Bible Review 12:6, December 1996

The Geography of Faith

Tracing the Via Dolorosa

By Jerome Murphy-O’Connor

The Latin words Via Dolorosa mean the “Sorrowful Way.” They were first used by the Franciscan Boniface of Ragusa in the second half of the 16th century as the name of the devotional walk through the streets of Jerusalem that retraced the route followed by Jesus as he carried his cross to Golgotha. It is also known as the Via Crucis, the “Way of the Cross.” Today it is divided into 14 segments by a series of stops, called stations, where pilgrims pray (see map of Via Dolorosa route).

The fourteen stations are

(1) Christ is condemned to death by Pontius Pilate (Mark 15:6–20).

(2) The cross is laid upon Jesus (John 19:17).

(3) Jesus falls for the first time.

(4) Jesus meets his mother, who collapses in shock (the spasm).

(5) Simon of Cyrene is forced to carry the cross (Mark 15:21).

(6) Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.

(7) Jesus falls for the second time.

(8) Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem (Luke 23:27–31).

(9) Jesus falls for the third time.

(10) Jesus is stripped of his garments (Mark 15:24).

(11) Jesus is nailed to the cross (Mark 15:24).

(12) Jesus dies (Mark 15:37).

(13) The body of Jesus is taken down from the cross (Mark 15:46).

(14) The body is laid in the tomb (Mark 15:46).

As you will readily see, no gospel references are appended to five stations (nos. 3, 4, 6, 7, 9). This immediately draws attention to a problem. The encounters of Jesus with his mother (no. 4) and Veronica (no. 6), and the three falls (nos. 3, 7, 9), have no basis in Scripture. What guarantee do we have that they are authentic?

Once a note of skepticism has been introduced, other questions become inevitable. Can the other incidents be located so precisely? Was the street plan of Jerusalem the same at the time of Jesus? Is the traditional starting point the authentic one? Was the praetorium (headquarters) of Pilate, where Jesus was condemned, at the Antonia Fortress, as the present route assumes, or elsewhere?

Let us begin with the last question. When the Romans took direct control of Judea in 6 A.D., they made Caesarea Maritima their capital. The emperor’s representative, in Judea a procurator, lived in a magnificent palace built there by Herod the Great, which thus became the Caesarea praetorium. The procurator came to Jerusalem on the occasion of the great Jewish feasts, when the population of the city was more than doubled by an influx of pilgrims. The possibility of disturbances was evident. The procurator’s troops could be used immediately to quell any threat to Roman authority.

In the Holy City the procurator had a choice of two residences—a palace built by Herod the Great, on the western side of the city, and the Antonia Fortress, on the eastern side just north of the Temple. Which did he choose? The palace is much more probable.

Normal Roman practice dictated that the procurator, Pontius Pilate, should opt for the palace on the west side of the city, on the site of the present Citadel inside Jaffa Gate, where remains of this palace have in fact been found. Occupation of the palace of the previous ruler symbolized the transfer of power. Moreover, the palace was much larger and more imposing than the Antonia, which was no more than a military barracks. It is absurd to imagine that Pilate would choose to occupy the second-rate residence and permit his second-in-command to live in luxury at the palace.

Understandably, therefore, Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 B.C.–c. 50 A.D.) calls the palace of Herod the Great “the house of the procurators” and places Pilate there on the occasion of the event of the shields.1 Josephus locates one of Pilate’s successors, Gessius Florus, at the palace and describes an episode that has strong parallels with the condemnation of Jesus: “Florus took up his quarters at the palace, and on the next day had his tribunal set before it…the soldiers caught many of the quiet people and brought them before Florus, whom he first scourged and then crucified.”2

Thus, the praetorium mentioned in the Gospels as the residence of Pilate (Matthew 27:27; Mark 15:16; John 18:28, 33, 19:9) should be identified with the palace on the western side of the city. This is confirmed by John 19:13, which tells us that the place where Pilate judged Jesus was called lithostroton in Greek and gabbatha in Hebrew. The two words do not mean the same thing. Lithostroton means “a paved area.” The meaning of gabbatha is not certain, but the underlying Aramaic (not Hebrew) root gbh or gb’ means “to be high, to protrude.”3 Hence, the idea of elevation. When used absolutely, as here, the best translation is probably the “high point.”4 That turns our attention to the palace, the highest point on the western hill,5 which Josephus consistently calls “the upper city” because it was much higher than the eastern hill.6

