The Stations of the Cross are a Catholic devotion meant to evoke a contemplative experience of Jesus' last hours. The faithful follow a series of 14 pictorial images representing scenes of Jesus' condemnation, his road to Calvary, and his crucifixion. The images often are shown on the walls of Catholic churches so believers can move from one "station" to another, reflecting on Christ's suffering. The traditional 14 stations trace events as follows:
1: Jesus is condemned to death. [All the Gospels agree.]
2: Jesus bears his cross. [All the Gospels agree.]
3: Jesus falls the first time beneath the cross. [Although plausible, no falls are explicitly mentioned in the Gospels.]
4: Jesus meets his mother, Mary. [Although John 19:26 says Mary was standing nearby as Jesus died, the Gospel does not mention a meeting while he was carrying the cross.]
5: Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus to carry the cross. [Mark 15:21]
6: Veronica wipes the face of Jesus. [The theme of a woman wiping the sweat and blood from Jesus' face, using a veil that later bore his image, is not recorded in scripture. It most likely originated in a 14th-century French legend.]
7: Jesus falls a second time. [See number 3.]
8: Jesus speaks to the women of Jerusalem. [Luke 23:27-32]
9: Jesus falls a third time. [See number 3.]
10: Jesus is stripped of his garments. [All the Gospels agree. This is seen as a fulfillment of Psalm 22:18, which says, "They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing."]
11: Jesus is nailed to the cross. [Although the Gospels say Jesus was crucified, they do not specify the method used. Ropes were a possibility. However, John 20:27 implies nails were used; in it, the risen Christ invites Thomas to touch the holes in his hands.]
12: Jesus dies on the cross. [All the Gospels agree.]
13: Jesus is taken from the cross. [All the Gospels agree.]
14: Jesus is laid in the tomb. [All the Gospels agree.]
Based on 4th-century pilgrimages to the Holy Land to retrace the steps that Christ walked to Calvary, the Stations took shape over the centuries. In the early Middle Ages, those who couldn't make the trip to Jerusalem would build churches in their local areas with pictures representing the scenes of Jesus' journey. Franciscans in the late 18th century broadly popularized the Stations, says Lawrence Cunningham, professor of theology at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind.
The movie also includes all the scenes from the rosary's "Sorrowful Mysteries," subjects on which Catholics meditate while praying with beads. The five Sorrowful Mysteries are less specific than the Stations and have closer Gospel parallels. They are the Agony in the Garden, the Scourging at the Pillar, the Crowning with Thorns, the Carrying of the Cross, and the Crucifixion.
For example, in the film Jesus falls multiple times while bearing the cross. Though falls are not mentioned in the Gospels, three falls are specified in the Stations of the Cross.
In the movie, as Jesus carries the cross to Calvary, he bears the entire two-beamed cross. Normally, a person being crucified would carry only the horizontal beam, says Pinto. Perhaps, Pinto suggests, Gibson chose to use the entire cross in his movie because Jesus has been portrayed this way in popular artwork throughout the centuries.
Station Four, when Jesus meets Mary, also doesn't explicitly appear in the Gospels. Yet it is poignantly reflected in Gibson's work, says Pinto. "When Jesus meets his mother, it's perhaps the most powerful scene in the movie," he says. "She has a flashback to a time when Jesus was younger ...Every parent in the audience is going to have a heartbreaking moment."
Simon of Cyrene is mentioned in Mark 15:21, and his encounter with Jesus constitutes Station Five. According to Catholic legend, Simon experienced a conversion while assisting Christ. Although the Gospels do not dwell on Simon, Gibson does. "[He] expanded the amount of time that Simon was part of the film," Pinto says. "[Simon] actually even defends Jesus at one point."
The film also includes the sixth station--a woman called Veronica ministering to Jesus--which is not mentioned in the Gospels. "Veronica breaks through the crowd and boldly goes where no one is willing to go for fear of the Romans," says Pinto.
In the movie, after Christ has been removed from the cross, Mary, his mother, is seen embracing him. Again, though the scene is not based in scripture, it is often portrayed in paintings and sculptures. "It's a Pieta scene that will go down in history like Michelangelo's," says Tom Allen, editor of the website Catholic Exchange. "It's a Pieta for our times."
Although the Gospels and the Stations of the Cross provide the basis for much of the film, Gibson also relied upon the visions of prominent Catholic mystics, says Paul Thigpen, author of "The Passion, Reflections on the Suffering and Death of Jesus Christ." Thigpen's book discusses the private revelations of 19th century nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich, and 17th-century nun, Maria of Agreda.
The scriptures don't record every second of Christ's life or death, which leaves room for artistic interpretation, such as the incorporation of other texts, Thigpen says. So when making "The Passion of the Christ," Gibson used Emmerich's "The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ" and Maria of Agreda's "Mystical City of God, A Divine History of the Virgin Mother of God" to fill in the gaps.
In general, both Agreda and Emmerich speak of seeing demons surrounding the events of the Passion, although the Gospels never mention satanic interference. Further, at one point, while carrying his cross, Christ appears to be caressing it lovingly. Both women also suggest this idea.
When the persecution of Jesus by the Romans begins, Mary says, "It has begun, Lord. So be it." This statement is a summary of a long monologue that appears in Agreda's writings.
Having witnesses address Jesus during the trial scene as "The Bread of Life" does not occur in the Gospels, but does in Emmerich's account. Her revelations are also the basis for Nicodemus' objection to the Sanhedrin's proceedings and images of Christ chained in a subterranean prison with Mary nearby.
In addition, Pontius Pilate's wife is only briefly mentioned (and not by name) in the Gospels in Matthew 27:19, which says, "While Pilate was sitting on the judge's seat, his wife sent him this message: 'Don't have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.'" Her role in the film, however, is expanded in a manner consistent with Emmerich's visions. For instance, after Jesus is scourged, his wife, Claudia, sends linen cloths to Mary, Jesus' mother. Mary and Mary Magdalene use them to wipe Jesus' blood from the pavement. This entire scene comes from Emmerich's writings and does not appear in the Gospels.
In the movie, after Peter denies Jesus, he falls at Mary's feet and cries out, "I have denied him, mother!" Although the scripture records that Peter disassociated himself from Christ three times, this conversation with Mary is not in the Gospels but is found in Emmerich.
"I wasn't surprised to learn that Mel Gibson's 'The Passion of the Christ' drew from Emmerich's and Agreda's writings, which provides vivid depictions of Christ's suffering," Thigpen says. "The Gospel story leaves out many details, which must be supplied to tell the story in film. These details had to come from someone's imagination. Gibson found their visions compelling."
While Protestants and other non-Catholics may find the extra-biblical sources unfamiliar, there has not been an outcry that it is "too Catholic." The Stations of the Cross, the Sorrowful Mysteries, and the writings of Catholic mystics provide extra material with which Gibson created his artistic statement of faith. In effect, the film offers an insider's view of Catholic traditions to which the faithful have turned for centuries in an effort to understand Christ's sufferings.