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    The PloughCast 52: Oberammergau and the Art of the Passion

    Pain and Passion, Part 3

    By Joy Marie Clarkson, William P. Hyland, Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black Roberts

    March 29, 2023

    About This Episode

    Joy Clarkson and William P. Hyland discuss why the Oberammergau Passion Play disappoints and how artists have imagined Jesus’ crucifixion.

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    The hosts and guests also discuss Joy’s visit to the Oberammergau passion play, its history, and the antisemitism that had marred it.

    They talk too about the most recent rewrite: the scriptwriter, as he removed the antisemitism, chose also to remove also any supernatural or religious content.

    They consider the changes in Medieval practices of piety – why was there such an increased emphasis on subjective compassion, emotional participation in the sufferings of Christ, after the turn of the millennium, and what was the origin of the increasing tendency to emphasize his humanity?

    Then, the guests recommend favorite pieces of art for Holy Week contemplation.

    Recommended Reading


    Section I: Oberammergau

    Susannah Black Roberts: Welcome back to the PloughCast! This is the third episode in our new series, covering our Pain and Passion issue. I’m Susannah Black Roberts, senior editor at Plough.

    In this episode, we’ll be speaking with one of our colleagues – the inimitable Joy Clarkson, Plough editor among many other things, and with church historian William P. Hyland.

    Joy Clarkson holds a PhD in theology from the Institute for Theology and the Arts at the University of Saint Andrews. She hosts Speaking with Joy, a popular podcast about art, theology, and culture, and writes books, including her most recent Aggressively Happy: a Realist’s Guide to Believing in the Goodness of Life. She is a bird watcher, a book collector, and a passionate evangelist for Yorkshire Gold tea. Twitter: @joynessthebrave

    William P. Hyland is a professor of theology at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland, specializing in Medieval Church history and theology, with a particular focus on monasticism, spirituality, and Mariology. Welcome, Joy and Bill!

    Peter Mommsen:

    “Jesus was killed on a cross. However, for 600 years, Christians shied away from representing him in his humiliation, torture, and shame. Not one of the ancient cycles representing sacred history and the life of Jesus in the mosaics of Ravenna, Rome, or North Africa contains a depiction of the crucifixion. Under Constantine, the cross becomes the insignia of Christian victory. On the altar or carried as a cult object in procession, it was devoid of a corpse. Indeed, it was often made of gold, and studded with jewels.”

    That’s a short passage from the priest and theologian Ivan Illich, and he’s writing an essay, which we’ll link to in the notes, among other things on portrayals of the crucifixion. Obviously for Christians, a turning point in human history and in art, one of the most famous moments portrayed. Today we’re going to talk about a theatrical portrayal of the crucifixion, the famous Oberammergau Passion plays, which have been performed for centuries in Germany. But we’re also going to talk more broadly about how do we portray what is, for Christians, the most sacred moment in history.

    So, before we get into that, let’s hear about the Oberammergau Passion play. With us is my fellow editor, Joy Clarkson, who was in Bavaria last year and saw the play. So, could you describe that for us? It’s a long play and a lot of people showing up there, and what’s the whole background? Why did they do that in the first place?

    Joy Clarkson: Well, lovely to be with you guys again. So, the Oberammergau Passion play is thought to be the longest, regularly produced amateur theatrical production in the world. So, it’s been put on by the townspeople of Oberammergau since the 1600s, and it started because as plagues were sweeping through Bavaria, this particular town made a vow to God that if he would spare their town, they would put on a production of the life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ every ten years. And so, they have done fairly faithfully since that time.

    There’ve been a few times that they missed their ten-year mark. Once was during the Napoleonic Wars, once was during the, actually, it was due to flu. So, the influenza after World War I, they didn’t have the plays and then again during World War II, but pretty much they’ve kept on having this play every ten years.

    It’s put on by the townspeople. And once you start getting nerdy about it, there’s all these funny little rules, like you can only participate in it if you are a member of the town. And not just that, but if you’ve been born there or you’ve lived there more than 10 years and you’re married to someone there. So, it’s like, you can’t just move there two years before and think you can be a part of the production. It’s very serious.

    The town elects who will be the director. So, it’s a very collective endeavor. And if you are a member of the town and you want to become a part of the play and you’re a man, then you have to stop shaving your beard on Ash Wednesday so that by the time the summer comes around, which is when they produce the play, you will be thoroughly scruffy and look like you belong in the first century. So, it’s just a really interesting thing. And this year I got to go on happenstance.

    One of my friends had bought tickets with somebody else, but then the person ended up not being able to go with her. And because they bought them two years before, she was like, “We have to use this ticket.” So, I got to ride the coattails of the unfortunate situation and we took the old, rickety train from Munich up into the mountains and it was glorious. It was the end of May, so it was quite warm already. I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like in July, but it was beautiful and there were flowers everywhere. And we got there a day early and there was almost nobody there. But the next day it’s just full to bursting of tourists. And that’s one of the other interesting things about the play was that it didn’t used to be such a tourist attraction. And then sometime in the nineteenth, twentieth century, it became this big cultural ordeal that kings and interesting philosophical figures like Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre went to and thought it was this cool thing.

