The Seven Dolours of the Blessed Virgin. 5.—The Crucifixion

Duccio - The Crucifixion
The Via Crucis, that Way of the Cross, which was a way of unutterable sorrows, has been made. Blood is tracked along the streets of Jerusalem from Pilate's hall to the city gate through which that procession passed ; is tracked along the winding, rocky way which it took from the gate. Simon of Cyrene has borne—first unwillingly, then with a mysterious joy, which flooded his soul and was succeeded by the gift of faith—that same cross on which Jesus is to redeem the world. Veronica, too, has won, by her ardent devotion, her uncalculating charity, that image on her mantle, which is still shown on Good-Friday from a balcony in Saint Peter's Basilica. Both have been immortalized by their compassionate service to the Man of Sorrows.

And now we approach, actually stand on the summit of that hill of Calvary, bearing the ghastly name of Golgotha, or place of skulls; and here, in full sight of the Holy City, the City of David, they crucify Him of whom the prophets spake and the psalmist sang; for whom the world had waited and longed for four thousand years;—crucify Him between two thieves, adding ignominy to ignominy; thus fulfilling the prediction of Isaiah : " He was reputed with the wicked ; and He hath borne the sins of many, and hath prayed for the transgressors."

But in return for these ignominies, these tortures, there comes from the inexhaustible patience of the Divine Heart this one ejaculation: " Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

It was high noon, and the March sun shone unclouded from the sky, when that space which was seen between two crosses on the summit of Calvary when Mary met her Son in the way, was filled, bearing on its beam the Body of the God-Man, on its arms the pierced hands of the Victim of sin ; but no sooner was He thus lifted up than a darkness more appalling than any blackness preceding a tornado covered not only Mount Calvary, Judea, but the entire earth. For three hours it hung like a pall over the world, so that Dionysius the Areopagite exclaimed in his fair city of Athens : " Either the God of nature is suffering or the framework of the world is breaking up ! " And for three hours that Body of the Incarnate Word hung while amid the surrounding darkness, was seen distinctly from the Holy City; and for three hours Mary, maiden and mother, stood by the cross of her crucified Son. She did not lean against that cross, she did not lean upon the faithful women who had accompanied her; simply stood under His pierced right hand.

The first hour had been passed when the eyes, clotted and bloodshot, sought those of Mary lifted to His own; and the lips parted with these words : " Mother, behold thy son'" Then the eyes turned to the Beloved Disciple standing under His left hand as He said : " Behold thy Mother ! " " O what change to thee!" exclaims Saint Bernard ;

"Thou art given John for Jesus; the servant for his Lord; the disciple for his Master; the son of Zebedee for the Son of God ; a mere man for very God ! " A dolor in itself.

Again that voice is heard in its low minor key : " I thirst ! " Jesus thirsts ! He who made the world ; who set the springs of water in the deep rocks, protects them by shadows in the dense forests where the shy stag can quench its thirst at noonday; sends down the dew at evening to revive the fainting flowers over the whole earth,—calls for one drop of all that He has created and blessed both for man and beasts and fowl of the air; and Mary cannot give Him the drop for which He sighs so piteously. Another dolor within our dolor.

Again a voice, but not the voice of Jesus, breaks on Mary's ear—the voice of the Good Thief, the only alleviation which was vouchsafed during three hours of agony on the cross: " Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom." And the tender voice she loves so well is heard: " This day thou shalt be with Me in paradise.

But now it is a cry—a cry that pierces the heart of Mary, close beside Him in the awful darkness : "My God, My God ! why hast Thou forsaken Me ?" Not only pierces her heart, but opens before her undreamed-of abysses of anguish in the soul of Jesus! Another dolor within our dolor.

To this agonizing appeal succeeds a cry which is an utter offering up of his dying humanity—an offering, too, in behalf of humanity all over the world dying at that moment, of all who are to die to the last moment of time, to be echoed by the dying through all ages—"Father into Thy hands I commend my spirit."

Another cry, the last cry, so strong that it startles the centurion, who exclaims : "Verily this Man was the Son of God ! " For that cry, Consummatum est! —" It is consummated ! "—tells Mary that the soul of her Jesus has left the earth which He had blessed with His incarnate presence for thirty-three years ; has left the world He came to redeem; and who can tell the absolute vacuum left in the heart of Mary ! She sees the beautiful head—gory indeed, ghastly indeed, but, oh, how beautiful still!—fall on His breast; and she knows that her Jesus is dead. While Jesus lives Mary stands. Can we wonder if she sinks on the arms of her friends as gently as the head of Jesus had sunk on His breast ?