Thus the historical Way of the Cross started in the area of the modern Citadel, just inside Jaffa Gate. From the palace Jesus would have been led across the upper forum7 into a street leading to the Gennath Gate,8 in the first (north) wall of Herodian Jerusalem. The centurion in charge of the execution party had selected an abandoned quarry just outside the gate as the place of execution. On the east side of the quarry, a rock projection called Golgotha somehow gave the impression of a skull (Mark 15:22). There the Roman soldiers raised the cross. In April the bed of the quarry was a sheen of green. After the winter rains, windblown seeds flourished in soil deposited by a century of sandstorms. In the west wall of the quarry, an entrepreneur had cut a catacomb, in which tombs opened off a central passage. The disciples who took the body of Jesus from the cross used one of these tombs as a temporary measure. It was close, and the Sabbath was about to begin (John 19:40–42). That particular Friday was the Day of Preparation for Passover (John 19:31).

The quarry in which Jesus was crucified and buried is today covered by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.9 Thus the last five stations of the Via Dolorosa (the 10th to the 14th), which are located within the church, have a valid claim to authenticity, even though the floor of the church is much higher than the floor of the quarry.

It is equally clear, however, that of the first nine stations the four mentioned in the Gospels cannot possibly be correct. They have to be located on the other side of the city, between the Holy Sepulchre and Jaffa Gate.

What happened? How did the Via Dolorosa come into being?

The present Via Dolorosa developed out of a circuit of the holy places in Jerusalem that the Franciscans developed for pilgrims in the 14th century. A Roman Catholic religious order founded by St. Francis of Assisi in 1209, the Franciscans were made custodians of the Holy Land in 1335. This privilege carried two major duties. First, they had to ensure the performance of the Latin liturgical services in the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Second, they were responsible for pilgrims from Europe, in a double sense. They were the intermediaries with the local authorities in case of any dispute, and they served as guides to the holy places. In the 14th century pilgrims usually spent between 10 and 14 days in Jerusalem. In order to guarantee that they saw everything systematically, the Franciscans over the years developed a careful routine.

The tour was circular and based in sound common sense. It was given added authority, however, by the legend that Mary had followed the same route each day during her last years in Jerusalem in order to visit the places associated with her son. Such reverence on her part made it difficult for pilgrims to disagree with the route laid down by their guide! The pilgrims’ path started at the Franciscan monastery on Mt. Sion. They visited the house of Caiaphas and the palace of Annas, both then located on the western side of the city, en route to the Holy Sepulchre. Then they crossed to the east side of the city, which they left to climb the Mount of Olives. From there they descended to the Pool of Siloam, then ended the circuit by ascending the steep slope that brought them back to Mt. Sion.

This brief description gives no hint of the amount of detail crammed into every step of the way. The credulity, simplicity and vivid imagination of pilgrims during the late Middle Ages assigned a tangible location to every biblical incident and legendary development. On being shown the house of the rich man (Luke 16:19–31), for example, Robert Curzon heard a guide give a considered, affirmative reply to a pilgrim who questioned whether the dogs on the street were the descendants of those who had licked the sores of Lazarus (Luke 16:21)!10

Interesting as the complete circuit is, we must focus on the section that came to be recognized as the Via Dolorosa. After leaving the Holy Sepulchre, as they headed east across the city, the pilgrims were shown a series of mementos of Jesus, namely, the flagstone in the courtyard of the Holy Sepulchre on which Jesus fell; the Judgment Gate, to which the death notice had been affixed and by which Jesus left the city for Golgotha (this gate was important in order to underline the point that the site of the Holy Sepulchre had been outside the city at the time of Jesus); the tavern where the soldier got the sour wine (Mark 15:36); the house of Veronica; the house of the rich man (Luke 16:19–31); the crossroads at which the cross was transferred from Jesus to Simon of Cyrene (Mark 15:21); the place where Jesus encountered the women of Jerusalem (Luke 23:27–31); the steps where Mary collapsed when she mounted to see her son; the arch where Jesus was condemned; the school Mary had attended as a girl; the house of Pilate (Mark 15:1); the house of Herod Antipas (Luke 23:6–12); the house of Simon the Pharisee, where Mary Magdalene was pardoned (Luke 7:36–50); the Beautiful Gate of the Temple (Acts 3:2); the Temple of the Lord (Luke 2:27); the house of Anne, where Mary was born; the pool at the Sheep Gate (John 5:2); and finally the gate leading to the Valley of Jehoshaphat.11 At each place the pilgrims stopped to pray. There was no critical discussion of historical authenticity. The guide was a moralizing preacher who exploited the awe with which the pilgrims looked at what they were shown.

As the 15th century progressed, a feeling grew that the section between the Holy Sepulchre and the house of Pilate should have a special status in the pilgrim circuit because it was on this section that Jesus slowly died for our sins. This recognition brought with it the realization that the traditional direction (from the Holy Sepulchre to the house of Pilate) should be reversed. It would be more appropriate, and spiritually more beneficial, to begin at the house of Pilate and to end at the Holy Sepulchre. Then the pilgrim could walk in the footsteps of Jesus.

This new devotional exercise was well established by 1530, when it was described by a Spanish Franciscan, Antonio of Aranda. At this stage, however, there were only three intermediate stations between the house of Pilate and the Holy Sepulchre: (1) Jesus’ encounter with Mary, who collapses; (2) Simon of Cyrene takes the cross from Jesus, who addresses the women of Jerusalem; and (3) Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.12 Strict Ottoman controls in the 16th century made any public manifestation of Christian piety in the streets impossible. The pilgrims walked in small groups and prayed silently at the different stations.

The experience of the Via Dolorosa left an indelible mark on visitors to Jerusalem. A number were so profoundly moved that when they returned to Europe they tried to replicate the conditions of the Way of the Cross, so that those who had not made the pilgrimage could reap the same spiritual benefits. Thus the next phase in the development of the Via Dolorosa took place in Europe, where creativity was not blocked by tradition. The Muslim authorities in Jerusalem tolerated what was well established, but innovations were frowned upon. Only in Europe could the imagination of believers be given free rein. Inevitably, the number of stations increased.

The first effort in this sense was that of a Spanish Dominican, Blessed Alvarez of Cordova (died 1420), who visited Jerusalem sometime before 1405. When he built the Monastery of Scala Coeli in Cordova, he incorporated eight chapels painted with the scenes of the Passion that he had seen in Jerusalem. A German, Martin Ketzel, had a much more dramatic solution. Having lost his notes on the distances between the stations in Jerusalem, he undertook a second pilgrimage to the Holy City in 1472 to remedy this defect. When he got back to Nuremberg, he set up an open-air Via Dolorosa, beginning with a house of Pilate at one of the gates of the city and terminating in the cemetery of St. John. The seven intermediate stations were marked by sculptures by Adam Krafft. Each one had a descriptive title and noted the number of steps from the previous station. These stations were (1) Jesus encounters Mary; (2) Simon of Cyrene carries the cross; (3) Jesus addresses the women of Jerusalem; (4) Veronica wipes the face of Jesus; (5) Jesus is struck by bystanders; (6) Jesus falls; and (7) Mary holds the dead body of Jesus. In each the sculptor depicted Jesus on the point of falling beneath the weight of the cross. In consequence, the stations became known as the “Seven Falls.”

This representation of the Way of the Cross had a tremendous impact and was imitated at Romans, in France; Fribourg, in Switzerland; Bamberg, in Germany; and throughout Belgium. The one representation at Louvain became the most important because, indirectly, it gave rise to two books that were to be decisive in giving the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem its present form. It inspired Jan Pascha to write his Spiritual Journey, which was published by Peter Calentyn in 1563.13 This detailed spiritual reflection on the route of the Passion was based on the reports of pilgrims and supplemented by the Gospels. It is the first to use the expression the “Way of the Cross.” In turn, Pascha’s work stimulated a Dutch scholar, Christian van Adrichom, to attempt a scientific effort, Description of Jerusalem at the Time of Christ, which first appeared in 1584. This book was quickly translated into all the European languages and remained the classical manual of the topography of Jerusalem up until the 19th century.14