    So, it became a global thing in the last century or two. And it certainly was a global thing, there were tourist groups from everywhere. They all had little flags. A lot of them were Roman Catholic. And then you go, and sorry, I’m gushing because it was quite a fun experience. You go and it is an all-day affair. So, apparently, it used to be twelve hours, but now it’s only five and a half hours. But you split it up so that you start in the afternoon and then you watch for two and a half hours and then you have a nice, Bavarian dinner in between and then you go and you finish it. So, that’s probably more detail than you intended for me to give, but that’s the general background.

    Peter Mommsen: I mean, that sounds fantastic. And I mean there’s literally hundreds of thousands of people who went to watch the last play in 2022. I guess it was postponed from their regular once-every-ten-year rhythm because of the pandemic.

    Joy Clarkson: Yeah, yeah.

    Peter Mommsen: So, this sounds very charming and old-worldly. And it is, of course, it’s in a way, as you write in your piece for Plough, which describes how powerful parts of the play were, really encouraging from a Christian point of view that so many people want to go and see the story of the Passion. But you call your piece “Oberammergau’s Broken Vow” or at least the editor of your piece did. So, there’s another side, and we’re going to get into that in a moment. Could you just describe though, before we get there, what is the play like when it opens? What do you see? I mean, you see all these villagers with their scruffy beards being Bible characters.

    Joy Clarkson: Yeah, well, so the thing that’s really cool about it and why I’m excited to be doing this podcast with, Bill, who’s, of course, a scholar of spirituality and Christianity especially and focuses on the medieval, is it feels very medieval in the sense that you go and I mean there are hundreds of people in the cast. So, in the opening sequence, you have hundreds of villagers and they come on, the choir comes on first, which is different from the crowd, and they’re all in these outfits that could be the 1600s, but also are modern. And so, it’s just really, it’s quite amazing.

    There’s hundreds of people, it’s very immersive. You feel like you’re in the story, which goes back to all the devotional practices that it was connected to. And they do these really cool tableaux. So, in between each scene, it’s pretty much straight out of the Gospels. And one of the things that is really cool about it, even though I did have my disappointments, is that it’s amazing to hear the Sermon on the Mount preached to you as a sermon rather than having exposited. So, in between the various scenes, you have these huge life-size, very colorful frozen pictures, mostly from the Old Testament, so you’ll have Adam and Eve fleeing the garden and there’s this cool dark tree or the giving of the law. And that helps people supposedly connect the Hebrew Bible with the New Testament and understanding how these stories interact.

    So, I mean, it’s a remarkable thing. I’m not a crier at plays and movies, but the opening sequence was just quite powerful with the huge amount of people there, with the huge cast, with the way that it immerses you in it, it’s unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced.

    Peter Mommsen: And that communal element of it – I mean, Bill, I don’t know, it seems something that is a little more what you’d associate with ideas of medieval communal religious celebration, and the whole background to it of this vow to perform it every ten years because the town was freed from the plague back in the seventeenth century, I mean, how well does this fit with the way a medieval Passion play would’ve been experienced, Bill?

    William P. Hyland: Well, of course, we don’t know all the details the way that we do for the one that Joy went to, but I think they would’ve very much been communal affairs because the original Passion plays grow out of the celebration of the liturgy, particularly the Good Friday liturgy, which would’ve been done in the church itself. And then gradually these plays were moved from the church space to the public space in the towns, which far from making it less communal, just allowed more and more people to be there and experience it. So, I think very much that’s something in continuity with the medieval mystery plays.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So, one of the things that we should probably touch on here, although we’re not going to be able to address it as fully as we would want to, it would be an episode in itself, or more than one episode, is that as we get into talking about it more, the one thing that I had known about the Oberammergau Passion Play before I read your piece, Joy, was that it’s notoriously anti-Semitic, and this is something that Hitler apparently loved and the society . . .

    Peter Mommsen: He said no work of art has so convincingly portrayed the Jewish menace.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. And the society out of which the original script emerged was a deeply anti-Semitic society. This was a society that did pogroms, that expelled Jews. And that’s all I knew about it, that it’s deeply sketchy because it’s anti-Semitic. I didn’t realize that in fact, the version that you saw had been rewritten. And there’s two different angles of interest, there are two different ways in which the vow of the play might be thought to be broken, and the anti-Semitism seems like one version of that brokenness. But actually, what you’re focusing on is something else, something that came into the play as the person who attempted to redo it took out the anti-Semitism. And so, do you want to talk about just what that was, what happened when this play was rewritten?

    Section II: The Broken Vow

    Joy Clarkson: Sure. So, I guess I should just take people out of their suspense and tell them why it was called the Broken Vow, which was basically that, they made this vow to portray the life, the Passion, and the resurrection of Jesus. And in the piece, I argue they basically only portray the life and the crucifixion because, in the final scene, they do this weird thing where they imply that the grieving Mary Magdalene decides that Jesus lives on in her heart. And so, that’s the end, which is a funny thing because a lot of Passion plays ended with the Passion, like Bill was saying, it was a Good Friday thing and Good Friday, you don’t go to the resurrection, you stop at the tomb. So, the fact that this Passion play said it would also portray the resurrection was unique in itself.

