Passion play

From New World Encyclopedia
Contemporary passion play in Italy

A Passion play is a dramatic presentation depicting the Passion of Christ. It includes the trial, suffering, and death of Jesus of Nazareth. Historically, Passion plays grew out of the liturgy of the Catholic Church and developed into elaborate performances covering the entire history of God's providence of human redemption. In the play, the Passion is thought to play the central role. The passion play later evolved into more focused dramatic presentations dealing with the final events in Jesus' life, death, and resurrection.

The plays, which became increasingly elaborate and sometimes featured hundreds of actors, were highly popular in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. They also became more secularized and were even banned in some areas by Roman Catholic authorities, growing even more scarce after the Protestant Reformation. Proponents of the reformation objected to their pomp and pageantry. Several versions of the plays survived and they experienced a revival beginning in the late nineteenth century. The longest running currently-performed Passion play is the Oberammergau Passion Play, which has been performed since 1634, by the inhabitants of the village of Oberammergau in Bavaria, Germany.

Passion plays also figure in the history of antisemitism, as they placed blame squarely on the Jews for the death of Jesus. Some believe the plays resulted in a rise in anti-Jewish violence following performances. The Roman Catholic Church of the twentieth century issued guidelines cautioning Christians to avoid negative stereotypes of Jews in depicting the events surrounding Jesus life and death.

Passion plays often attract large crowds. Contemporary productions have been created throughout the world, some featuring hundreds of actors, huge stages, special effects, elaborate props, live animals, and audiences in the tens of thousands. The highly successful film, Passion of the Christ, produced and directed by Mel Gibson, is essentially a Hollywood version of a Passion play.

Origin and history

A liturgical drama in Chester, England

The Passion play originated in the ritual of the Catholic Church, which prescribes that on Good Friday, the Gospel should be sung in parts divided among various persons. First performed in Latin, then in vernacular languages, Passion plays evolved into their mature form by the fifteenth century. By this time, the plays were more dramatic than liturgical in form, involving elaborate props and well-rehearsed action. They also began to be written in rhyme, principally in German, but also in other vernacular languages.

As early as the late fourteenth century, the Vienna Passion embraced the entire providential history of human Redemption, beginning with the revolt and fall of Lucifer and ending with Jesus and his Twelve Apostles sitting at the Last Supper. The oldest Frankfort Passion play, that of Canon Baldemar von Peterwell (1350-1380), required two days to perform. Of this play only the Ordo sive Registrum has been preserved, containing stage directions and the first words of the dialogues. The Celtic versions of Cornwall and Brittany also exemplify this genre. In England, a record from 1422 shows that plays of this type took place at the feast of Corpus Christi, roughly two months after Easter. In 1475, they included The Trial and Flagellation of Christ and The Crucifixion. The plays were then expanded into a three day cycle.

The Passion play reached its highest development in the period 1400-1515, including such examples as the later Frankfort version (1467), the Alsfelder, and the Friedberger (1514) adaptations. Connected with this group are the Eger, the Donaueschingen, Augsburg, Freising, and Lucerne Passion plays. These dramas typically began with the creation of man and concluded with the coming of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost.

The Tirolese Passion play, taking its name from the Austrian region of Tirol, originated during this period. At Bozen, (Bolano, northern Italy) these plays were presented with great splendor and lasted seven days. Here, too, the innovation of placing the female roles in the hands of women was introduced, which did not become general practice until the seventeenth century. The Tirol plays soon formed a separate group, representing only scenes from the Passion and Resurrection, from which the term "Passion play" is derived.

Passion play depicts the Last Supper.

The magnificent productions of the Passion plays during the fifteenth century are connected with the growth and increasing self-confidence of the cities, which found its expression in gorgeous public festivals. Citizens and civil authorities considered it a point of honor to render the production as rich and diversified as possible. People of the most varied classes took part in the production, and frequently the number of actors was as high as 200 and even greater. It was undoubtedly no small task to drill the performers, particularly since the stage arrangements were still very primitive.

The stage was a wooden structure, almost as broad as it was long, elevated but slightly above the ground and open on all sides. Often performed in a public square, house formed the background; a balcony attached to the house represented Heaven. Under the balcony three crosses were erected. Along the sides of the stage stood the "houses" required for the production, indicated by fenced-in spaces or by four posts upon which a roof rested. The entrance into Hell was pictured by the mouth of a monster, through which the Devil and the souls captured or released during the plays passed back and forth. The actors entered in solemn procession, led by musicians or by a (herald). They remained on the stage all through the performance leaving their assigned places only to step forward to recite their lines. As each actor finished speaking, he returned to his place. The audience stood around the stage or looked on from the windows of neighboring houses. Occasionally platforms, called "bridges," were erected around the stage in the form of an amphitheater.