At this moment the veil of the Temple, the veil that hid the Holy of Holies, is rent in twain from the top to the bottom; the earth quakes beneath her; the very rocks are rent; the graves of Jerusalem are opened ; but none of these horrors can stir the heart of Mary, for they stir not the Heart of Jesus.

While no hand is yet known to have delineated this divine tragedy on any wall of an early catacomb, or upon any wall of chapel or basilica before that which in this last half of our present century has been laid open to view in the subterranean Church of Saint Clement, Rome, the perfection of this Crucifixion, as a type, is proof that it was treated in the liturgical books from a very early period ; and this Crucifixion itself must have been executed long before the year 800, when the Church of Saint Clement was so severely injured by an earthquake as to necessitate the building of another basilica on its still sound walls; and from that time until 1858 was hermetically sealed to the eyes of men. It is painted on a wide pilaster forming a right angle with the end of the nave. Our Lord is represented attached to the cross by four nails, the arms horizontal, the head above the cross-beam; so that He seems literally to hang there of His own free will.

On the right side stands His Blessed yet sorrowing Mother, both hands raised to Him as if in sympathy; on the left hand Saint John, his right hand raised also in the same spirit, but in his left hand is the scroll of an Evangelist. Simple as the conception is, it embodies the Gospel story, and in no Crucifixion have the relative places of the Blessed Virgin and of Saint John been deviated from. Although the old Saint Clement was in darkness, the tradition which it followed in this instance was the inheritance of Christendom ; and from that time to this has been adhered to; and from that time no subject has been so near to the heart of Christendom, or so universally chosen by her artists.

The Crucifixion by Giotto di Bondone
From the first, the Blessed Virgin and Saint John were introduced, we think, invariably; and later, in the Church of Saint Francis at Assisi, in the series begun by Cimabue and finished by Giotto, the Crucifixion is given with all its attendant circumstances. In this picture Longinus has already pierced the side of Our Lord; and, as if this act had opened the eyes of his mind, he has left his steed and is kneeling on the ground with his hands lifted in adoration. Saint Mary Magdalene is embracing the cross on one side, Saint Francis on the other; and in the centre of a group of pitying women is Our Lady, who has sunk to the ground in a swoon. Troops of horsemen are leaving Mount Calvary, and the space on the right is occupied by the followers of the crucified One.

Duccio's Crucifixion dwells upon the sorrow of Our Lady in a still more marked manner. The Lord of Glory is dead; the spear has pierced His side; and directly in the foreground is the beautiful group of Our Lady tenderly supported by the holy women who are her companions, while Saint John takes her hands on his own. She does not actually swoon, but the revulsion of mortal weakness has come after those three hours of standing immovably ;—one of Duccio's loveliest groups, and in no way contradicting the account by Saint John ; since it represents, we may say, the scene a few moments after the death of Our Lord, and is full of the tenderest human sentiment.
Spanish chapel of Santa Maria Novell
Simoni Memmi, in the series painted by him in the Spanish chapel of Santa Maria Novella, gives a magnificent epitome of the event in the arch above and around the altar ; so arranged as to give the procession to Mount Calvary, the scene immediately following the Crucifixion—soldiers, guardsmen, mounted officers, and those who derided Our Lord, saying : " Vah ! vah ! " All are there, with the crucified thieves, the angels in the air lamenting. But on the right side are the holy women around Our Lady; and Saint Mary Magdalene is entreating a soldier, who
turns toward her, to allow them to go near to the cross. In this, Our Lady stands, with clasped hands but perfectly quiet, looking at her suffering Son, while the Magdalene entreats for her.

On the bronze panels of the pulpit in Saint Lorenzo, in Florence, Donatello has given the whole story of the Passion and death of Our Lord with a vividness which seems to throw all other representations into shadow, as we follow out the awful story. In this Crucifixion, how cuirassed men, soldiers with their spears, horsemen who draw their helmets over their eyes to shut out the horrors of a scene more awful than the eye of man had ever before witnessed, throng upon one another! How the three crosses and the three victims, how angels and demons, how the spears and the banners fill the air ! And we actually see the blackness, the more than midnight darkness of that eclipse; see and feel it as actual. But in the midst of all this how the head of Jesus bends toward the Mother, standing, with bowed head and clasped hands, beside Him! Our dolor is there in all its intensity: fills the eye, fills the heart, as it fills the very centre of our foreground.

