constant devotional effort to encounter Christ. Most physical practice works, to some extent, to create a mental set of structures, as Lenzi states. And she concludes that even though all practices “take place” in real time and real space, there is a certain “capacity of religious action to bring together past, present and future in a transformative and renewing manipulation of time that allows individuals and the ritualized behaviors themselves to transcend space and place.” (196). It would also be interesting to read some further examinations of this placenessness-thesis, since it is indeed an intriguing proposition, and Lenzi extends it to medieval piety at large. A further investigation might illuminate how “placelessness” relates to the medieval importance of body, senses, and perception as well as to the extreme importance of some miraculous locations and objects.

Lenzi’s book is informative and hopefully Lenzi will, in the future, focus even further on the practice of performing the Stations of the Cross in the middle ages, and produce a thorough new investigation based on conscientious, in-depth source analyses as well as conferring with current topical research on memory, the senses, imitation, similarities, etc. Much recent research on devotional practice qualifies an understanding of the Stations of the Cross as mental and bodily imitatio Christi, and as a devotional practice engaged in imagination and memory. In fact, Brepols Publishers has fairly recently published two other interesting books on Jerusalem, imitation, and pilgrimage—namely Visual constructs of Jerusalem by Bianca Kühnel (2014), and Kathryn Rudy’s Virtual pilgrimage in the Convent. Imagining Jerusalem in the Late Middle Ages (2011). An updated interpretation from Lenzi would indeed be of great interest. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Laura Katrine Skinnebach is a postdoctoral fellow in art history, focusing on medieval and early modern religioius cultures at the University of Aarhus, Denmark.

Date of Review: 
June 29, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sarah Lenzi received her Master of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School and her Doctorate in Religious Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. She is currently serving as minister to a Unitarian Universalist Congregation in New York.


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