Wednesday, March 03, 2004

At last... The Passion

The Passion of the Christ revives, directly or by implication, almost every topos of anti-Judaism of the European Middle Ages. Before discussing the movie’s appearances and treatments of these topoi, however, I want to explain the film’s genre and historical background in order to explain where Gibson gets these images, how and why he reuses them, and what his other options could be.

The Passion of the Christ makes no attempt to depict a historical Jesus, or even a Jesus based on one or more of the Gospels. Rather, it enacts a passion play, in which a myth of suffering is dramatized, not in order to convey facts about Jesus’s life, but instead to permit viewers to suffer alongside Christ (1) and receive spiritual credit for his martyrdom. The genre is closely related not only to passion plays but to meditationes vitae Christi, or meditations on the life of Christ, medieval texts aimed at strengthening the piety of lay (often female) audiences who were thought to lack the theological sophistication necessary to ponder the Church Fathers.

Several women are known to have written their own treatments of Christ’s passion (i.e. his suffering and death). In the thirteenth century, Elizabeth of Spalbeck actually inscribed a passion narrative on her body, wearing the stigmata, or Christ’s wounds, on her own hands, feet and side, and modeled Christ’s death every day in a sort of ritual dance. The fourteenth-century anchoress Julian of Norwich wrote that she wished to “have beene that time with Mary Magdalen and with other that were Crists lovers, and therefore I desired a bodily sight wherein I might have more knowledge of the bodily peynes of our Saviour, and of the compassion our Lady and of all His trew lovers that seene that time His peynes, for I would be one of them and suffer with Him.” (2) As the blogger Naomi Chana and others have pointed out, Gibson based The Passion on the accounts of the early modern female mystics Maria de Agreda (1602-1665) and Anne Katherine Emmerich (1774-1824), both of whose visionary narratives fall within the meditatio vitae Christi tradition.

I focus on the gendered readings and writings of meditationes vitae Christi here because they play up an important point in which the meditationes and passion plays differ from Mel Gibson’s Passion. Medieval dramatic treatments of the death of Jesus were written and performed in the vernacular, in order to facilitate comprehension by the less-educated. Gibson’s choice to make his characters speak in Aramaic and Latin distances viewers from the verbal elements of the story, forcing them to focus on the visual and nonverbal cues the film provides. It also creates a spurious impression of the film’s canonicity; foreign, sacred languages can seem somehow more authentic than English.

Another aspect of the medieval and early modern narratives written for and perhaps by women is the way in which they often make women the most sympathetic point-of-view characters. The women in the story become the points of entry for the female readers and writers. Maria de Agreda viewed the life and death of Jesus through the figure of his mother Mary, who told Maria about Jesus’s life in a series of visions. In Sor Maria’s Mystical City of God, Mary claimed to witness scenes for which she was not present in any of the Gospels, sometimes through physical presence and sometimes through visionary experience; Sor Maria learned about all these moments through Mary. While Anne Katherine Emmerich claimed to have seen the life and death of Christ herself, she paid special attention to the women in her visions. Not only Mary and Mary Magdalene, but Claudia, wife of Pilate, and Seraphia (or Veronica), a woman who wipes Christ’s face, held crucial roles in Emmerich’s description of Jesus’s last hours.

Gibson follows Emmerich and Sor Maria in their treatment of female figures. (3) His Mary (Maia Morgenstern), accompanied by Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) and by the disciple John, is present with Jesus in every scene except the opening Garden of Gethsemane. (4) Viewers of The Passion are thus encouraged to perceive Jesus’s torment and death through Mary’s somber eyes and Magdalene’s more violent grief. From the perspective of medieval and post-medieval anti-Jewish diatribe, the most interesting female character Gibson retains is Claudia. Emmerich made this woman, only a nameless (albeit sympathetic) dreamer in the Gospels, into a vocal advocate to Pilate on Jesus’s behalf. Pilate, encouraged by Claudia, tries to avert Jesus’s death by any means possible. With Claudia’s elevation, and through hers, Pilate’s, blame for the death of Christ must fall on the Jews. Gibson keeps Emmerich’s Claudia and Pilate, and, like Emmerich, locates the guilt for deicide on the Pharisees and on Jews in general.