Scenery, action, and costumes

A Passion play in Poland. Earlier plays used contemporary rather than historical costumes.

The scenery was as simple as the stage. There were no side scenes, and consequently no stage perspective. A cask standing on end might represent the mountain on which Christ was tempted by the Devil; thunder is imitated by the report of a gun.

In a typical example, in order to signify that the Devil had entered into him, Judas holds a bird of black plumage before his mouth and makes it flutter. The suicide of Judas is an execution, in which Beelzebub performs the hangman's duty. He precedes the culprit up the ladder and draws Judas after him by a rope. Judas has a living black bird and the intestines of an animal concealed in the front of his clothing. When Satan tears open the garment, the bird flies away, and the intestines fall out, whereupon Judas and his executioner slide down into Hell on a rope.

A painted picture representing the soul is hung from the mouth of each of the two thieves on the cross; an angel takes the soul of the penitent, the Devil that of the impenitent thief. All costumes are contemporary, historical accuracy being ignored.

Although such conventions seem unsophisticated and unrealistic by today's standards, the plays made Jesus a much more human being than the static figure depicted in icons, readings, and Latin hymns in church. Through the Passion play, Christ walked, spoke in the vernacular language, and suffered dramatically as he was scourged and died on the Cross.


Despite their religious basis, Passion plays also developed increasingly secular elements. Both serious thought and lively humor were highly developed. In the sixteenth century, the plays often became festive occasions and lost their dignified character. The character of Master Grobianus, with his coarse and obscene jests, was introduced into some plays, while figures like Mary Magdalene offered additional opportunities for sexual innuendo. In time, the ecclesiastical authorities forbade the production of these secularized plays. Already in 1471, the bishop of Havelberg commanded his clergy to suppress the plays in their parish districts because of the disgraceful and irrelevant farces interspersed through the productions.

With the advent of the sixteenth century and the Protestant Reformation, European uneasiness with liturgical drama in general increased. The Synod of Strasburg of 1549 opposed the religious plays, and the Parliament of Paris of 1548 forbade the dramatic production of The Mysteries of the Passion of our Redeemer and other Spiritual Mysteries. A consequence of this policy was that secular plays were separated from religious ones, and the carnival plays gained in popularity. Passion plays came to be presented more rarely, particularly as the Reformation thought them inimical.

School dramas now came into vogue in both Catholic and Protestant academic institutions. In the seventeenth century, when the splendidly equipped Jesuit drama arose, the Passion plays, still largely secularized, were relegated to out-of-the-way villages and to the monasteries, particularly in Bavaria and Austria. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, during the Age of Enlightenment, efforts were made in Catholic Germany, particularly in Bavaria and the Tirol, to destroy even the remnants of the tradition of medieval plays.

Public interest in the Passion play developed again in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Brixlegg and Vorderthiersee in the Tirol, Horice na Sumave near Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic, and especially Oberammergau in Upper Bavaria began to attract large numbers to their plays once again.

The Jewish high priest (right) and Pontius Pilate (upper left) at the trial of Jesus (center right).

Jewish objections

Passion plays often produced the unfortunate side-effect of hatred and sometimes violence against Jews, who are typically presented as the villains in the dramatic scenes of Jesus' trial and condemnation, just before his crucifixion. Violence directed against Jews tended to escalate during Holy Week, and Jews in cities and towns throughout Europe learned to stay off the streets when Passion plays were being performed.

In 1965, the Second Vatican Council promulgated Nostra Aetate, officially repudiating antisemitism and specifically rejecting the idea that today's Jews can be held in any way responsible for the death of Jesus. Most Protestant churches have made similar declarations. The Catholic Church also urges caution in dramatic presentations of the Passion in light of their potential to cause anti-Jewish sentiment. The U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops published the pamphlet "Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion," emphasizing that Passion plays must avoid caricatures of Jews clamoring for the death of Jesus and other negative stereotypes.

Modern performances

The chief survivor of the Passion plays of former times is the Oberammergau Passion Play, first performed in the Bavarian village of Oberammergau, which continues to perform it every decade despite objections from Jewish groups that feel the performances promote anti-Semitism. First performed in 1634, the play's longevity is due in part to the past belief of villagers that their commitment to staging it resulted in God's blessing and especially that it protected them from the plague. In the mid-nineteenth century, it was the only such play produced in Bavaria. It is now performed in the last year of each decade, involving over 2,000 performers, musicians, and stage technicians, all of whom are residents of the village. The Oberammergau play has a running time of approximately seven hours, with a meal being served during the intermission. Audiences since 1930 have ranged from 420,000 to 530,000 during the play's five-month run.

