We are used to the traditional 14 stations of the Way of the Cross, following the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem. But there is another “Way of the Cross” that follows Jesus’ way to Calvary. But this one is marked by a bridge and angels in Rome.
When Pope Francis celebrates the annual Way of the Cross service on this Good Friday evening (April 15) at the Colosseum, he will be about a two-minute walk from these angels. The Bridge of the Angels (Ponte Sant’Angelo) crosses the Tiber River, leading from Rome’s center to the Vatican. It may not look very old, but the bridge dates to about 100 years after Christ died on the cross.
Emperor Hadrian constructed the Aelian Bridge in A.D. 135, to allow people in the city center to easily reach his huge, newly constructed mausoleum on the other bank of the river. At the time, the tallest building in Rome, this circular mausoleum was called the Hadrianeum or Sepulcrum Antoninorum.
The bridge has seven arches, spans 443 feet and is 24 feet above the river. According to engineeringRome.org, the bridge was built of travertine marble sheeting over tufa. Tufa is a less durable stone material than travertine, but is easier to work with. Most of Rome sits on tufa deposits and the catacombs were carved from it.
What is now the Bridge of Angels didn’t start out as a Christian monument, but as a regular bridge. By the sixth century, the nearby Bridge of Nero (Ponte Neronianus) had collapsed and the Aelian Bridge had become the main bridge for Christian pilgrims visiting the Vatican. By that time, it had become known as “the Bridge of St. Peter.”
Hadrian’s old tomb had also gained a new name: Castel Sant’Angelo. This was because of a vision of the Archangel Michael standing on the monument’s roof and sheathing his sword. This vision, reported by Pope Gregory I (d. A.D. 604), happened during a plague in Rome that ended shortly afterward. Today, there is a statue of Michael on top of Castel Sant’Angelo in memory of the vision.
By this time, the Roman Empire was a thing of the past and Hadrian’s tomb belonged to the popes. Over the centuries, the structure was used as a fortress, an escape route during siege, a papal residence, a prison and, today, it is a museum.
The now famous angels — 10 in number — were not added to the bridge until the Renaissance period. There had been a jubilee year in 1450. At the time, so many pilgrims traveled the bridge — which also had shops along its span — that part of the structure collapsed.
It was repaired and, in the early 16th century, Pope Clement VII began to collect a toll from those crossing it. He used the funds to have statues of St. Peter and St. Paul sculpted and placed at the end of the bridge.
The bridge seemed a bit empty. Various records show that there had been other statues on the bridge. So, In 1668, Pope Clement IX commissioned Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the sculptor and great architect of St. Peter’s Square and the baldachin over St. Peter’s main altar, to create 10 angels. Bernini was only able to complete two of the angels, with the help of his son, Paolo, before he died in 1680. These two angels never adorned the bridge because the pope liked them so well that he had them placed in the basilica of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte. Copies of the two — holding the crown of thorns and the superscription — now stand on the bridge.
The 10 angels were installed on the bridge in 1688. Each of the marble angels carries an instrument of the Passion, called the arma Christi — from nails to Veronica’s veil. There are also Latin inscriptions on the base on which each angel stands. This gives people the opportunity for reflection on the Way of the Cross as they cross the bridge.
- The first angel (on your right as you face Castel Sant’Angelo) holds the column to which Jesus was tied for his scourging. The inscription reads: “My throne is upon a column.” “Tronus meus in columna.”
- The second angel (on the left), holds whips. The inscription reads: “I’m ready for the scourge.” “In flagella paratus sum.”
- The third angel contemplates the Crown of Thorns. Its inscription reads: “The thorn is fastened upon me.” “In aerumna mea dum configitur spina.”
- The fourth angel holds the cloth of Veronica with the inscription: “Look upon the face of your Christ.” “Respice faciem Christi tui.”
- The fifth angel holds Jesus’ robes and the dice used to gamble for them. The inscription reads: “For my clothing they cast lots.” “Super vestimentum meum miserunt sortem.”
- The sixth angel holds the nails and the inscription reads: “They will look upon me whom they have pierced.” “Aspicient ad me quem confixerunt.”
- The seventh angel gazes upon the cross held in its arms. The inscription reads: “Dominion rests on his shoulders.” “Cuius principatus super humerum eius.”
- The eighth angel holds the familiar “INRI” (also called “the superscription”) which hung above the cross, proclaiming Jesus as “King of the Jews.” The inscription reads: “God has reigned from the tree.” “Regnavit a ligno deus.”
- The ninth angel holds up the sponge offered to the dying Christ as he hung on the cross. The inscription reads: “They gave me vinegar to drink.” “Portaverunt me aceto.”
- The 10th and final angel holds the lance which pierced Jesus’ side after his death. The inscription reads: “You have ravished my heart.” “Vulnerasti cor meum.”
Since 2000, a jubilee year, the Ponte Sant’Angelo has been a pedestrian-only bridge.