Passion Play

This article is about a type of dramatic presentation depicting the suffering of Jesus Christ. For the theatrical re-enactment of tragedies in Golgotha and outside the gates of Jerusalem, see Ta'zieh. For other uses, see Passion Play (disambiguation).
Crucifixion scene during the 2010 production of the Passion Play The Promise: The Power of His Love in Fond du Lac, WI.

The Passion Play or Easter pageant is a dramatic presentation depicting the Passion of Jesus Christ: his trial, suffering and death. It is a traditional part of Lent in several Christian denominations, particularly in Catholic tradition.

Origin and history of the Passion Play

Reenactment of the crucifixion of Jesus in Texcoco, Mexico

The Easter play precedent

The development of the Passion Play was about the same as that of the Easter Drama. It originated in the ritual of the Church, which prescribes, among other things, that the Gospel on Good Friday should be sung in parts divided among various persons. Later on, the Passion Play made its appearance, first in Latin, then in vernacular languages; contents and forms were adapted more and more to audience expectations, until, in the fifteenth century, the popular religious plays had developed. Thus, the Benedictbeurn Passion Play (thirteenth century) is still largely composed of Latin ritual sentences in prose and of church hymns, and, being designed to be sung, resembles an oratorio.

The addition of more music and more characters

Yet even this oldest of the Passion Plays already shows a tendency to break away from the ritual and to adopt a more dramatic form. This evolution is shown by the interpolation of free translations of church hymns and of German verses not pertaining to such hymns, as well as by the appearance of Mary (the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus) and Mary Magdalene in the action. From these humble beginnings the Passion Play developed very rapidly, since in the fourteenth century it was at a stage of development which could not have been reached except by repeated practice. From this second period we have the Vienna Passion, the St. Gall Passion, the oldest Frankfort Passion, and the Maestricht Passion. All four Plays, as they are commonly called, are written in rhyme, principally in German.

The Passion Play continues to expand

The Vienna Passion embraces the entire history of the Redemption, and begins with the revolt and fall of Lucifer; the play, as transmitted to us, ends with Jesus and his Twelve Apostles sitting at the Last Supper.

The oldest Frankfort Passion play, that of Canon Baldemar von Peterwell (1350–1381), the production of which required two days, was more profusely elaborated than the other Passion Plays of this period. Of this play only the Ordo sive Registrum has come down to us, a long roll of parchment for the use of the director, containing stage directions and the first words of the dialogues. The plays based on this list of directions lead us to the period in which the Passion Play reached its highest development (1400–1515). During this period the later Frankfort Passion Play (1467), the Alsfelder, and the Friedberger (1514) originated. Connected with this group are the Eger, the Donaueschingen, Augsburg, Freising and Lucerne Passion Plays, in which the whole world drama, beginning with the creation of man and brought down to the coming of the Holy Ghost, is exhibited, and which was produced with great splendour as late as 1583.

The Tyrolese Passion Play

Expansion and consolidation of previous plays

Nearly all these Passion Plays have some relation to those coming from the Tyrol, some contributing to, others taking from, that source. These, again, are founded upon the Tyrolese Passion play which originated during the transition period of the fourteenth to the fifteenth century. Historian J. E. Wackernell, with the aid of the plays that have reached us, has reconstructed this period.[1] In Tyrol the Passion Plays received elaborate cultivation; at Bolzano they were presented with great splendour and, in 1514, lasted no less than seven days.[2] Here, too, the innovation of placing the female roles in the hands of women was introduced, which innovation did not become general until during the seventeenth century.

Elaborate, public productions

The magnificent productions of the Passion Plays during the fifteenth century are closely connected with the growth and increasing self-confidence of the cities, which found its expression in noble buildings, ecclesiastical and municipal, and in gorgeous public festivals. The artistic sense and the love of art of the citizens had, in co-operation with the clergy, called these plays into being, and the wealth of the citizens provided for magnificent productions of them on the public squares, whither they migrated after expulsion from the churches. The citizens and civil authorities considered it a point of honour to render the production as rich and diversified as possible. Ordinarily the preparations for the play were in the hands of a spiritual brotherhood, the play itself being considered a form of worship. People of the most varied classes took part in the production, and frequently the number of actors was as high as two hundred and even greater. If was undoubtedly no small task to drill the performers, particularly since the stage arrangements were still very primitive.

Staging and set design

The stage was a wooden structure, almost as broad as it was long, elevated but slightly above the ground and open on all sides. A house formed the background; a balcony attached to the house represented Heaven. Under the balcony three crosses were erected. Sometimes the stage was divided into three sections by doors. Along the sides of the stage, taken lengthwise, stood the houses required for the production; they were 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 præcursor (herald), and took their stand at the places appointed them. They remained on the stage all through the performance; they sat on the barriers of their respective divisions, and were permitted to leave their places only 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 neighbouring houses. Occasionally platforms, called "bridges", were erected around the stage in the form of an amphitheatre.

Simplicity of scenery, dialog, action, and costumes

The scenery was the background of old time middle east. There were no side scenes, and consequently no stage perspective. Since an illusion of reality could not be had, indications were made to suffice. Thus a cask standing on end represents the mountain on which Christ is tempted by the Devil; thunder is imitated by the report of a gun; 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 black bird and the intestines of an animal concealed in the front of his clothing, and 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. Everything is presented in the concrete, just as the imagination of the audience pictures it, and the scenic conditions, resembling those of the antique theatre demand. All costume, however, is contemporary, historical accuracy being ignored.

Secularization of the Passion Play

The Passion Plays of the 15th century, with their peculiar blending of religious, artistic, and increasingly secular elements, gave a true picture of German city life of those times. Serious thought and lively humour were highly developed in these plays. When, however, the patricians, in the sixteenth century, withdrew more and more from the plays, the plays, left to the lower classes, began to lose their serious and (in spite of the comic traits) dignified character. The influence of the Carnival plays (Fastnachtspiele) was felt more and more. Master Grobianus with his coarse and obscene jests was even introduced into some of the Passion Plays. In time the ecclesiastical authorities forbade the production of these "secularized" plays. Thus, the Bishop of Havelberg commanded his clergy, in 1471, to suppress the Passion Plays and legend plays in their parish districts because of the disgraceful and irrelevant farces interspersed through the productions.

Secularized Passion Plays banned

With the advent of the 16th-century European religious conflict the uneasiness with liturgical drama in general increased. The Synod of Strasburg of 1549 opposed the religious plays, and the year previous, in 1548, the Parliament of Paris forbade the production of The Mysteries of the Passion of our Redeemer and other Spiritual Mysteries. One consequence was that the secularized plays were separated from the religious, and, as Carnival plays, held the public favour. The Passion Plays came to be presented more rarely, particularly as the Reformation was inimical to them.

Rediscovery of the Passion Play

The Passion Play almost disappears

School dramas now came into vogue in Catholic and Protestant schools, and frequently enough became the battle-ground of religious controversies. When, in the 17th century, 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. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, during the Age of Enlightenment, efforts were made in Catholic Germany, particularly in Bavaria and the Tyrol, to destroy even the remnants of the tradition of medieval plays.

A resurgence of public interest

Public interest in the Passion Play developed in the last decades of the 19th century, and the statistician Karl Pearson wrote a book about them.

Since then, Brixlegg and Vorderthiersee in Tyrol and Horice na Sumave, near Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic, and above all, the Oberammergau in Upper Bavaria attract thousands to their plays.

The text of the play of Vorderthiersee (Gespiel in der Vorderen Thiersee) dates from the second half of the seventeenth century, is entirely in verse, and comprises in five acts the events recorded in the Gospel, from the Last Supper to the Entombment. A prelude (Vorgespiel), on the Good Shepherd, precedes the play. After being repeatedly remodelled, the text received its present classical form from the Austrian Benedictine, P. Weissenhofer. Productions of the play, which came from Bavaria to the Tyrol in the second half of the eighteenth century, were arranged at irregular intervals during the first half of the nineteenth century; since 1855 they have taken place at regular intervals, at Brixlegg every ten years. The Höritz Passion Play, the present text of which is from the pen of Provost Landsteiner, has been produced every five years, since 1893.