    So, I argued in the piece, not just that, but there were numerous things that the play just takes the emotional punch out of both the resurrection, but then it also almost tries to pad the viewers in acknowledging the great grief of the crucifixion and the wrong that’s done, which in our modern day we could say, well, it would be a misreading of the situation to say that that was primarily … that Jesus was really crucified by the empire, it’s not actually … the way this has been read throughout history in terrible ways against Jews is not really a proper reading of it.

    So, that’s what I meant by the broken vow in the sense that it doesn’t portray this final piece that they promised they would. And I wrestled with it as I was writing it because it is such a rabbit hole to go down if you want to do a bit of research on the play because it should have the anti-Semitism rewritten and written out of it, that’s a really good thing. But I wrestled with whether it actually was necessary, whether the changes that made it disappointing and emotionally unsatisfying were necessarily tied to making it less anti-Semitic.

    The other thing is interesting is that the really anti-Semitic version I don’t think was the original. So, my impression is that when the director rewrote it and the version that has now been approved by various Jewish advisory boards, he actually incorporated some of the older version. So, I think that there was a mid-edit that happened around the era of Hitler loving it and thinking it was the best thing that existed.

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah. I also did a deep dive into this script, and it was fascinating that it seems like the very first play was a genuinely medieval play from the 1400s, which then went through a bunch of different revisions. And it was actually, weirdly enough banned by the king back in, I believe, 1780 for being insufficiently reverent to its subject matter. And then there were two nineteenth-century rewrites, and the super anti-Semitic one was oddly enough, or maybe not, the one from the mid-nineteenth century, actually not that ancient.

    Joy Clarkson: Yeah, that’s what I also discovered.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So, was it the case that presumably the contemporary version that the one that you saw, which has Jesus being alive in Mary Magdalene’s heart, that is not the way that it was originally portrayed. So, was there originally a resurrection – or was there?

    Joy Clarkson: So, from the text that I’ve read, there is a resurrection, but it’s almost just straight out of the Gospels. It’s just, “Woman, why are you crying?” And then He reveals Himself.

    And actually, I’d be curious to hear, Bill, from you, did the early Passion plays have that same, I mean obviously there were huge issues with anti-Semitism at various points in history, but did the Passion plays often have that troubling theme?

    William P. Hyland: You mean the anti-Semitism? Yeah. Well, with the whole growth of devotion to the Passion in the high Middle Ages and late Middle Ages, the dark side of that at any given time could be anti-Semitism. And it could really range from something that was very anti-Semitic and accompanied by preaching that was very anti-Semitic. Or it could just be a very simple, almost aside in the writings of a devotional writer where he’ll just say how his own people rejected him and how bad that was and then move on. But something like that, people could take off with that in certain contexts when there were all sorts of other reasons why they were being anti-Semitic besides just the moment in the Passion narrative.

    So, it could always be present even in the writings of someone like Bonaventure, even though it’s not central, there could be individual lines and things like that. And then when you get to how it’s portrayed in art, of course, you can draw people in a certain way. But there could be writings alongside these meditations that would refer to the synagogue as a synagogue of beasts and things like that. Of course, in certain contexts, public context with inflammatory preachers and things that could very much come to the fore. So, I think it was always, it’s what I would call the dark side of intense devotion to the Passion.

    Any given person meditating on the Passion, it may never have entered their minds hundreds and hundreds of times of doing that. But others what could almost be in aside, like, “Look how his own people didn’t care,” or something that could be inflamed in a certain context into full-blown anti-Semitism, that makes sense. So, it could seem almost incidental, then was not incidental in lots of contexts.

    Peter Mommsen: And you can certainly imagine how in 1950, immediately after the Holocaust, when you have a bunch of German villagers all shouting out the lines from the Gospel of Matthew, “His blood be on us and on our children,” probably literally people who had just come from the Eastern Front, why that would’ve caused Arthur Miller, Leonard Bernstein and all to protests protest the play so vigorously, yeah.

    William P. Hyland: Absolutely.

    Joy Clarkson: Yeah.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I mean, one of the interesting things from what you guys have described is the way that this is going to sound incredibly banal, but it is interesting the way that the rewriting of the play throughout time reflects the concerns and the sense of what we’re doing here of that time. And it seems to me that the question that your piece asks, Joy, implicitly, “Is there a way to have a version of the Passion play or a version of the portrayal of the crucifixion that doesn’t soft-pedal the supernatural aspects of the story, that is faithful to the center of what we believe as Christians and yet doesn’t bring on board the anti-Semitism that had historically at various points, although not universally been attached to it?”

    Peter Mommsen: But the problem as Joy writes about it, the problem actually starts quite a bit earlier before the resurrection, right? You noted getting a little uncomfortable well before.

    Joy Clarkson: Yeah, well, I mean the thing that I think was wrong with the play, if you want to put it that way, from an artistic standpoint, not from an ideological standpoint, was just that it shied away from anything religious. The most powerful point of the play I think was actually the reading of the Shema. That was a really powerful and the most almost sacramental if you want to call it that, moment of the play, I think. But they did little things like they would take out when Jesus says at the Last Supper, they took out the part where he says, “This is my body, this is my blood.” So, they took away that element of it.