Both Pascha and van Adrichom give the following stations: (1) house of Pilate; (2) Jesus receives the cross; (3) Jesus falls for the first time; (4) Jesus encounters Mary, who collapses; (5) Simon of Cyrene carries the cross; (6) Veronica wipes the face of Jesus; (7) Jesus falls for the second time; (8) Jesus addresses the women of Jerusalem; (9) Jesus falls for the third time; (10) Jesus is stripped of his garments; (11) Jesus is nailed to the cross; (12) Jesus dies on the cross; (13) Jesus’ body is taken down from the cross; and (14) Jesus is laid in the tomb.15

This was to become the classic list, but initially it had little impact on practice in Jerusalem. It was implicitly criticized by the Franciscan Bernardino Amico, who produced the first measured plans of buildings in Jerusalem in 1591. He divides the Via Dolorosa into three segments. His first drawing shows the palace of Pilate, where Jesus was scourged. The second drawing depicts the arch of Pilate, where Jesus was judged, and the Chapel of the Collapse of the Mother of Jesus, where Jesus met Mary. The final drawing is more complex. It shows a street on which are located Simon’s assumption of the cross, the encounter with the women of Jerusalem, the house of Veronica and the Judgment Gate.16

The same tactful but definite refutation appears in the Explanation of the Holy Land, published in 1639 by another Franciscan, Francesco Quaresmio.17 He introduces the subject thus, “The sixth walk [in Jerusalem] is the way of the cross or the sorrowful way in which the eight principal sites venerated by pilgrims are recalled and described.”18 These are (1) the palace of Pilate; (2) the flagellation of Christ; (3) the palace of Herod; (4) the Ecce Homo arch; (5) the Chapel of the Collapse; (6) the corner where Simon took the cross from Jesus, who then speaks to the women of Jerusalem; (7) the house of Veronica; and (8) the Judgment Gate. This was the last station. Quaresmio comments, “This is the end.” The route that Jesus had followed from the Judgment Gate to Golgotha could no longer be retraced. What then had been open country was now completely built up. To get to the Holy Sepulchre, pilgrims had to go through streets that had no traditional connection with Jesus.

In the 17th century those who made the devotional exercise of the 14-station Way of the Cross popularized by Pascha and van Adrichom in Europe were convinced that it accurately reflected the route in Jerusalem. Not surprisingly, therefore, the pilgrims who came to the Holy City were shocked to find that the Jerusalem tradition was different. They were particularly disappointed that the Via Dolorosa ended at the Judgment Gate. They expected it to terminate at the Holy Sepulchre. The explanations of the Franciscans fell on deaf ears, and frustrated anger implicitly condemned the competence of the guides. This situation could not be permitted to continue. Individual Franciscans began altering their tours to accommodate the expectations of the pilgrims regarding the number and order of the stations.

The final stage of this process is recorded by the Franciscan Elzear Horn, who ministered in the Holy Land from 1724 to 1744. He was heavily influenced by van Adrichom but corrected the latter’s fantastic vision of the topography of Jerusalem (which van Adrichom had never visited!) by adapting it to the actual street plan of the city.19 The map shows his stations and those of today.

Let us compare Horn’s stations with the ones followed by today’s pilgrims. If there is no comment, the two lists are identical: (1) Pilate passes judgment: in the courtyard of the Omariyya School; (2) the cross is laid on Jesus: in the street outside the school—the station used to be about 250 feet east of the present site, outside the Monastery of the Flagellation; (3) Jesus falls for the first time: at the crossroads just east of the Ecce Homo arch—it is now at the northern junction of the Via Dolorosa with the Tariq el-Wad; (4) Jesus encounters his mother, who collapses: at the junction of the little street just east of the Armenian Catholic Church—it is now some 65 feet south of this church on the Tariq el-Wad; (5) Simon of Cyrene takes the cross: at the northern junction of the Via Dolorosa and the Tariq el-Wad—it is now at the southern junction of these two roads; (6) Veronica wipes the face of Jesus: in the middle of the section of the Via Dolorosa linking the Tariq el-Wad and the Suq Khan ez-Zeit; (7) Jesus falls for the second time: at the junction of the Via Dolorosa and the Suq Khan ez-Zeit; (8) Jesus addresses the women of Jerusalem: under the vaulted area of Aqabat el-Khanqa (this was Horn’s most significant departure from the Jerusalem tradition, for this event had always been associated with the assumption of the cross by Simon of Cyrene); (9) Jesus falls for the third time: further up Aqabat el-Khanqa—today it is at the entrance to the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate; (10–14) all within the Holy Sepulchre.