With the Crucifixion by Fra Angelico, in Saint Mark's at Florence, we enter upon another phase of its representation. We have the reality of the three crosses, the Lord of Glory crucified between two thieves ; but instead of helmeted warriors, guardsmen, executioners, we have the saints of all times, especially of those religious orders that favor meditation j for it is the reality, as it comes before the faithful by way of meditation, that Fra Angelico delineates in his Crucifixion; drawing forth that bundle of myrrh of which Saint Bernard speaks as lying always on his breast " to make up for the sheaf of merits " which he knew he had not. "To think of these troubles and griefs," he says, u is real wisdom. In them I have determined to find perfect righteousness, full knowledge, plentiful salvation, and abundant merit. It is the thought of these troubles and woes of His that cheereth me when I am afflicted, and maketh me grave when it is well with me. Do ye also gather you a bundle of this beloved myrrh."

Here we have the motive of Angelico's picture. This is why we see Saint John Baptist, still as the precursor, beside the cross; why we see Saint Lawrence with his gridiron, Saint Benedict with his book of rules, Saint Dominic and Saint Francis with their disciples. But meditation is sure to keep in mind Our Blessed Lady and her Dolors ; and the " Stabat Mater " echoes in every line of this picture; sets to its plaintive measure every thought of the mind, every compassionate impulse of the heart of him who conceived and executed it. She is seen here sustained by Mary of Salome, and by Saint John as her son; while before her, on her knees, the Magdalene embraces her as the Mother of Sorrows ; in the abandonment of her own grief, compassionating Our Lady.

Luca della Robbia, a contemporary of Fra Angelico, whose tender piety has interpreted in so many of his works the choicest sentiments of the Christian soul, has companioned the Angelical in the ways of meditation. In his Crucifixion, how close to that cross stands the Mother, looking down in her own anguish upon St. Francis, as if to console him for the wounds borne for the love of Jesus ; while " the most beautiful Saint John in the world " stands and adores the Master; adoring angels filling the air, bringing heaven and its transports to the King of Glory in His humiliation !

It was in this same spirit of meditation that Perugino composed his " Great Crucifixion," as it is called, for the chapel of Saint Mary Magdalene of Pazzi in Florence. Instead of a crowded scene, the very air vibrating with the ghastly horrors of a midnight at noonday, three wide arches stand between us and a vast landscape—hills, valleys, inland seas, towns. Trees, just foliating as if in spring, crown the near hills, and fleecy clouds float through the broad spaces of sky. Within the central arch stands the cross which bears the crucified One, the beautiful head, with its circlet of delicate thorns and the cruciform nimbus, slightly bowed as if in death; the arms are nearly horizontal; the whole figure self-sustained and of the perfection of beauty in its proportions, breathing repose, as it were, in every line. At the foot of the cross kneels Saint Mary Magdalene,—one of Perugino's Magdalenes, unlike all others in the tenderness of its absorbed devotion; the eyes raised to her Lord, but the lids heavy with weeping ; the hands gently joined at the finger tips. It is Mary of Bethany, who had chosen the better part.

Within the left-hand arch stands Saint John, his eyes fixed upon the face of his Divine Master; the arms and hands dropped at his side, as if saying : "Was ever sorrow like this sorrow ? Was ever love like this love ?" Nothing more compassionate, nothing more gentle, nothing more affectionate, was ever imagined as a Saint John. Very near to him kneels Saint Benedict," his face, with its deep look of abiding compassion for his Lord, raised to Him hanging on His cross.

Within the right-hand arch stands Our Lady, looking out upon the world which was given to her by Our Lord when He gave her Saint John as her son. A desolation not to be put into words pervades the whole figure. The hands, held downward, do not clasp, but interweave in the distress of this desolation ; there is a weariness in the eyes like those of patient watchers by beds of sickness and of death; and the sad sweetness of the mouth is that of one who suffers without complaint. Near her kneels Saint [Bernard, his tender words of sympathy giving him this place beside Our Lady.

But Steinle, of our own day, brings us back to the actual keynote of our theme. We see the domes of Jerusalem; before the cross stands Mary; Jesus is not yet there, only the sword promised by Simeon. The head is bowed; the hands and intertwining fingers raised to her agonized breast, not to avert but to accept this dolor of the Crucifixion.

From The Seven Dolors of the Blessed Virgin Mary By By Eliza Allen Starr