    So, they just tucked away that awkward supernatural thing. And then, yeah, there were just various moments where it just turned away from the possibility of belief. And I think that that was the thing that I thought, “I think I can understand needing to change big parts of this to make sure that it is not anti-Semitic and to atone for that in some way. Maybe there’s a level of aestheticism necessary to atone for how this was portrayed in the past, but it felt like it took away the supernatural parts, both of the Jewishness of Jesus and of the narrative that Christians believe in a way that made it a difficult narrative to watch.

    And that, to me, took away the best part of medieval in my mind, medieval devotional practices and medieval things concerning the Passion, which is this space where you’re allowed to encounter profound emotion, emotions like fear and grief and loss and compassion and empathy, and by taking away all of the supernatural moments, but also all of the painful moments. So, when Jesus is literally getting crucified, he’s like, “Don’t worry about it, told you this would happen.” And then his followers are all like, “It’s OK. He told us this would happen.” But that’s not what’s in the Gospels and the Gospels, they’re confused and upset and when He’s lost, they’re devastated. And so, I think that was what I felt.

    Those were the two things I felt were missing. One was the willingness just to let sad things be sad and then an unwillingness to engage with the idea that there actually might be a God, whether that was in a Christian way or in a Jewish way.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Does that ring true to you, Bill?

    William P. Hyland: Absolutely. I mean, when you look at medieval devotion to the Passion, which of course is very diverse, but you think of some of the classic forms like the hymn Stabat Mater about Mary standing at the foot of the cross. There’s nothing banal or just blithe reassurance at those moments at all. It’s quite the opposite. You’re encouraged to take the pain and the suffering very seriously in themselves, that they’re real things that are actually happening and are horrible, they’re horrible things and they’re not meant to be blithely dismissed, it’s quite the opposite. You’re encouraged to enter emotionally into the scene, not just as a historical exercise of the imagination, but because on the deepest level of the heart, you are taking the suffering very seriously.

    And of course, this is a whole other thing we could talk about if you want. It’s a way for people to actually contextualize their own suffering and take that seriously and the idea that they have a High Priest who understands what that means, I mean.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I’m so tempted to draw a connection, and I don’t know if this is a legitimate connection between the author of the new script’s unwillingness to genuinely grapple with both the grief and awfulness and the supernaturalism of the story, and his attempt to deal with the anti-Semitism in an erasing way. So, obviously, it is appropriate to take away the anti-Semitism from the play itself, but it seems that the contemporary mindset that it sounds like the new author of the play pretty much embodied, I mean, it’s always seemed to me that the solution to a sin, a real evil like anti-Semitism is to either make it be not that bad or make it be unforgivable or make it be just snipped out of history.

    And it seems to be that the promise of both the awfulness of Christ’s suffering and of the supernaturalism of the Gospel, the actual resurrection, is that you can face an evil like anti-Semitism and the like crucifixion of our Lord and not flinch away from it, not try to pretend that it’s something else. There’s a kind of nicification, that’s how it sounded to me that you described that the changes that were made, Joy, a niceness, yeah.

    Joy Clarkson: Well, I was just going to say quickly, I think that was something, the vibe you come off with from the current play, and I have heard other people who went to it and had a similar feeling, is this narrative of Jesus was a nice teacher who was killed for being a nice teacher. And we can take inspiration from that. But I think what I want to say about that arc through history, and when we think about people, whoever we might, Martin Luther Jr, or Gandhi or whatever, if you think of that arc, I don’t think we need to say that their deaths are inspirational. They’re bad, they’re evil, they’re a great sorrow. And I think we can say the same thing as Christians, we can say the joy of the Christian faith is that this arc that happens throughout all history happened even to God, and it wasn’t the end.

    But in saying that, you don’t need to say that the death or the loss was something other than a death and a loss. It’s like Bill is saying – it’s a real suffering. It’s something that is actually happening, something that the appropriate response to is grief. And I think that’s something we have to be able to admit in the face of sin and of terrible things, as you say, Susannah.

    Susannah Black Roberts: You had discussed a little bit earlier some things that you had read, actually, I think that Pete had also read about the author of the play, I forget . . .

    Joy Clarkson: Director Christian Stückl.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, yeah. Can you just talk a little bit about what the results of that deep dive was?

    Peter Mommsen: Well, yeah, I mean it’s pretty clear. So, he’s an interesting guy. He’s been the one who was, I believe first in 2000, was asked to take on the play, and they were still in the process of cleaning up things that the Jewish advisors to the play were suggesting being changed. And he, bit by bit, reworked the play. This latest version is the most reworked. There’s a bunch of interviews with him where he’s pretty open about the fact that he wants to de-church the play. There is also a Professor Ludwig Modl, who is a Roman Catholic professor of theology who is advising him.

    And of course, the background is that the Catholic Church itself in the 1970s told them they had to revise the play, right? I mean, just for the record, they said, “You have to get this up-to-date with the Vatican’s teaching and Nostra Aetate regarding the relationship of the Christian Church to the Jewish people.” And the Vatican actually refused to give permission to the play in the ’70s until they would do that. So, they’ve been chipping away at it.

