The Passion of the Christ

The Passion of the Christ

Of Passions Medieval and Modern

The critics lashed Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ two years ago with a frenzy surpassed only by popular enthusiasm for the film. The reasons for the gap go deep—right to the film’s roots in medieval religious art.

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Jesus is covered in what seem a thousand rivulets of blood streaming forth from every pore of his tortured body; from his hands and feet and the wound in his side comes gushing gore that resembles blooming flowers or sea anemones; and still he is not dead. No, he rather stares down at you, his viewer, with a wide eyed look that—you suddenly realize—is not an expression of pain or even of reproach as much as it is simply the mirror of your own gaping gaze, riveted on his agony.

This is not, or at least not only, a scene from Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ. The description is of a statue that stood over the altar of a Benedictine convent during the later Middle Ages. It represents a standard type of devotional image that flourished from the fourteenth through the seventeenth centuries. The makers and viewers of these images placed them in churches as vivid expressions of the relationship between the believing Christian and the suffering of the human Christ. And the reports of responses to them, which range from mystical transport to self-flagellation to actual reproduction of the same wounds in the viewer’s body—“the stigmata”—these responses leave no doubt about the visceral intensity of the images’ effect.

These images were the cinema of the pre-modern era; they titillated, sensationalized, fascinated; to the minds of those who beheld them, they could and did speak, move, and bleed afresh in the presence of a comprehending devotee.

The viewer within

Another example: texts that encourage systematic visualization of the scenes of the Passion begin some 900 years ago, near the beginning of the twelfth century. And from this very beginning, the suffering viewer is given a double within the text, a viewer within the viewed who mirrors their own relationship to the suffering Christ: Mary. Even many non-Christian or lapsed Christian moderns still recognize the image of the Pietà, and know that it represents Mary holding the body of the dead Christ. Or think they know: the gospels do not report any such scene, and, in fact, the Pietà is not an image of Mary as much as it is simply a mirror of devotion: in it, the tortured flesh of the human God is blatantly displayed to the viewer’s gaze, while the scene itself seems to show a woman’s private mourning of her dead husband or son. The woman is Mary inasmuch as Mary models every Christian’s relationship to the “Son of Man.” But she ends up in this position not because “that’s the way it was,” but rather because her imagined experience of such pain renders it comprehensible, knowable, and tolerable to the worshiping viewer: horror becomes love and grief; shock is tempered to empathy and compassion.

In the weeks and months following its long-awaited release, Gibson’s cinematic realization of Christ’s path to the crucifixion was taken to task by the critics over and over again for excessive violence, for adding to and altering the account of the gospels, for not seeking “historical truth,” for leaving out all that was truly important—the preaching on love, the meaning of the Resurrection, and so on. Some of these criticisms were invited by inept defenses put up by the artist himself—the claim, “it is as it was,” and the like. But the same charges, any one and all of them together, could as easily be brought against any example of literary or visual art from the long tradition of devotion to the suffering Christ.

This is because the essence of this art lies elsewhere: not in content, but in effect, not in what is shown, but how it is experienced. Medieval religious art, rarely noted for sophistication or innovation in modern times, is exquisitely aware of aesthetic effect; it is not, to our minds, art: it never exists in and of, or for itself, but rather only as the accessory to an experience. If looked at this way, it reveals complexity and sophistication that the art of the most recent centuries no longer even dreams of.

Icon Productions
Icon’s icon: it’s iconic.

Whatever flaws it contains, Gibson’s film is nothing if not an attempt to revitalize the medieval tradition of devotion to the Passion through a modern medium. The debt to tradition is inscribed in the name of his production company, “ICON Productions,” while the logo elaborates the same point visually, featuring a detail from an icon of Mary that shows only her eyes peering out at the viewer. This gaze, Mary’s gaze, is no less the key to the medieval devotional experience of the passion than it is to Gibson’s translation of it into a new medium.

The medium is, in fact, the only thing that is “new” about this film, with the trivial exception of the insistence on historically authentic languages. Gibson’s imagery, the details (even the most minute) of his story, and, most of all, the amplification of sadistic mockery and boundless brutality, are profoundly unoriginal. They are traditional; they speak from and to a tradition in the visual language of that tradition. If they are successful, then that success must be assessed as the construction of an experience in a new medium. Or media: the cinematic experience, the great public celebration, has come and gone; its extension into the realm of home video is more reminiscent of private chapels or panel paintings, or, still more, of (no less intensely visual) meditational texts.

The debate and the real debate

Curiously, for all the pages and screens it managed to command, the discussion of the film rarely touched on the question of medium at all. History suggests that this omission is far more likely due to evasion than oversight. In both the critics’ polemic and the popular enthusiasm, the reception of Gibson’s film was the modern mirror of an age-old debate, that over the role of images in the communication of faith and the shaping of religious devotion.

To be sure, there was ample authority for suppression of the visual in the Judeo-Christian tradition, from the pagan veneration of idols to the second Commandment to the idea that the visible could never be more than a “dark mirror” or a deceiving shell, a distraction from the inner, invisible truth. For the book-learned clerical authorities of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, however, the anxiety over the medium image sprang ever-new from one source at least: the idea of an im-mediate medium—one that threatened to replace the clerics’ learned instruction with direct, emotional identification—was intolerable. Discussion of the inadequacy of images thus frequently turned around the idea of an ignorant viewer whose response would be powerful, but uninformed and misdirected.

Rather than examining the structure of devotional art or the nature of the medium itself, these arguments then focused on the absurdities or, worse, devilish perversions to which the viewer became susceptible. Similar anxiety and displaced critique could be overheard in the critics’ discussion over who, Romans or Jews, was assigned more of the blame. And still more clearly in the sudden obsession with “historical” accuracy. Neither point is relevant from a theological perspective; the second is a somewhat bizarre criterion to apply to the representation of a religious tradition. The unease over Gibson’s film was rife with the suggestion that it revealed something better left unseen and in so doing might unleash a response that would elude social control—better to insist, then, on the questions that reinstate the authority of scholarship. In our time this reaction does not so much protect ecclesiastical authority as it does the demigod that has displaced religion on the altar of truth: positivistic science.

Thus the visual construction of the film, its presence in its own medium, rarely made an appearance in the text-driven assessment of its effect. The most obvious instance of this neglect concerns the role of Mary. Maia Morgenstern’s Mary hardly entered into the critical appraisal, and where it did, neither her on-screen-prominence, nor the persistent visual counterpoint created between this presence and that of her son received mention. The film repeatedly builds to visual moments in which Mary’s gaze and Jesus’ meet, and in this visual dialogue seeks to present its viewers with an indication of their own position and with a sense of complicity in the completion of a destiny. Like Gibson’s logo, the film invites the viewer to see as Mary saw. More than anything else, it is about seeing as witnessing, and in nothing is it more profoundly akin to its medieval forebears.

The Marian Key

Medieval texts and pictures of the Passion existed to recreate the experience of “being there,” actually witnessing the moment that gave birth to the Christian faith. Mary is the key to early texts on the Passion for precisely this reason: she was there, and she—it was not only assumed but also fervently believed—experienced it as would no other. If Mary could stand it, then anyone could. Stabat mater dolorosa, “the grieving mother stood”—thus begins the hymn that became the fountainhead of a rich liturgical tradition. But not only did she stand, she spoke—to the inquiring medieval “viewer” who desired to know as she did, who desired to understand what she felt: “Tell us Mary, how it was, when . . . ? What did you feel, how did you bear it?” Such are the typical questions that structure these texts. Gibson’s film is methodically structured around the same questions, posed visually, by the camera.

