Gibson's Nefarious Motivations

Why Is The Passion of the Christ So Controversial?

Gibson's Nefarious Motivations

Why Is The Passion of the Christ So Controversial?

Gibson's Nefarious Motivations
Arts, entertainment, and more.
March 1 2004 8:07 AM

Why Is The Passion of the Christ So Controversial?

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Dear Robert,

Who knows what lurks in the mind of Mel, but I suspect that what inspired this homage to Michelangelo was the tradition of the tableaux vivants in European and American passion plays: "living pictures" in which motionless actors attempt to reproduce on stage influential Bible-based paintings. Passion plays in both Europe and the United States have long been criticized as static and stylized, and I agree with you that this movie is both. (Many of the characters are woefully underdeveloped. James Caviezel's Jesus is pure victim; his personality is, to put it generously, a mystery. I continue to feel that there are characters in the film, however, who do come to life, notably Judas, Pontius Pilate, and Maia Morgenstern's Madonna.)                                             

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I am glad that you brought up the Northern Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach the Elder because one scene in the film reminded me of a painting by his son, Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515-1586). After Jesus utters his third and final last words in the film, the Roman centurion who has come to believe that Jesus is the Son of God is ordered to pierce his Lord's side. Bodily fluids cascade onto the centurion's head, baptizing him as he falls to his knees. This scene (not in the Gospels, by the way) recalls the younger Cranach's 1555 altarpiece in the city church of Weimar, Germany, which depicts blood spurting from Jesus' side onto the artist himself.

Still, if I had to pick one analog in oils to Gibson's Passion, it would have to be Matthias Grünewald's Crucifixion. A contemporary of Cranach's, Grünewald completed this picture in 1515 for the chapel in a monastery hospital dedicated to caring for patients dying of incurable skin diseases. Its Christ is gangrenous and pockmarked by illness, and the uplifted fingers of his mangled hands seem almost literally to radiate pain, broadcasting his torment to the world.

This brutal image has been widely praised by luminaries such as Picasso, whose Guernicaowes much to it. Another admirer, the French novelist Joris Karl Huysmans, lauded Grünewald's depiction of the "morgue Redeemer" as a "truly transcendent" image. But like Gibson's Passion, it has also been dismissed as sadomasochistic and empty of spiritual significance. According to one critic, Grünewald's "shudder in paint" demonstrates "only the savage temperament of the painter."

I do not enjoy looking at Grünewald's altarpiece. Neither did I enjoy sitting through this movie. My Jesus piety, such as it is, does not run in the direction of "Man of Sorrows" brutalism. In fact, it flees from it. But because of my Episcopal upbringing (which did not include any training in Mariology, by the way), I can appreciate some of the sacramentalism celebrated by Grünewald and Gibson alike. (In the painting a bleeding lamb fills a chalice; in the movie the Virgin Mary lovingly wipes up the blood left behind by the Romans' sadistic scourging, as I did as an acolyte when communion wine spilled on the floor.)

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Yes, there is something oddly painterly about The Passion. Gibson's preoccupation with medieval and Northern Renaissance iconography does make the film, as you put it, "as static as it is violent." And, as a motion picture, The Passion is worse for it. But Gibson did not set out here to make a critically acclaimed film. If, as the art historian E.H. Gombrich has argued, Grünewald's altarpiece was meant as a "sermon in pictures," Gibson's film was intended as a sermon on the screen.

There are two key differences between Gibson's sermon and Grünewald's, though. One is that the Northern Renaissance painter was not interested in his own fame. In his Crucifixion, John the Baptist says, "He shall increase, but I will decrease," and Grünewald seems to have taken that admonition to heart. Art historians know hardly anything about him; even his name is made up. Quite a contrast, this, to "Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ" (as his Web site refers to the movie).

The second difference between the Passion and the Crucifixion is more substantial. Grünewald's work is actually part of a larger altarpiece that includes other biblical moments, including a wonderful rendering of the resurrection, in which Jesus, healed of his infirmities, promises healing in heaven to the infirmed. Gibson's movie, by contrast, focuses on the death of Jesus to the exclusion of his life, leaving the viewer to believe that the mortification of Jesus' flesh is the whole of the gospel. The brief flashbacks to his earlier life are, like his character, underdeveloped. And Gibson's resurrection scene is an afterthought, owing more to Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator ("I'll be back") than to the New Testament.

Gibson has said that he wanted to focus on the brutality of Jesus' suffering, and artistic license certainly allows him to drive the Christian story in that direction. But I can't help wondering whether he pumps up the violence for more nefarious reasons. Punishment is supposed to be proportionate to the crime, and if Jews were behind the crucifixion, as the movie insists, then the evil they have done is magnified with each and every lash. And here is where the muddle of the movie matters. Though as I have noted, the film includes a coda on the resurrection, it really ends with Mary frozen over the corpse of God's Son. In other words, Gibson, after subjecting us to two hours of savagery, has refused to offer us any catharsis. So, I am left to worry whether viewers of the film in Indonesia and Japan and other countries you do not mention will go out and provide a catharsis for him.

Stephen Prothero is the chairman of the Department of Religion at Boston University and is the author of American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon.