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via crucis

Since ancient tradition, on the Holy Friday, Christians do not celebrate the Eucharist. The rites proposed by the liturgy are dominated by the cross, the “pulpit of the love of God”, as it has been renamed by Pope Francis. At sunset, on the streets of towns and cities, parade archaic and beautiful processions that remind us of the death of Jesus. Among these stands out the Via Crucis, pious exercise that reconstructs and commemorates the path walked by Christ to reach Golgotha. Since its origins, the Jerusalem Church shows its attention to those places, defined saints. Some archaeological findings testify the existence of expressions of a similar cult, in the area of the cemetery where the tomb of Jesus had been excavated, already in the II century. These processions, with their songs and their close connection to the places of the Passion, are considered by some academics a primitive form of the future Via Crucis.

The Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, the charm of Jerusalem arouses the desire to “reproduce it” also in the pilgrims’ cities of origin: some pilgrims who have returned from the Holy Land, recreated places of the Passion in their homelands, giving life to real masterpieces of art; the most notable example is the complex of the “seven churches of Santo Stefano” in Bologna. However, the Via Crucis as we know it today dates back to St Bernard of Clairvaux, to Saint Francis of Assisi and St Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, who prepared the ground for this devotion. To the feeling of pity that the faithful of that time had towards the death of Christ, it must be added the issue the Crusades, military actions that had the aim of freeing the Holy Sepulchre from the occupation of the Saracens.

Three united devotions

The Via Crucis was born from a kind of merger of three devotions which spread, starting from the XV century in northern Europe, especially in Germany and in The Netherlands: the “falls of Christ under the cross” (up to seven), the “painful paths of Jesus” (procession from one church to the other in memory of the paths taken by Christ during his Passion: from Gethsemane to the house of Anne, from here to the house of Caiaphas, etc.), and the “stations of Christ“, the moments in which Jesus stops along the path towards Calvary. Often the “paths of pain” and the “stations” correspond.

The traditional form

The Via Crucis, in its current form, consist of fourteen Stations, started in Spain in the first half of the XVII century, especially in Franciscans environments. From the Iberian Peninsula first passed in Sardinia, at that time under the Spanish dominion, then it spread throughout Italy, where San Leonardo da Porto Maurizio, a Missionary Friar Minor, personally erects over 572 Via Crucis. The most known is the one done in the Colosseum, on the request of Pope Benedict XIV, on the 27 December 1750, to commemorate the Holy Year.

The biblical form

The “biblical” version accompanies the “traditional” one, where the stations without a precise reference in the Gospel such as the three falls of the Lord (III, V, VII), the meeting of Jesus with His Mother (IV) and with Veronica (VI) are not listed. There are the stations of the agony in the Garden of Olives (I), the judgment of Pilate (V), the promise of paradise to the Good Thief (XI), the presence of Mary and the “beloved disciple” at the foot of the Cross (XIII). As you can see, these are all episodes that have a strong theological significance. This form of Via Crucis begins to develop in the XX century after the second war. To the pilgrims who reach Rome to celebrate the Jubilee of the year 1975, the Central Committee for the Holy Year offers the “Book of the Pilgrim“, in which, in addition to the traditional Via Crucis, there is an alternative form, to which in part, is linked also to the biblical one. With this form, the church does not intend to change the traditional text, but to highlight the role of the characters, the fight between light and shadows that they embody. Each one of them takes part in the mystery of the Passion, siding pro or against Jesus so that their thoughts are clear.

The Via Crucis at the Colosseum

The idea to perform the Via Crucis at the Colosseum is of Benedict XIV, that instructs friar Leonardo in December 1749, the year in which the saint addressed an official instance to the Roman magistrates to obtain the permission which is granted on 13 December 1749. A few months after the works to build the fourteen stations of the Via Crucis inside the Flavio Amphitheatre started. The building is considered a place of “veneration” because it is believed that therein Christians have been martyrized at the time of Imperial Rome. In the midst of the arena a simple cross is erected and the ancient little chapels around it that had already starting keeping the images of the Passion since 1500 that are renovated. On 26 December 1750, Father Leonardo announces to the faithful that the following day a solemn Via Crucis would be held at the Colosseum, after the blessing of the Pope to the fourteen stations. That day, the friar starts barefoot in the amphitheatre, followed by people who sings litanies. For over a century, the Colosseum becomes the location of the Via Crucis that travels along the Via Sacra, but after 1870, with the unification of Italy, Rome loses this custom, so much so that the niches and the cross are removed. In 1926, the cross is repositioned in the Coliseum, where it is still today, no longer at the centre but at the side. In 1959 Pope John XXIII restores the rite, which in 1964 is broadcasted for the first time in Eurovision.

Folklore and tradition

With the passing of time, the religious sentiment has been interwoven with the folklore and the traditions of every place, giving life to the suggestive rites and processions in every region of Italy. From the north to the south of the peninsula, there is no village or town that is not to celebrating the Passion of Jesus with a special event. In Piedmont, for example, in Romagnano Sesia (No), Good Friday (only the odd years) is celebrated with real characters that walk around the village. In Vercelli, instead, there is the “Procession of machines”, born in 1833: eight heavy sculptural groups transported by shoulder are carried in procession through the city centre. One of the most ancient in Italy, if not the most ancient, the Good Friday procession that takes place in Orte, where groups of Confraternities parade in the evening carrying crosses and the symbols of the Passion, followed by discalced penitents carrying chains to the ankles. Follows the coffin with the Dead Christ, the “weeping women”, the women dressed in black, Mary and the statue of Our Lady of Sorrows. At the end, the confreres distribute flowers that are retained by the faithful. But it is in the south of Italy that you find the most unique Via Crucis. In Taranto there are three processions, all slow and suggestive. The first is said by the Perdùne, as were called those pilgrims went to Rome for the Jubilee. They have their head covered with a white cap surmounted by a black hat; they parade barefoot from Thursday afternoon until late at night. At this point starts the second procession, the one of Our Lady of Sorrows, opened by the Troccolante, that gives the pace by playing the troccola, a wooden table with iron teeth: to walk four kilometres they take more than ten hours. On Friday afternoon starts the procession of the Mysteries, with groups of statues and the statue of the dead Christ: the parade takes place until dawn on Holy Saturday. In total, more than 40 hours of continuous procession. Also evocative is the Holy Week in Nocera Terinese(Cz), which reaches its climax during the Holy Saturday with the flagellanti vattienti in procession, figures who are beating their thighs and calves to blood. Intense celebrations with the participation of many people are also held in Caltanissetta throughout the Holy Week, where there are incredibly majestic and magnificent processions. Sardinia is no exception. The town of Iglesias is known for the night procession that takes place between Holy Friday and Holy Saturday, when a pompous funeral procession of Spanish and baroque derivation is staged, similar to that of a king. In Alghero, instead, the raising of Christ on the Cross is greatly portrayed.

In the photo “The yellow Christ” of Paul Gauguin of 1889, a canvas of intense mystical value. The scene is dominated by a large crucifix, as often appear in the countryside, under which three women in traditional costumes of Brittany, are kneeling to pray. The backdrop is a rural landscape. The composition is modelled on that of the “Crucifixion” that is common to many medieval images, where however instead of Christ there is a crucifix and in place of the Madonna, and San Giovanni, there are farmers. The meaning is quite clear: reliving in the daily experience the mystery of the sacrifice of Jesus. The yellow colour has the value of symbolic union between the harvests of wheat and the Messiah.

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