While Matthew 27:25 (“His blood be upon us and upon our children”) was cut from the subtitles (but not, mind you, from the Aramaic!) in the final cut of The Passion of the Christ, the movie retains almost all of the other traditional anti-Jewish topoi. The Pharisees look sternly down their long noses, under jeweled headdresses adorned with tallit-esque stripes. They are fantastically wealthy. Their loathing of Jesus seems to be personally malicious rather than based on any logical consideration.

The only moment in which The Passion departs from standard passion-play anti-Judaism is in its treatment of Judas. Gibson’s Judas (played by Luca Lionello) is neither red-haired or long-nosed; he looks, if anything, so much like Jesus’s other disciples that in many scenes I could not tell whether I was looking at Judas, John or Peter. He is not coded specifically as a Jewish traitor, but merely as a traitor among the disciples.

The presence of Matthew 27:25 in the Aramaic permits more subtle anti-Judaism than the depiction of the Pharisees to appear in Gibson’s film. It has been noted that The Passion is extremely gory; Jesus, already looking half-dead by the moment he first appears in the Garden of Gethsemane, before a whip ever touches his body, is completely drenched in blood by the time he hangs on the Cross. Simply speaking, there is quite a lot of blood with which to stain the hands of infinite generations of Jews.

I noticed two instances elsewhere in the film in which the original differed from the subtitles; in both cases, the Latin and Aramaic used words for “Jew” while the subtitles did not. The subtitles have Jesus telling Caiaphas that he spoke at “the Temple, where we all gather,” while the Aramaic uses a phrase closely resembling kol ha-yehudim, Hebrew for “all the Jews.” Later, Pilate uses the word Judeos to Jesus where the translation reads “your own people.” Without full fluency in either language, I cannot say whether the original text would have been offensive, but given the signs in the film that I am able to parse, I must say I’m not hopeful.

The Passion narrative, while often known for carrying anti-Judaism, does not have to. Julian, for instance, specifically notes that she has not seen cursed Jews in her visions (5); her Christ, while dying dramatically with much pale skin, sweat and dried blood, is a god of love, best known for proclaiming, “Synne is behovabil [necessary] but al shal be wel, and al shal be wel, and al manner of thyng shal be wele.” (6) While the passion narrative requires suffering, guilt of Jews is not implicit in the form. A post-Nostra Aetate reading of the death of Jesus could easily keep the bloody torments that the form requires for the expiation of sin, while locating guilt either on Pilate or on the whole world, for whose sins Jesus Christ is purported to have died.

Mel Gibson’s choice to revive the accusation that Jews are guilty of Jesus’s death matters to the world. The libel inspired a multitude of murders, riots and expulsions in the Middle Ages. Thomas of Monmouth, author of the twelfth-century ritual murder narrative The Life of William of Norwich, claimed that Jews needed to kill Christian children in order that their blood might wash out the blood of Christ; later ritual murder charges against the Jews (including the 1255 case in Lincoln) set off massacres. Gibson’s choices to return sources of anti-Judaism that once led to pogroms into the common culture are neither necessary nor neutral. (7)

(1) A Hebrew school teacher once told me never to call Jesus “Christ”, because it would refer to him as Messiah. As the narrative genre of the passion requires Jesus specifically as messiah, the name Christ is appropriate here.
(2) Julian of Norwich, The Shewings of Julian of Norwich, ed. Georgia Ronan Crampton, Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1994, 39, lines 48-50. Available online here.

(3) With the exception of a brief glimpse of a prostitute in Herod’s court, and a bizarrely androgynous Satan, actually played by a woman, who wears clothes mirroring Mary’s, once carries a hairless demon baby in a pose parodying a madonna-and-child, and is associated with a serpent, and, through the serpent, Eve. Also worth considering is the extremely foppish, horrid-wigged and effeminate Herod.
(4) While Sor Maria’s Mary sees the vigil at Gethsemane in a vision, Gibson’s Mary does not; Gibson severely limits the supernatural’s impact upon his film. The presence and occasional absence of the supernatural in The Passion of the Christ is worthy of an entirely different paper.
(5) Julian writes regarding the Jews, “But I saw not so propirly specyfyed the Jewes that deden Hym [i.e. Christ] to ded, notwithstondyn I knew in my feith that thei wer accursid and dampnyd without end, savyng those that converten be grace.” Shewings, lines 1133-1135. She does not exculpate the Jews from deicide, but she does not perceive them in her visions either.
(6) Julian, Shewings, lines 438-439.
(7) I may post on a specific instance of non-riot, non-massacre use of deicide imagery in medieval England... later.

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