Nevertheless, the opposite response, which sees only the cruelty and brutality of Christ’s torturers, is not so much one that denies this visual construction as it is a stunted or abortive response to the same. The exaggerated brutality on the screen produces a vacuum on the other side of the spectrum of human response—pity and compassion—that pulls the viewer irresistibly into the breach. The positive response becomes indispensable to the completion of a tolerable image of humanity and a locus of positive self-identification. This aesthetic of absence—one that insists on meaning completed only in response—is essential to the medieval use of art in religious experience.

Nowhere was it explored more intensively than in devotion to the Passion: in the experience of the suffering of the human God the devotee rediscovered his or her own humanity, and through it an affinity with the divine. But this assumes a viewer predisposed—not, I believe, necessarily previously instructed—to enter the experience, one who seeks such an identification with a religious mystery; it requires willing participation. The affirmative response is thus no more and no less available than the negative defense against it. This, finally, is the primary reason for the disparity in the reception of the film, and not, as so often claimed, an insider-outsider divide that left those uninstructed in Christian catechism out in the cold.

Let’s take one most striking example. Of all sequences in the film, the scourging of Christ was most frequently and vehemently singled out for sadistic excess. But few scenes more readily illustrate the opposite intention in visual construction. Estimates of the length of the scene in the press put it somewhere between eight and eleven minutes; I will assume the round number of eight for purposes of illustration. For how much of those eight minutes are we actually asked to view bruised or bleeding flesh? The camera in fact focuses repeatedly, and doubtless for a third to half the sequence, not on Jesus, but on Mary: Mary’s face in close-up, Mary turning away and then always returning, Mary murmuring, “Oh my son, when will you find that it has been enough?” For the remainder the camera shows us the scene of the whipping, but for somewhere near half of this we see nothing but the block to which Christ is chained and his trembling or convulsing hands. What is left—two, three minutes? Of these, one or two minutes are given to the sadistic frenzy of the whippers themselves, shown from below, so that the victim’s body is invisible. That would leave one to two minutes for shots of Christ’s body, but I doubt it is even this much (make-up artists are not, after all, magicians). Still, quantity is not really the point here. The point lies in the simply repeated sequence: the whippers, the body in pain, the suffering mother who “stands” and watches it. This relentless visual triangle merely projects the constellation of the Pietà into narrative action, the same way the stations of the Cross, as devotional moments, are all summarized and contained in the Pietà.

But, the objection is raised, what about the realism, the brutality of the sound track alone, the overwhelmingly “graphic” portrayal? “Graphic,” modern discourse has forgotten, means “image-like.” Or has it? None of these reservations pertains to subject matter; they rather all reflect the same anxiety over a medium.


The age-old mistrust of the image is, then, more alive and more active than the intellectual armor of its purveyors allows them to admit, or to recognize. But there are other reasons for the failure to enter into this reciprocal aesthetic experience. One is our preconditioning by the modern use of the medium itself.

Contemporary cinema regularly treats gratuitous violence as entertainment; we stage anesthetized suffering and death as a way of cultivating a fantasy of liberation from its power over us. Earlier periods, which we typically term “medieval”—an indiscriminate popular synonym for “barbaric”—treated these subjects differently, and, interestingly enough, did not place suffering and death solely on the stage, for entertainment, but also on the altar, where the spectators expected to be asked to reckon with their own consciences. Gibson did similarly, with one key difference: his altar is mass-market cinema, a point worthy of further attention.

But which is the real barbarism? Gibson’s choice of showing tormented hands on the block is rather eloquent visual metonymy for pain; Mary’s ever-present gaze is a constant reminder of its profound human consequences. The visual experience forces reflection on our relationship as spectators to pain and brutality as spectacle. Were every cinematic bloodbath portrayed in this way, violence would not be glamorous or merely sensational, but rather a painful reminder to the viewers of the fragility of their contentment, and of the universally humanizing power of suffering. This is why the violence of Gibson’s film was so often decried while in other films similar levels are accepted as a matter of course: In The Passion of the Christ violence is not entertaining; it makes its viewers uncomfortable—still worse, it makes them feel implicitly responsible.