    So, Christian Stückl’s been very busy on that, but he deliberately said, “I wanted to show the Jesus that reaches out to the poor, the widow, the marginalized.” He said with lines in the Gospel, like the one where Jesus says, “If a grain of corn does not fall into the earth and die . . .” He said, “I don’t know where to start with a line like that. So, I basically just left it out.” And I think when you get to the institution of the Lord’s Supper, that was also a deliberate choice to leave out the words of the institution that will be familiar from any Christian liturgy of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. And then likewise with the resurrection, he was asked, “What are we going to do with the resurrection?” He said, “Well, I decided just to show Mary Magdalene coming and saying, ‘He has risen.’ And how trustworthy is she? I leave it up to you.”

    Joy Clarkson: Also, I love that because as a Christian woman, I find it quite wonderful that the first person to preach the Gospel, to say Christ has risen, is a woman whose testimony wouldn’t have been counted in her time. So, I love that this liberalization of it results in the same attitude that would’ve been held towards women, which is, “Is she trustworthy? She’s probably just interfering.”

    Susannah Black Roberts: I mean, that is in fact how she was originally responded to.

    Peter Mommsen: And because we haven’t seen the reality, right? At least says the Gospel tells it of Jesus meeting her, all we’re left with is her bare assertion that He is risen.

    Joy Clarkson: Well. But in the play, you’re actually shown the opposite. She does not see Jesus, and then she just goes and tells everybody.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Oh my gosh.

    Joy Clarkson: So, that is interesting though. That interview does reveal what I intuited, which was just that anything that was difficult, when the disciples say, “This is a hard teaching.” Anything that’s a hard teaching, whether it’s the institution of the Lord’s Supper or the fact that we all have to die or the resurrection, it is just like he didn’t want to engage.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Just a little housekeeping before we continue with the rest of our discussion. Heads up – we have a new format! As opposed to each episode containing two segments, we’re switching to just one segment per episode. But you’re not getting any less content – rather than having six weeks on and six weeks off, we’re just going to be giving you an episode every single week. There’ll also continue to be PloughReads, audio versions of our articles, however, which you’ll be able to access through a different channel.

    And don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes! We’ll be back with the rest of our conversation with Joy Clarkson and William P. Hyland after the break.

    Section III: Portraying the Passion

    Peter Mommsen: So, there’s this broader question, you mentioned the play doesn’t really portray the suffering. That it’s actually a Passion that’s not sad. And here, Bill, it would be great to hear a little more about the development of the devotion to the Passion. We started with this quote from Ivan Illich where he is observing how the early Christians didn’t portray the crucifixion. Obviously, that changed by the time of Bonaventure. So, what happened? What was that whole tradition that this play is coming at the end of?

    William P. Hyland: Well, we don’t always know exactly what happened in people’s minds, but we can follow the literature to some degree and the art. And we know that by the early eleventh century, and some people have linked this to various feelings about what may not have happened at the turning of the millennium, but it’s hard to say. But we do know that gradually throughout the eleventh century, and definitely by the beginning of the twelfth in writings of someone like Anselm who had very influential prayers and meditations, there was a growing emphasis in general, not in a change of doctrine, but a devotional emphasis on what we might call the humanity of Christ. And that would mean thinking about every aspect of his life, including the idea that he was a baby, that he was nursed by his mother, he grew up, et cetera, and all those sorts of things.

    But of course, the ultimate taking the humanity seriously when people reflected on it was the Passion and the suffering and how awful it was, and what should our response be to that? And it’s clear from very early on that people more and more began to emphasize that one had to have an emotional response for it to have meaning. It wasn’t just an intellectual idea like, “Yes, Christ died for us, let’s move on, and we know that he died for us, et cetera. And how do we talk about that theologically?” People never stopped doing that but along with it, the idea that for it to have meaning for you personally, it had to engender some emotional connection, what they would’ve talked about as not just knowing it with the head, but feeling it in the heart.

    And so, that would go along with everything really from the whole Passion account, really from the events of Thursday through the crucifixion and the burial taking really as time passed more and more, taking literally every moment of that very seriously and thinking about what it meant. So, this was part of an arc really from the eleventh century on, emphasizing not just the suffering of Jesus, but the emotional response of people around him. So, we have very beautiful poems about the tears of Mary Magdalene in the twelfth century, and of course, the Virgin Mary, right? His mother witnessing all this, as bad as it was for other people to witness it, what would it be like for someone’s mother to be standing there witnessing this?

    Peter Mommsen: So, the Stabat Mater poem?

    William P. Hyland: That’s a great, that’s the most famous expression of it. It was written by a Franciscan; some say it was written by Bonaventure. It’s hard to say, in a sense, it doesn’t really matter right now, it comes out of that same... The Franciscans, they did not start the meditations on the Passion by any means, it had preceded them, but they really took it to another level, you might say. And the example of Francis himself, the stigmata, et cetera, was very important for that. So, the idea was, just to get into the whole mindset, the sufferings of Christ, the mental anguish of those who had to witness the suffering, and to imagine yourself, excuse me, as one of them. And so, this was a big trajectory of emphasizing the humanity of Christ with all the implications of that.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And this requires or implies a move towards art in a way, because naturally if what we’re trying to do is experience, not just an intellectualized or highly drawn out philosophical account of how the impassible God became passible, but in fact, experience that and experience ourselves as various of the disciples, experience ourselves truly responding to this reality as in a fully human way. The way that we do that basically, is art. That’s what we do.

