17.09.04, Lenzi, The Stations of the Cross

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Jessica A. Boon

The Medieval Review 17.09.04

Lenzi, Sarah. The Stations of the Cross: The Placelessness of Medieval Christian Piety. Studia Traditionis Theologiae, 22. Turnhout: Brepols, 2016. pp. vii, 242. ISBN: 978-2-503-56538-5 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Jessica A. Boon
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

While the Franciscan ritual of the Stations (or Way) of the Cross in Jerusalem, walking through the sites associated with Jesus' condemnation through his entombment in narrative order, has its roots in premodern Christianity, its current form is not an unchanged remnant of past practice. Rather, it is a Jerusalem-based practice developed by early modern devotees and standardized by contemporary practitioners, all of whom claim historical precedent in medieval devotion. In this revision of her dissertation, Sarah E. Lenzi provides the first full-length academic exploration of the Stations, with the primary intent of disentangling the claims made by twentieth-century devotee-scholars about the Stations that have created a presumption of timeless continuity. Lenzi's principal argument is that contemporary assessments have proposed that the Stations originated as a spiritual imitation of medieval pilgrimage, whereas she identifies a closer parallel with the internal devotion of Passion spirituality and the timeless, placeless effect of liturgy. Rather than developing during the crusading era as a substitute for physical pilgrimage through a series of specific sites in Jerusalem, Lenzi argues that the Stations originated in the West in private and ecclesiastical practices which were then transformed in the East into a visible, physical sequence. Her work thus intersects topics often studied separately, pilgrimage and Passion devotion liturgy, as well as Western and Eastern Christian developments. It also offers a strong caution against theorizing origins based on contemporary practice.

A note: The book is divided into four parts--with two or three sub-divisions per part that are given titles or called conclusion, each of which has further sub-divisions by title--rather than chapter or section numbers. My review follows this unusual formatting.

In Part One, "A European Birth," Lenzi presents the terms of the debate over origins through an analysis of the only significant monographs on the Stations, Herbert Thurston's 1914 The Stations of the Cross and Albert Storme's 1973 The Way of the Cross: An Historical Sketch. Thurston, an English Jesuit, appears to have set the basic framework that Storme, a French Franciscan, follows in large part. Other brief articles since then have, according to Lenzi, followed the lead of the two Catholic authors. In "Laying the Groundwork," Lenzi outlines the two sources that Thurston and Storme identified for the Stations, Passion devotion and Franciscan control of the Holy Land. She reviews Passion devotion through brief readings of Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi, Bonaventure, and Angela of Foligno, then describes the historical trajectory of the Franciscans gradually gaining control of various stational sites in Jerusalem by first becoming one group among many holding services at the site, then negotiating for guardianship. Lenzi's interest in this chronology is that Franciscan control of stational sites came after the development of Passion devotion and imitatio Christi, such that Passion devotion more generally was the primary impetus for interest in the Stations rather than travel to the Holy Land producing interest in recreating the Holy Land back in European towns and churches. In "East and West," Lenzi reviews the textual evidence from early and medieval pilgrimage accounts provided by Thurston and Storme that they claim culminates in the mid-fifteenth century development of the Stations, but Lenzi in examining the same material notes that none of the pilgrimage accounts depict anything like a via crucis in Jerusalem itself. Instead, from Egeria in the fifth century to William Wey in the fifteenth, pilgrims seem to have come upon the different sites haphazardly and displayed little interest in walking through them in narrative order. Lenzi suggests that it was in the West, first recorded by Henry Suso and then popularized in the early modern period by Jan Pascha and Bernardino Amico, that interest in following Jesus' footsteps through the narrative of his last days has its basis. In other words, the Stations of the Cross originated as a genre of Western Passion spirituality, not as a pilgrim's final act in Jerusalem, thus the Stations in the West could not have been an imitation of pilgrimage. (It was not until the eighteenth century that the fourteen Stations are recorded as part of practice in Jerusalem itself.)