There is at least one more reason for the blindsided response: we have become oblivious of this symbolically visual and visually symbolic language. Discussion of this film laid bare the principle that dominates, or rather dictates, our aesthetic experience today: the representatively visual. A Jew in a film is necessarily representative of all Jews; a woman is necessarily (and only) representative of women, a male body is on display as such, as male and body. But Gibson’s film, as well as the entire tradition on which it builds, operates on different, and equally valid assumptions: Mary is a woman, as God, here, is a man; thus she, as woman, is all of us, or humanity. We, all of us, are a mother and a suffering beloved (Mary Magdalene) to the dying Christ. Brutal Roman soldiers, bloodthirsty Jewish prelates are only Romans, soldiers, and Jews as Jesus, too, is a rabbi and a carpenter: if they “represent” anything, it is facets of human existence in its relationship to the divine. That is, they symbolize different facets of one truth. They are not “representative” of groups of human beings in relationship to each other.

And the moral of that story is . . .

The meaning of the film is thus delivered through its construction as a viewing experience in which each aspect, all players, represent the viewer’s own gaze. The visual triangle created by Mary’s spontaneous compassion, the soldiers’ seemingly insatiable appetite for brutality, and the bloodied God who suffers for the contradiction between them forms a symbolic microcosm of the spectrum of human experience and human response. Nothing encapsulates this message better than the heavily meaning-laden moments constructed around the meeting of Christ’s and Mary’s gazes: hers is the humanity for whose sake he perseveres; she embodies the most profound suffering and indelible humanity at the story’s core, an inner suffering that has no physical bounds and knows no end, but always returns to stand and witness.

The delivery of meaning through structured visual experience is the proper essence of film as a medium. In its refusal to preach and its relentless visual economy—one that equally shuns the complexity of historical narrative—Gibson’s film displays its true success: the realization of a unique potential contained in the conjunction between an age-old visual and literary tradition and the modern medium of film.

The most legitimate objection that can be raised against this attempt lies in Gibson’s presumption that today’s multiplex cinemas can be transformed indiscriminately into altars, places of worship. Mass-market cinema seeks to become an event, a phenomenon that no one will want to miss, and the challenge was more than fulfilled in this case: “everyone,” it seemed, went to see this film, regardless of religious persuasions or the lack of them.

The works of medieval religious art with which it shares so much, however, claimed the suffering of the Christian savior for a personal or communally specific devotional context. Their flourishing ran parallel to a process of personalization in religious art, one that saw the creation of private altarpieces and devotional books for individual use in a world that previously knew only monumental religious art and great bound volumes for use in the church. As such they did not pretend to a totalizing validity as the “true” representation of Scripture, becoming instead more and more the idiosyncratic products of their function.

Curiously, the second life that is now accorded all cinematic productions as home-video recordings allows Gibson’s film to approach medieval devotional art in venue and function, just as it previously had in content and aesthetic effect. We may learn little of this second reception of the film, as it lacks a public dimension, but it certainly has no less impact, though more confined to sympathetically inclined viewers.

As a result of its mass-market release, the experience of Gibson’s film may have contributed more to controversy and misunderstanding than to their opposites. But if it therefore bears some responsibility for a social failing, this does not make it any less a success as cinematic art. By relying on the aesthetic and symbolic language of a nearly forgotten tradition, The Passion exposes the blind spots in its viewers’ responses, and therewith the obsessions that have distorted the possibilities of representation in its own time. Such aesthetic jumps disturb and provoke, precisely because they refuse to be so easily dismissed. With its release on DVD, Gibson’s Passion is here to stay, and that may not be such a bad thing. :::

.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), an independent scholar in Medieval Studies, lives in Switzerland and writes regularly for both the German and English language press on film, religion, and European cultural history.

posted by editor ::: May 02, 2006 ::: philms :::