    And once you start trying to make art that describes and calls out of us, that moves us, that makes us respond with passion in the technical sense that that moves us from the outside, you’re going to get bad art. So, whenever you have an attempt to do that, you’re going to have an imperfect attempt. And one of the things that I’d just love your guys’ reflection on is this was an imperfect attempt, this play. Should it not have been done? What do we do with imperfect attempts to portray this?

    William P. Hyland: It depends on how you want to define the word bad because people make art because it has meaning to them in a particular time and place. They’re not necessarily thinking what people will think of it 300 years later or whatever. So, the change in art that began around the year 1000 that began to show Christ dying or dead on the cross, is the same art that began to show Jesus looking like a real baby on Mary’s lap, et cetera. It’s all part of the same thing. And one can talk about it, whether it’s good art from a technical standpoint, and one can also talk about it based on the effect it’s supposed to have on those looking at it.

    Joy Clarkson: I think going off of that, I would say that I think our concept of what art is, is quite modern. I think maybe prior to … I think it’s a gradual change, but having the idea of art that was just created to create something beautiful, that’s really quite a modern idea. Really, when you look at medieval art, they weren’t like, “I’m going to create an artwork.” There was a specific purpose, and often the purpose was to either help you worship, to help you know a Bible story, or to help you feel things. And so, judging it based on the idea of art that we have now, just I think, is a different thing.

    And I think that actually creates an interesting way to think about how to engage with art now. Because if you think about the purpose of these works of art, not as creating some just nice aesthetic object, but instead as being something that’s supposed to have … there’s a great book, I can’t remember the name of by Sarah McNamer, but she talks about the fact that these works of art, whether it was a crucifix or a Passion play, they were meant to do serious practical work. So, the question wasn’t, “Is this beautiful?” or “Is it perfect?” But is it doing the serious practical work of helping me to engage with the Passion and draw closer to Jesus? And so, in that way, I think, Bill, and this is a difficult tail to chase, but a part of what you might say about the imperfect attempt is what posture is this work of art inviting you into? Is it inviting you to be close to Jesus? Is it inviting you to hate a certain people group?

    And that’s something you can actually, I think, engage with more than the question of, is it good art or not? But I would also say that I don’t think that the Oberammergau Play now has the same goals. If you think of it as the original thing, having this serious, practical work to do of helping you draw close to Jesus and share in His suffering. One of the things, and I’ll stop rambling, that’s really central to this, to the art in this devotional movement, is the idea of compassion, which literally means to suffer with. And when you said, Peter, that it’s a Passion without suffering, it’s not without suffering, it’s a very violent, a very visceral play. You do see Him be beaten, you do see Him be put on the cross, and those are really difficult things, but it’s a play without compassion.

    It’s a play that wants to stop you from suffering with him too much because it keeps on telling you, “It’s fine. His people knew, it’s going to be OK.” And so, it’s almost like it gets in the way of what the goal of the Passion play was meant to be, which is to have you witness Christ’s suffering and take it in as your own. So, it’s not that there wasn’t suffering, but that it almost discouraged you from engaging with it too much.

    Susannah Black Roberts: That’s fascinating. So, what would you say the goal of the version of the play that you saw is or was?

    Joy Clarkson: I think it’s a cultural artifact. It’s something that has been produced over and over again that has a living aspect to it, that it’s continuing to evolve and respond to the time that it’s in, and it’s an aesthetic object, do you know what I mean? In the sense that it is, I don’t think it was primarily created for piety or … It’s really funny actually, after this, we went into … I don’t think it was created for piety, even though you have tons of these groups that literally are piety-centric, all these lovely Catholic tour groups. They went into the intermission right after the Last Supper, and I asked one of the Catholic priests, “What did you think about the fact they didn’t have the institution?” And he was like, “Oh, I didn’t even notice.” And which I thought maybe they hadn’t included it out of respect for the liturgy, but I don’t think that was the case. So, yeah, I think it was an aesthetic object that has some cultural value.

    Section IV: Being Transformed: Artistic Contemplation and Compassion in Practice

    Peter Mommsen: To change our text slightly. And this is getting perhaps just too adventurous, but I’d be interested to find out, I mean, I’d like to contrast that two works of art on the Passion that were clearly done for a devotional purpose, and one is famous from the Middle Ages, Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece and the other is musical, which is more immersive. So, Johann Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, or you could take the Saint John Passion as well. What is it about those artworks that invite us, and maybe by way of distinction, how is that different from say, Mel Gibson’s Passion movie, which many pious Christians also went to see when it came out?

    Joy Clarkson: I’ve never actually, I’m going to say this, I’ve never actually seen The Passion because I’ve heard that it’s gratuitously violent and slightly anti-Semitic. Is that … am I wrong?

    Peter Mommsen: That is what lots of people said when it came out, yes.

    Joy Clarkson: I’m seeing shaking and nodding. Well, like agreeing heads.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I’ve also never seen it for that reason.

    Joy Clarkson: I mean, I think that what I love about, I love the Saint Matthew Passion, and what I love about the way he uses the chorale is they literally open it up by saying, “Come daughters, help me lament.” So, it literally invites you to enter this story and to grieve over Jesus’s death. It’s not a spectacle that you’re witnessing. You’re not witnessing this violent spectacle. You are a participant in the grief that transpires, which seems different to me than whatever is going on with Mel Gibson.

    William P. Hyland: And if you’re … whatever Mel Gibson, but if you’re looking at the painting you refer to the Grünewald, well, I mean, this might sound silly, but you’re not watching a movie. You’re not dragged along to watch a video representation. I think there’s a reason why the New Testament is not a video besides the fact that it was 2000 years ago. It’s written in a particular way that is the opposite of having a film of the first century. And if you’re standing and looking at a painting of the crucifix, it just focuses your attention in a completely different way than if you’re trying to follow a graphic film that just is portraying violence in a supposedly realistic way.

    I think it enables you to have a totally different idea of what concentration means and focusing yourself internally on something that is deliberately not a film and moving along. So, I think it’s a profoundly deeper experience to meditate on a painting like Grünewald than it is to sit and watch any modern movie about the Passion, let alone Gibson’s thing, which is just immersing you in all this violence at a pace that is the opposite of meditative.

    Peter Mommsen: And by the same token, Bach’s pieces, these constant invitations to meditation. I mean, the arias are interspersing where you just sit there and think for six, seven minutes about the woman in Bethany washing His feet, and you have to stop.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I mean, it does seem to me that the experience of listening to something like the Saint Matthew Passion or looking at a piece of devotional art, what it literally does is make room for and invite your own prayer. It literally does that. There’s no time to … I’ve, at various points in my life, found myself praying while watching movies, but there’s not really, it’s not easy and it doesn’t invite it. These are artistic forms that literally make space for prayer and make space for an imaginative experience of yourself in that story, which is where we started. This is a really … yeah, go ahead.

    Joy Clarkson: Just to say it invites you into a different posture, I think.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. This is a very, probably can of worms question that we probably don’t have time to get into. But I just was interested in whether you, Bill, had a, or you, Joy, had a thought about it. You mentioned, Bill, at the beginning that you thought that possibly some of the difference, the interiorization or subjectifization or drive towards portraying Christ as suffering was potentially the result of Him not coming back in the year 1000 or 1033 or the expectation of the millennium that didn’t happen. That’s interesting, and I wonder whether you could say more about that or speculate otherwise about what that change was, because it almost seems to be, yes, it’s a new way of relating to Christ, but it also seems to be a new way of understanding the human self, which I don’t think is totally discontinuous with earlier ways of understanding but does seem to be, we’re getting towards the modern self in a way. Does that make sense?

    William P. Hyland: Yeah. Well, it’s a big question, but apart from the millennial issue, which is very hard to prove, I mean, when all is said and done, you have a few writings of certain monks and certain contexts talking about … most people probably didn’t really know what year it was, for example, they didn’t have calendars in their house and things like that, but they would’ve heard. But I think the last thing that you said, historians have talked a lot about how by the late eleventh century, perhaps because of changing social situations in Europe and Latin Christendom, the growth of towns, the growth of different types of consciousness, civic and otherwise. A famous historian once talked about the discovery of the individual as being something that in the twelfth century was present and talked about in almost every area of written life.

    For instance, the discovery of the importance of human intention, say, in the sacrament of penance, intention among criminals, and understanding the law in terms of what was the intention, et cetera. And you begin to have autobiographical writings again. And so, there’s lots of different things that seem to point toward in a sense, the birth of the modern individual, even though of course it was very different than, it had nothing to do with say, modern ideas of rugged individualism or anything like that because the individualism was very much still experienced in a communal context, whether it was the town or the guild or the monastery or the family.

    But nevertheless, there’s no doubt that at least historically, this growing emphasis on the individual and their place in the world is changing at the same time as art is becoming more realistic, mostly religious art, like I say, pictures of the Virgin and Child or the crucifix, but also portraits are beginning. They’re beginning to actually look like people as opposed to just the idea of what a king or a saint should look like and things like that. So, there’s a massive thing going on when the shift in devotion is happening. It’s all happening at the same time. And so, there’s no doubt that the consciousness of the interior life of the individual person was something that was being widely addressed across society in a way that was just very different than how it had been talked about in the early Middle Ages. There’s no doubt about that.

    The exact relationships between it all, it’s all happening at the same time. So, it’s very difficult to sort that out. There’s no doubt that this growing emphasis on the humanity of Christ and Mary and the people in the stories is happening when people are also paying more attention to what today we would call the psychology of people.

    Susannah Black Roberts: It does seem to me that, as much as I hate the Dark Ages trope, it does also seem to be the recovery of something because obviously you can see that attention to the specific personhood of the subject of a bust or something in classical and especially late classical sculpture. And someone like Augustine is obviously extraordinarily familiar with the workings of his own mind and sees himself as, if there was ever someone with main character syndrome, I mean, I love Augustine, but it does seem to be the recovery of something that was lost for a couple of hundred years.

    William P. Hyland: Yeah. Well, when you look at literature in the early Middle Ages, like something like Beowulf or something, you have a choice, but your choice is, “Will I be a brave warrior or will I run away?” In other words, you do have choices, will I be faithful to my spouse or will I be an adulterer? Or in other words, you can be good at what your job is, and there’s certainly room for those basic decisions, but that’s really different, isn’t it? Than thinking about people defining themselves in terms of their communal responsibilities, but also their interior life. And people have a lot more, it could go into it a lot more, but there’s all different types of organized religious life beginning in the twelfth century that gives people a lot more choices, men and women, about what sort of lives they want to lead.

    So, absolutely, I mean, that doesn’t mean that early medieval people didn’t have complex thoughts, I’m sure, but the whole culture that we have, the literary and artistic survivals, that isn’t what they thought they should be talking about when they produced art. That might be a good way to put it.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So, as a way of wrapping this up, do you guys want to just give our readers your suggestions for as well as the Grünewald altarpiece that we discussed and the Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, what are the pieces of art that you would suggest for Lent and devotion, for doing that thing that people started to do more in the eleventh century for entering into an experience of Christ suffering through these artistic means?

    Peter Mommsen: What is the good form of what the Oberammergau Passion play was meant to do?

    William P. Hyland: Yeah, I would say two things that are, I would say maybe a work by Bonaventure called The Tree of Life, which covers the whole life of Christ, but characteristically a third of it is about the Passion, but that’s an early masterpiece about how to meditate on these things, but it’s not burdensome or too long some later things. So, I would recommend that. And again, I just think listening to some beautiful versions like Palestrina of the Stabat Mater and having a Latin and English text in front of you while you do it, at least for part of it, but other times just to close your eyes and let it . . .

    And I think I would say not to go on too long, but something like Palestrina is very classic, but then Arvo Pärt, he has a very different, very powerful version of the Stabat Mater. When I used to teach this, I would play a few minutes of really different versions of it, like a medieval one, a Baroque one, and then Arvo Pärt. And I think to take some time with that hymn, both reading the text, but then just putting it aside because the last thing I’ll say is we have to remember that most people in the Middle Ages who meditated on this art couldn’t read. And that’s a whole other dimension, isn’t it? Of what they got out of things and how important it was. So, I’ll stop there.

    Susannah Black Roberts: How about you, Joy?

    Joy Clarkson: I knew Bill was going to say Bonaventure because he introduced me to Bonaventure and is one of the main reasons for my deep love for Bonaventure. I’m going to suggest Julian of Norwich and her revelations, her meditations, and revelations of divine love. I think we don’t often think this, but that text really did grow out of an era of devotion to the Passion. And so, I went to a talk recently to help me think about this, but when she’s meditating through these visions that she has about Christ and His suffering, she’s doing it in the line and in the tradition of people like Bonaventure. And this was actually meant to be read aloud is what the talk I was at recently says. It’s meant to be this communal experience of meditating through Christ’s suffering.

    And I think that’s a really interesting one when you come to the question of anti-Semitism because she has this moment where she’s like, “I looked to see if the Jews were enemies, but I couldn’t see that they were enemies. I don’t think they were.” And so, that’s an interesting juxtaposition to maybe some of the tensions in some of the other Passion narratives. But I just also love how much she looks at Christ’s suffering. She shares in it, she identifies it with her own suffering in this deeply and intimately personal, but also philosophical way. She’s such a profound thinker. I think it’s easy to put people like Julian in a box as just devotional, but she’s devotional and theological and all those things are happening together, so . . .

    William P. Hyland: She should be a doctor in the church. I think she should be a doctor as well as just considered a mystic.

    Joy Clarkson: I agree.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Well, thank you, guys, so much. There are some suggestions for your own Lent and devotional practices, listeners, and we’re just very grateful to you guys for giving us the time and for writing this piece together. And we will have a link to it in the show notes as well as to all the other things that you’ve suggested and that we’ve discussed. Thank you so much.

    Peter Mommsen: Thank you both so much. It’s been great talking and great to meet you, Bill.

    William P. Hyland: Great to meet you too.

    Joy Clarkson: Thank you.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Thanks for listening, be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast needs met, and share with your friends! For a lot more content like this, check out for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe: $36/year will get you the print magazine, or for $99/year you can become a member of Plough. That membership carries a whole range of benefits, from free books, to regular calls with the editors, to invitations to special events, and the occasional gift. Go to to learn more.

    Contributed By JoyClarkson2 Joy Marie Clarkson

    Joy Marie Clarkson holds a PhD in theology from the Institute for Theology and the Arts at the University of Saint Andrews. She hosts Speaking with Joy, a popular podcast about art, theology, and culture, and writes books.

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    Contributed By William P. Hyland William P. Hyland

    William P. Hyland teaches church history in the School of Divinity at the University of St Andrews.

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    Contributed By portrait of Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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