After dismantling the developmental scheme asserted by Thurston and Storme, Lenzi continues her argument with them by proffering a re-reading of pilgrimage as religious travel in Part Two and of Passion devotion in Part Three. In each section, she covers a great deal of ground, from early Christian beginnings through late medieval and early modern practices.

Part Two, "Religious Travel," begins with the section "The 'Ideal' of Pilgrimage." Lenzi refutes Storme's characterization of the Stations as spiritual pilgrimage, claiming that he misunderstands peregrinatio as putting specifically travel to the Holy Land on a pedestal, rather than any kind of religious travel, and cites writing from Jerome to Piers Plowman as evidence that travel to Jerusalem specifically was never unproblematically idealized. Problems ranged from the theological difficulty of identifying Jerusalem as "closer" to Jesus than any other point on earth, to the possibility that pilgrims used their travel to assert a greater devotion than they actually felt. In "A Journey Undertaken: Primary Source Analysis," Lenzi switches from theologians and authors commenting on the practice of peregrinatio to a close look at the travel narratives produced by pilgrims from Egeria to Bernardino de Amico (early seventeenth century), which again do not claim primacy for pilgrimage over all other types of religious devotion.

In Part Three, "Religious Imitation," Lenzi turns to Passion devotion, suggesting that the imitation involved in the Stations of the Cross is imitative of Passion devotion rather than of pilgrimage as Thurston and Storme had claimed. In perhaps the most interesting interpretative section in the book, Lenzi begins with a reassessment of imitation as a medieval practice, turning to architectural history, and particularly Western churches built under the name of the Holy Sepulcher, a known site in Jerusalem. Lenzi uses the example of the great variety of church shapes built in imitation of the Holy Sepulcher in order to suggest that imitation be understood as "commemoration" (121) not replication. This point stands her in good stead to make the argument (drawing on Carruthers' work on medieval memory) that the Stations were not an imitation of an idealized pilgrimage, but rather that pilgrims who went to Jerusalem already had a contemplative pattern and set of expectations which their journey was meant to confirm. In "A Journey Within: Primary Source Analysis," Lenzi reviews some of the principal authors of European Passion devotion (Anselm, Aelred of Rivaulx, the Meditaciones Vitae Christi, Henry Suso, Ludolph of Saxony, Thomas à Kempis) to prove that none took as or proposed pilgrimage itself as a model, then turns to the early modern authors (Pascha, Adrichomius) who first outlined the fourteen Stations as equally uninterested in prescribing pilgrimage.

After spending the first three-quarters of the book eliminating pilgrimage as a basis for the Stations and re-evaluating how the Stations express imitatio Christi and Passion devotion, in Part Four, "Piety and Place," Lenzi identifies a new source for the Stations that Thurston and Storme (and all scholars who rely on them) overlooked. Lenzi looks to liturgy in "Liturgy: Stational, Public, Private"--inspired in part by the connection that medieval authors of Passion texts had often made, in patterning the last section of their Vita Christi treatises as seven or more stations on Good Friday. Here Lenzi draws extensively on Baldovin's treatment of liturgy in Jerusalem in early Christianity for the point that the liturgy or mass as it developed was deeply rooted in the physical space of Jerusalem, and thus that the mass is itself Stational. Lenzi examines Egeria's pilgrimage account, the Armenian Lectionary (fifth century) and the Georgian Lectionary (fifth to eighth centuries). She then jumps forward to Savonarola, examining how his short and popular Tractate on the Sacrament equates the experience of the mass with imaginative meditation on Jesus' last days, including all the Stations. (She provides the first edition and facing-column translation of the piece in an appendix). Thus the public performance of mass should induce a private, stational experience. In "The Placelessness of Medieval Piety," Lenzi turns to contemporary theories of space, time, and religion, particularly by religious studies scholar Jonathon Z. Smith (but also Heidegger and theorist of time Yi-Fu Tuan), to propose that liturgy in its repetition transforms time, while in its stational beginnings, liturgy transforms the place the devotee is attending mass into Jerusalem itself. "A believer performing the Stations is no longer simply in their own church in their own contemporary moment, rather they...are transported to the eternal re-unfolding of the biblical story" (193).

Noting in the "Conclusion" to Part Four that the medieval and early modern authors themselves do not identify the liturgy as source for the Stations ("implicit links," 202), Lenzi argues for the clear parallels between the Stations and the liturgy, made even more explicit in the twentieth century development of it. In an epilogue, Lenzi reflects on her own participation in the ritual in 2010 as an academic observer, and how the observation of the variety of reasons others were there (from religious observance to tourist curiosity) gave insight into the fact that not even the standardized contemporary sequence following the narrative of Jesus' last days was in fact anything but extremely particularized by the private intentions of the individuals undertaking it.

As is evident, in this book Lenzi works to deconstruct all that is assumed about the Stations of the Cross, in the process recalibrating certain sources and proposing others. In this she succeeds admirably. The ambit of the book, however, is at once too narrow and too capacious to be fully successful. On the one hand, Lenzi is so determined to overturn Thurston and Storme's framework that she takes it at face value, rereading the same works they cite in order to argue with their readings but rarely going the next step to consider the broader scholarship on those same topics. Less of a problem in the sections on pilgrimage, Lenzi's near-complete avoidance of excellent recent scholarship on Passion spirituality (for example, models of imagination rather than memory as proposed by Michelle Karnes, affective spirituality as outlined by Sarah McNamer, or Sarah Beckwith's consideration of Eucharistic and Passion spirituality) means that little contextual consideration of questions of gender, vernacular devotion, or medieval cognition is brought to bear on the issues. [1] (For example, the initial overview of Passion devotion in the first section of Part One starts with Anselm, a starting point strongly problematized by McNamer who considers the source of Passion spirituality to be in the women to whom Anselm was writing). While Lenzi might beat Thurston and Storme at their own game in terms of close reading the sources they chose, the more interesting parts of the book are certainly where she goes beyond their framework to develop a new one, such as the use of architectural theory to reconsider the concept of imitation.

On the other hand, the work is extremely broad, with multiple extensive surveys of works by authors from the early days of Christianity through the early modern period, or more restrainedly, from high to late medieval. While such surveys are necessarily selective, Lenzi does not offer criteria in the text or footnotes for why she includes certain voices and others not, does not cite secondary scholarship on most of the figures however well-known, and does not discuss even broadly the contextual shifts from Latin to vernacular, monastic to lay, or male to female authorship. Thus the ambitions of the various surveys rest entirely on Lenzi's close readings, with little sense of how such surveys could contribute to medievalist scholarship (on pilgrimage, Passion devotion, or liturgy) beyond the specific interest in laying Thurston's and Storme's version of the Stations' medieval origins to rest. For a medievalist audience, then, Lenzi's book may open many doors to reconsidering what pilgrimage, imitation of suffering, or stational liturgy might have been in its time rather than through a modern lens, but the Stations of the Cross liturgy itself ends up strangely outside the medievalist domain as an early modern and contemporary phenomenon. One hopes that in future work, Lenzi will delve further in these wider themes brought together by her reevaluation of this fascinating and important liturgy, the Stations of the Cross.



1. Michelle Karnes, Imagination, Meditation, and Cognition in the Middle Ages (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2012); Sarah McNamer, Affective Meditation and the Invention of Medieval Compassion (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2010); Sarah Beckwith, Christ's Body: Identity, Culture and Society in Late Medieval Writings (London: Routledge, 1993). There is a passing reference to Rachel Fulton; the only recent scholarship mentioned at any length is by Holly Flora. Indeed, all scholarship for the entire book is from before 2012, except for one work cited in the footnotes of Part IV but not listed in the bibliography itself.

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