Modern performances of the Passion Play


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


The chief survivor of former times is the Oberammergau Passion Play, first performed in the Bavarian village of Oberammergau in 1634 and now performed every 10 years. The next Oberammergau Passion Play will take place in 2020.

Oberammergau Theatre (2013)

In 2010, about half the inhabitants of Oberammergau took part in the once-a-decade Passion Play; over 2,000 villagers brought the story of Jesus of Nazareth to life for audiences that flocked in from around the world. In accordance with tradition, the play started with Jesus entering Jerusalem, continued with his death on the cross, and finished with the Resurrection.

2010 saw a new production directed by Christian Stückl, director at Munich's noted Volkstheater. He was supported by the artistic team that, along with him, staged the 2000 Passion Play: deputy director and dramatic adviser Otto Huber, set and costume designer Stefan Hageneier, music director Marxus Zwink, and conductor Michael Bocklet. All four of these collaborators are from Oberammergau. The play started at 14.30 and included a three-hour interval, ending at 22.30. Performances took place between mid-May and early October 2010.


Roman Forum stage, in New Jerusalem

The Passion of the Christ is performed every year during Easter, in a purpose-built 100,000-square-metre (1,100,000 sq ft) theatre-city in the arid backlands of Pernambuco, in northeastern Brazil. It is considered to be the largest open-air theatre in the world. Thousands of visitors arrive every year to watch the performance; over 500 actors appear on the nine separate stages within the stone walls of the New Jerusalem city-theatre.



The island nation of Malta features many Passion Plays, put on by provincial club, societies, and theatres in various localities. Each village and town often hosts several plays, and there is some competition among the troupes to put on the most moving or beautiful display. These are often combined with processions and wirjiet ("exhibitions") that feature models and renditions of the Passion.

Since 2007, a Passion Play entitled "Il-Mixja", with Jesus being played by popular Maltese actor Alan Fenech and featuring some of the most highly acclaimed actors in Malta has become one of the highlights of the genre on the island with the audience experiencing the passion of Jesus Christ as if they were present on the streets of Jeruslaem during those historical two days. The play is held outdoors and has so far been held four times in the streets of Rabat, once at Ħaġar Qim temples and twice (in 2013 and 2014) for charity on the grounds surrounding Mount Carmel Hospital.

The Netherlands


Actor portraying Jesus on the cross during the Pagtaltal in Barotac Viejo, Iloilo, Philippines, April 2010.

The predominantly Catholic Philippines has Passion Plays called Senákulo, named after the Upper room, every Semana Santa (Holy Week). Theatre companies and community groups perform different versions of the Senákulo, using their own scripts that present the dialogue in either poetic or prosaic form. These scripts are decades or even centuries-old, and draw from both the Bible and folk tradition.

Costumes and scenery in traditional Senákulo conform to Hispanic iconography instead of actual historical realism, which is more common with recent productions (particularly by professional companies). Some productions use ropes to hold actors on crosses while others use actual nails.[9]

One of the more popular Senákulo is Ang Pagtaltal sa Balaan Bukid in Jordan, Guimaras, which began in 1975 and draws some 150,000 visitors annually [10] Some people perform crucifixions outside of Passion Plays to fulfill a panatà (vow for a request or prayer granted), such as the famous penitents in Barangay San Pedro Cutud, San Fernando, Pampanga.


Tradition of Passion Plays in Poland has become popular again in the early 20th century. Today the best known plays take place in Kałków, Kalwaria Pacławska, the Pallotines' Seminary in Ołtarzew, and the most prominent in Sanctuary of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska. This Passion Play is one of the oldest.