More broadly, Passion plays have recently experienced a significant resurgence of popularity throughout the world among both Protestants and Catholics.


The set of a contemporary Italian Passion play

The tradition of Passion plays in Poland became popular again from the early twentieth century, although they suffered during the Communist period after World War II. Today the best known plays take place in Kałków, Kalwaria Pacławska, the Pallotines' Seminary in Ołtarzew, and the Sanctuary of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska. This play is one of the oldest and biggest in Europe, gathering around 100,000 pilgrims each year on Good Friday.

In the Netherlands, De Passiespelen is a re-enactment of the Passion taking place every five years. It is performed in the open air in Openluchttheater De Doolhof] in Tegelen. Originating in 1931, it has become an internationally acclaimed event drawing visitors from all over the world.

Another large-scale Passion play is Italy's La passione di Cristo in Sordevolo. In Catalonia, Spain, it is common for villages to present various passion plays every Easter, such as those in Esparreguera, Olesa de Montserrat, or Cervera, first documented in 1538. Olesa's 1996 production featured 726 persons on stage at the same time.

In the United Kingdom, the town of Leominster in Herefordshire holds an outdoor Passion play on Good Friday every four years, performed by volunteers from churches of all denominations in the town. The 2008 performance included original music written by local composer Liam Dunachie. BBC Three broadcast a modern musical version of a Passion play titled Manchester Passion in 2006.

The Americas

Christ carries his cross through a throng of onlookers

In Brazil, the Passion of the Christ is performed every year during Easter in a huge theater-city known as Nova Jerusalém in the arid backlands of Pernambuco. It is considered to be the largest open-air theater in the world. More than 500 actors appear on the nine separate stages within the stone walls of the city.

The Canadian Badlands Passion Play is performed annually in Drumheller, Alberta. Other performances take place in the amphitheatre in the hills of the Drumheller valley, Queensway Cathedral in Toronto, La Riviere Valley Manitoba, and Kingston, Ontario, at Kingston Gospel Temple

In the U.S., the longest running passion play has been performed in Union City, New Jersey, since 1915, and at the Park Theater since 1931. In Zion, Illinois, the Zion Passion Play has been performed at Christ Community Church since 1935. One of the most widely viewed Passion plays is "The Promise," performed near Glen Rose, Texas. Florida's Passion play is held annually in Wauchula at the Cattlemans Arena, beginning Good Friday and for the next several weeks following weekends. It has a cast of over 200 people and 150 animals. In Eureka Springs, Arkansas, "The Great Passion Play" has been seen by over 7.5 million people since 1968, making it the largest attended outdoor drama in the U.S. The Black Hills Passion Play is performed every summer in Spearfish, South Dakota.

Many individual Protestant churches now put on productions of Passion plays which draw many visitors. For example, The Glory Of Easter at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California is a popular family tradition to Southern Californians. It boasts a cast of hundreds, live animals, and flying angels, among other unique aspects.

The 2004 highly successful feature film, The Passion of the Christ (produced and directed by Mel Gibson), had a plot similar to that of Passion plays.

Asia and Oceania

In Australia, there are several major productions of The Passion staged annually in the lead up to Easter.

The Philippines has Passion plays called Senakulo, named after the Upper room, which companies perform during Holy Week. Actual crucifixions are reenacted outside of some Passion plays especially the City of San Fernando, Pampanga.

The Church of Immaculate Conception in Bangkok holds an annual Passion Play on Good Friday.

See also

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Catholic Church. Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion. Washington, D.C.: Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1988. ISBN 9781555862114.
  • Cook, Michael J. From Golgotha to Gibson, & Beyond: Use & Misuse of Gospel Truths in "Passion" Productions. Cincinnati: Michael J. Cook, 2003. OCLC 173030419.
  • Edwards, Robert. The Montecassino Passion and the Poetics of Medieval Drama. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977. ISBN 9780520031029.
  • Friedman, Saul S. The Oberammergau Passion Play: A Lance Against Civilization. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984. ISBN 9780809311538.
  • Goldstein, Leonard. The Origin of Medieval Drama. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2004. ISBN 9780838640043.
  • Sticca, Sandro. The Latin Passion Play: Its Origins and Development. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1970.OCLC 312655.

External links

All links retrieved November 18, 2022.


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