We began this story of how the present form of the Via Dolorosa came into being with the pilgrim circuit established by the Franciscans in the 14th century because it is the direct ancestor. The places on that pilgrim circuit, however, did not spring from out of nowhere. They belonged to a much older tradition, which we must now look at briefly.

Even though there had been a strong Christian presence in Jerusalem during the first three centuries,20 the Christianization of the city took place only in the fourth century. At that time, what had been an essentially private mode of worship became an overtly public one. In Jerusalem Christians claimed their sacred space by moving in procession as they commemorated events in the life of Jesus.21 For example, in the late fourth century, on the night of Holy Thursday, which commemorates the Last Supper (Mark 14:12–26) and the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane (Mark 14:32–42), Christians assembled at the Eleona Church on the Mount of Olives.22 Then after services at the Imbomon (now the Mosque of the Ascension of Jesus) and at Gethsemane, they went without pause across the city for a dawn service in the courtyard of the Holy Sepulchre.23 Even though the ceremony commemorated part of the Passion of Jesus, there was no intention of retracing his exact steps. The only feasible route from Gethsemane to the Holy Sepulchre was the one running along the northern side of the Temple.

In the eighth century the same Holy Thursday procession followed a different route. From Gethsemane it went along the south wall of the Temple to the house of Caiaphas (today the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu), then to the praetorium at the Church of Holy Wisdom, somewhere in the upper Tyropoeon Valley (the exact location is unknown), and finally to the courtyard of the Holy Sepulchre.24 At this time there appears to be a more deliberate intention to follow the movements of Jesus in the last hours of his life, but the walk was considered merely one liturgical service among others. It was not given a special character.

Growing interest in the events of the Passion of Jesus was stimulated in the 11th century when the Fatimids forbade Christian processions in the streets. Resentment fostered devotion; people always want to do what is forbidden. Thus when the Holy Sepulchre was restored by the emperor Constantine Monomachus in 1048, it incorporated a series of chapels dedicated to the Passion of Christ. These were the prison of Christ, the column at which he was scourged, the crowning with thorns and the division of his garments. This unsatisfactory solution was abandoned in the 12th century, when Crusader control made it possible for Christians to again have public processions. Memory, however, had weakened in the interval. Moreover, the Crusaders were not very tolerant of the customs of the eastern church. The result was a serious difference of opinion among western Christians when the processions resumed.

Theoderic, a German monk who visited the Holy Land between 1169 and 1174, reports the location of Pilate’s condemnation of Jesus as being “in front of the Church of the Blessed Mary on Mt. Sion.” He continues, “From this place the Lord was taken out through the city wall, and round to Calvary. Then there were gardens there, but now the place is built over.”25 In terms of what we have seen above regarding the historical circumstances of the trial and condemnation of Jesus at Herod’s palace on Mt. Sion, this is certainly the most authentic version of the Via Dolorosa to have appeared in Jerusalem. Theoderic locates Mary’s encounter with Jesus, and her subsequent collapse, in the area now occupied by the Lutheran Redeemer Church.26

Although Theoderic formally places the beginning of the Via Dolorosa on Mt. Sion, he twice mentions “the house of Pilate, which is next to the house of Saint Anne the Mother of our Lady, and near the Pool of the Sheep.”27 His contemporaries believed that the wood of the cross was taken from this pool,28 which is now in the grounds of St. Anne’s Church, just inside St. Stephen’s (Lions’) Gate, on the eastern side of the Holy City. These two elements made it possible for the Templars and the Augustinian Canons, who controlled the Temple Mount, to develop a Via Dolorosa that began on the east side of Jerusalem, as does the present one.