In the 17th and 18th century, Passion Plays were organised in the towns of the Slovene Lands, like Kranj, Ljubljana, and Novo Mesto. Their language was German, Slovene, or both.[11] They were all based on the tradition of the Ljubljana Passion Play,[12] which was organised by Capuchins and first performed from ca. 1608 until ca. 1613.[13] The most distinguished of them has been the Škofja Loka Passion Play. It was written by Father Romuald in 1715, with modifications until 1727, on the basis of an older tradition. It is the oldest preserved play in Slovene as well as the oldest preserved director's book in Europe and the only one extant from the Baroque period.[14] The Škofja Loka Passion Play was performed each year until 1767. The procession was revived in 1999, and reprised in 2000 and 2009, with further reprisals planned for 2015 and 2021.[15] The play's reprisals are the largest open-air theatre production in Slovenia.[16]


'Drama de la Cruz', Monte Calvario, Alcorisa. Part of Ruta del Tambor y el Bombo

In Catalonia, it is common for villages to present different Passion Plays every Easter, like the ones in Esparreguera, Olesa de Montserrat or Cervera, first documented in 1538. Olesa's 1996 production surpassed the world record for the most people acting on stage at the same time, with 726 persons. Balmaseda, in the Spanish Basque Country, holds the leading Passion Play in the region.

Sri Lanka

The earliest Passion Plays in Sri Lanka, at Pesalai in Mannar and at Duwa and PitiPana in Negombo, used life-size statues instead of living actors. Influenced by the Oberammergau Passion Play, K. Lawrence Perera, began the practice of using living actors in the Borelassa Passion Play. Women later began to take part in the play. However, for a period of time after 1939, the Archbishop of Colombo banned performances because of his disapproval of the women's participation.[17] In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, there are many Passion Play enactments in Sri Lanka:


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

United Kingdom

Origin and history of the Passion Play in the United Kingdom

Passion Plays are biblical dramas that portray the Easter story. They depict the events of Jesus Christ’s trial, death and resurrection and may also extend to the events of his life, works and miracles. Today they are performed at Easter and often take place in public spaces such as city centres and town squares as free, community-led performances.

Popular biblical dramas of the Middle Ages - including liturgical drama, Passion Plays and the Corpus Christi cycles or Mystery Play - are the originators of modern Passion Plays. The Mystery Plays were epic play cycles were large-scale productions financed and produced by medieval guilds for the glory of God and the honour of their city.[26] The most well-known took place in York, Coventry and Chester.[27]

This dramatic heritage is acknowledged by modern Passion Plays. The similarities between these community-led, Bible focussed plays from the Middle Ages and contemporary Mystery Plays and Passion Plays are recognised by artists involved in the plays, journalists[28] and academic.[29][30] The Passion Trust is a registered charity which supports, resources and researches Passion Plays in the UK.[31][32]

Great North Passion
Isle of Man
Port Talbot
South Woodham Ferrers
Trafalgar Square

United States

New Jersey
South Dakota

The Passion Play in motion pictures

Antisemitism in Passion plays

Many Passion Plays historically blamed the Jews for the death of Jesus in a polemical fashion, depicting a crowd of Jewish people condemning Jesus to crucifixion and a Jewish leader assuming eternal collective guilt for the crowd for the murder of Jesus, which, The Boston Globe explains, "for centuries prompted vicious attacks – or pogroms – on Europe's Jewish communities".[71] Time magazine in its article, The Problem With Passion, explains that "such passages (are) highly subject to interpretation".[72]

Although modern scholars interpret the "blood on our children" (Matthew 27:25) as "a specific group's oath of responsibility" some audiences have historically interpreted it as "an assumption of eternal, racial guilt". This last interpretation has often incited violence against Jews; according to the Anti-Defamation League, "Passion plays historically unleashed the torrents of hatred aimed at the Jews, who always were depicted as being in partnership with the devil and the reason for Jesus' death".[73] The Christian Science Monitor, in its article, Capturing the Passion, explains that "historically, productions have reflected negative images of Jews and the long-time church teaching that the Jewish people were collectively responsible for Jesus' death. Violence against Jews as 'Christ-killers' often flared in their wake."[74] Christianity Today in Why some Jews fear The Passion (of the Christ) observed that "Outbreaks of Christian antisemitism related to the Passion narrative have been...numerous and destructive."[75]

