John, (19, 17-18): and he bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of a skull, which is called in the Hebrew Golgotha: where they crucified him, and two others with him, on either side one, and Jesus in the midst.
The ascent to Calvary is an event narrated in the four gospels (Matthew 27:31 to 34; Mark 15: 20-23; Luke 23:26-33 and John 19:17-18). All four gospels briefly narrate the episode. Only Luke adds a few details (the dialogue with the women) and John writes that Jesus carried the cross. The three synoptic gospels state that Simon of Cyrene carried the cross. Nonetheless, the convicted man did not carry the cross, only the horizontal pole. Perhaps John may have wished to deny the rumour, which had spread that Simon was put on the cross because he was carrying it, and not Jesus. This was definitely defamatory towards Jesus.
The gospel of Luke (23: 26-32) describes the events: “and as they led him away, they laid hold upon one Simon, a Cyrenian, coming out of the country, and on him they laid the cross, that he might bear it after Jesus. And there followed him a great company of people, and of women, which also bewailed and lamented him.
But Jesus turning unto them said, daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children. For, behold, the days are coming, in which they shall say, blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bare, and the paps which never gave suck.
Then shall they begin to say to the mountains, fall on us; and to the hills, cover us. for if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry? And there were also two other, malefactors, led with him to be put to death.”
Exception made for the Christian exegesis, the lack of specific details in the gospels induces one to assume that Jesus was probably not carrying the cross when he ascended Golgotha; rather, only the horizontal pole and he was no longer wearing the crown of thorns, which most likely had been removed when he was dressed in the tunic and then lead to the site of the crucifixion. It has been narrated that Jesus fell three times on the ascent to Calvary, which is actually a creation of the apologists, who wanted to present the suffering of the Messiah in the most terrible manner in order to make the event appear more dramatic than the simple description in the gospels. The story of the Via Crucis, way of the cross, and its devotional aspect has been traced by some scholars from the visits of Mary, mother of Jesus, at the sites of the passion to Jerusalem. Most historians, however, recognize it as the beginning of the specific devotion to Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan tradition.
Around 1294, the Dominican friar, Rinaldo De Monte Crucis narrated his ascent to the holy sepulchre: “per viam, per quam ascendit Christus, baiulans sibi crucem”, in various stages, which he called stations: the place of the sentencing to death of Jesus; the encounter with the holy women; giving the cross to Simon of Cyrene and the other episodes of the passion and finally, the death of Jesus on the cross. Originally, Via Crucis, the way of the cross, signified travelling to physically visit the places where Jesus had suffered and was put to death. Since such a pilgrimage was impossible to accomplish for most people, representing the stations of the cross in churches was the way to ideally bring each and every believer to Jerusalem. The representations of the various excruciating episodes that occurred along the way helped to engage the viewers in a powerful emotional charge. The stations of the cross is an occasion for prayer and reflection as well as a journey to repent.
Early Christian tradition sustains that the Madonna met the Lord her Son, along the road to Calvary. In Jerusalem, along the route Jesus walked carrying the cross, there is a church dedicated to “Our Lady of the spasm”. This church dates back to the fifth century and represents the fourth station of the cross. The encounter between the Son and the Mother, the redeemer and the co-redemptrix was extremely painful. They united to complete the last and final step for salvation and universal redemption, crowned with the bloody immolation of Jesus in his crucified body bearing three nails in his hands and feet, and wounded to the heart by a lance. Mary was pierced by the “sword” that the old holy man, Simeon had prophesied in the temple of Jerusalem (Luke 2, 34,35) ... “and Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed”.
The gospel does not explicitly describe the encounter of Mary and Jesus along the way to Calvary. But certainly there was a meeting. since Jesus definitely encountered the “daughters of Jerusalem”, it is even more likely that he encountered Mary while he was carrying the cross.
Historically, during the time of Jesus, Calvary was just outside the walls of Jerusalem to the northwest, inside the old city (in more recent times the walls have been moved farther north). Calvary is a low rocky mound, only a few meters high and is currently incorporated in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, particularly the chapel of the crucifixion, which is managed by the friars minor, custodians of the holy land, and the greek orthodox chapel of death. When these edifices were built, they were raised up a few meters, to conceal and entirely enclose the rock. The rock is partially visible through a glass window and can be touched by putting one’s hand in a hole in the floor below the altar erected on top of it. This is believed to be the exact sport where Jesus was crucified. In the nineteenth century, protestants suggested another location, further to the North, because it is in the shape of a skull and is near an ancient tomb known as the Garden tomb. It is certain and documented that the hill was used as a place of execution for the sentence of crucifixion which was the type of execution the Romans preferred. Its name comes from the latin calvaria, which means “place of the skull”; the place is also called Golgotha (in Aramaic, Gulgata) with the same meaning “place of the skull” derived from its rounded shape like a skullcap. Origen (third century) believed that Golgotha was the burial place of Adam. This belief symbolically reaffirmed the role of Jesus as the “new Adam”, founder of the new redeemed humanity. It is due to this affirmation that in representations of the crucifixion, the skull of adam is often depicted at the foot of the cross.
In the early centuries, the fathers of the Church and ecclesiastical writers interpreted the crucified Christ above all as the glorious victor, who by way of his death triumphed over sin. New Testament writings offer many examples of this interpretation. According to Saint Leo the Via Crucis is a triumphal march and the cross Jesus is carrying is the trophy indicating the definitive victory over death. Works of art in the first ten centuries of the Christian era shared this interpretation. Jesus was portrayed in a dignified manner, not suffering nor ill- treated; rather, a necessary sacrifice.
Ghiberti created the panel ascent to Calvary on the North Door of the Baptistery of Florence in a later stage of work and it was probably among the last panels to be created together with the capture of Christ, Pentecost and the flagellation, where the compositions appear structured around a single central figurative element. (Richard Krautheimer, 1937-1956).
The figure of Christ dominates the scene. He is holding the cross in his arms. His posture is serene, elegant and respectful, highlighted by the drapery of his tunic that covers his body entirely, heritage of gothic iconography. to the right of Jesus, there is the pivotal figure of a soldier who is standing with his back to the viewers and with his shield is separating Jesus and the guards from the crowd following him. The Madonna stands out in the crowd sadly looking at her son in resignation. The tumultuousness of the crowd seems suddenly silenced by the mute dialogue of looks and body language between the mother and the son, which characterize the representation. In the background the architecture of the city of Jerusalem is visible to emphasize that the event is taking place outside the city walls. The scene is set on a rocky base that protrudes from the quatrefoil frame, which Ghiberti used repeatedly in his panels.
The iconography of the event has been replicated in art through the centuries in many variations, mostly representing the Christian world and particularly highlighting the themes described in the stations of the cross.