They located the palaces of Caiaphas and Annas roughly on the site of the Antonia, north of the Temple. The flagstones on the northern end of the Temple Mount became the lithostroton “pavement” on which Pilate set up his judgment seat. In this version of the Via Dolorosa, Jesus, carrying his cross, left the Temple area by the Sorrowful Gate (today Bab al-Nazir) and went directly west to Golgotha via the modern Ala ed-Din and Aqabat et-Takiya.29

A succession of Latin patriarchs apparently stayed neutral in the struggle that pitted the western Via Dolorosa against the eastern. No public procession was ever scheduled for Good Friday during the Crusader period.30

After the Arabs resumed control of the Temple Mount, which again became the Haram esh-Sharif in 1187, they made it impossible for the eastern Via Dolorosa to cut across the northwest corner of the paved esplanade. The partisans of this eastern version of the Via Dolorosa simply moved the judgment place of Pilate up to the Antonia. The Sorrowful Gate became only a memory, and the street outside was no longer used. It became more convenient to use a parallel street further north, which subsequently became the modern Via Dolorosa.

The entire lack of interest in the western Via Dolorosa in the post-Crusader period is one of the minor mysteries of Jerusalem. One can only guess at the explanation. Saladin permitted a number of Latin clergy to return to the Holy Sepulchre, but only during the truce of 1229–1244 was there a significant Latin presence in the Holy City. The size of the Christian community left no room for divisions. A choice between the western and eastern Via Dolorosa had to be made, and it was inevitable that the eastern Via Dolorosa should be the one to survive. The austerity of the western Via Dolorosa could not compete with the variety of gospel and legendary associations attached to the eastern Via Dolorosa. The one dramatic episode of the western route, the encounter of Jesus with Mary, could be, and was in fact, easily integrated into the eastern route, which in addition localized the encounter with Veronica. A brief review of the development of this legend will serve as a graphic illustration of the type of popular piety that has given the Via Dolorosa its present form.

The fourth-century church historian Eusebius of Caesarea records having seen a statue of Jesus with the woman whose hemorrhage he had cured (Mark 5:24–34). It stood outside her house in Caesarea Philippi (modern Banias).31 Her gratitude is recorded by the fourth-century Acts of Pilate, in which she appears as a character witness at Jesus’ trial before Pilate: “And a woman called Bernice (Latin Veronica), crying out from a distance, said, ‘I had an issue of blood and I touched the hem of his garment, and the issue of blood, which I had for twelve years, ceased.’ The Jews said, ‘We have a law not to permit a woman to give testimony.’”32 This slender connection with Pilate, of course, is the basis for Veronica’s appearance on the Via Dolorosa, but by that stage the story had been greatly embroidered.33

According to a seventh-century version, Veronica wanted to have a portrait of Jesus and asked him to sit for a painter. Instead Jesus miraculously imprinted his face on a piece of cloth, which ended up in Rome. Its presence in the Eternal City is accounted for as follows. The emperor Tiberius was ill. He had heard of a miracle worker in Palestine who cured by a word, so the emperor sent an emissary to bring him to Rome. The emperor was not aware that Pilate had just had Jesus killed. A terrified Pilate did not know what to say to the imperial messenger, but Veronica bailed him out by offering to bring the image of Jesus’ face to Rome. It cured the emperor. Thereafter the cloth was held in great honor in the Eternal City, where in the 12th century it attracted new legends.

According to one version, Veronica became ill again, but this time her condition was much more serious. She had leprosy. Though desperate for another miracle, she did not dare approach the cross on which Jesus was hanging. Mary, however, waved her forward and used Veronica’s veil to wipe the face of Jesus. His face was imprinted on it. Veronica replaced her veil, and its touch cured her. This 13th-century version appears in a new form a century later. Veronica, on her way to the market, took pity on Jesus as he struggled under his cross and used her veil to wipe the perspiration from his face. When she took it back, the face of Jesus was imprinted on it. This version of the legend became the dominant one because it was adopted by the mystery plays so popular in medieval Europe. Inevitably, pilgrims expected to find the event commemorated in Jerusalem, and it became part of the Via Dolorosa.

The Via Dolorosa is defined not by history but by faith. It is the achievement of generations of Christians who desired above all to be in contact with what was tangible in the life of Christ. This is why they came on pilgrimage. This is why they asked, Where did this or that happen? As they stood in those places, their imaginations brought him alive before them. They traveled in hope. They found him in prayer.