The Religion Newswriters Association observed that

"in Easter 2001, three incidents made national headlines and renewed their fears. One was a column by Paul Weyrich, a conservative Christian leader and head of the Free Congress Foundation, who argued that "Christ was crucified by the Jews." Another was sparked by comments from the NBA point guard and born-again Christian Charlie Ward, who said in an interview that Jews were persecuting Christians and that Jews "had his [Jesus'] blood on their hands." Finally, the evangelical Christian comic strip artist Johnny Hart published a B.C. strip that showed a menorah disintegrating until it became a cross, with each panel featuring the last words of Jesus, including "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do".[76]

On 16 November 1998, Church Council of Evangelical Lutheran Church in America similarly adopted a resolution prepared by its Consultative Panel on Lutheran-Jewish Relations urging any Lutheran church presenting a Passion Play to adhere to their Guidelines for Lutheran-Jewish Relations, stating that "the New Testament . . . must not be used as justification for hostility towards present-day Jews," and that "blame for the death of Jesus should not be attributed to Judaism or the Jewish people."[77][78]

In 2003 and 2004 some people compared Mel Gibson's recent film The Passion of the Christ to these kinds of Passion Plays, but this characterization is hotly disputed; an analysis of that topic is in the article on The Passion of the Christ. Despite such fears, there have been no publicized antisemitic incidents directly attributable to the movie's influence.

Supporters of Passion Plays

Passion Trust

Passion Trust Logo 2014

The Passion Trust supports the resurgence of Passion Plays in the United Kingdom through resourcing, networking, advocating and financing new and existing plays. Established in 2011, its vision is to energise the growing number of Passion Plays taking place in the UK.[79]

The Passion Trust hosts an annual conference in various locations around the UK, drawing together actors, arts practitioners, producers, directors, fundraisers and journalists to explore new and time-tested approaches to Passion Plays.[80]

Keynote speakers at recent Passion Trust conferences include:

  1. Israel Oyelumade. Oyelumade played Jesus in Winchester's Passion Play in 2006 and is currently head of Character Development for Love Beyond, a musical based on the Bible story with vocal performances from West End stars and one of the biggest live orchestras of any musical theatre show in London.[81]
  2. James Burke-Dunsmore. Burke-Dunsmore is a writer, director and actor who has played Jesus for over 17 years. He regularly performs in Trafalgar Square, Guildford and Wintershall and is currently artistic director for Soul by the Sea in Brighton.[82]
  3. Sir Jack Stewart-Clark. Sir Jack facilitates Passion Plays in Scotland and internationally, most notably in Angola jail in Louisiana[83] and in Rwanda.
  4. Suzanne Lofthus. Lofthus is a director with years of experience directing Passion Plays in local communities and in prisons. She recently directed the Edinburgh Passion Play which was described in The Scotsman as 'strikingly well-choreographed production'.[39]

The Passion Trust also develops and disseminates important resources for people starting new Passion Plays or wanting to develop existing plays, including advice with script-writing, fund-raising, working with local councils and engaging with local communities.[84]


Europassion is a large European organisation which supports Passion Plays in Europe. Established in 1982, this umbrella organisation draws together Passion Play communities from countries all over Europe, some of which have been performing their plays for hundreds of years. According to Mons. Fausto Panfili, the Chaplain of the Europassion:

The experience of the Europassion constantly lets us experience a so far unexplored pathway, so that we can continue to grow.Surmounting a self-referred vision of our own experience obligates us to confront a regional, national, European and universal horizon. That is why a new vision, not fragmentary, is necessary. Unity doesn’t mean uniformity. A spiritual energy, stronger and more attentive to cultural elaboration, a more evident solidarity in order to be recognised as bearers of hope, to help the people and communities grow.[85]

See also


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