Church Honors Gibson ‘Inspiration’

Mel Gibson’s “muse” is on the path to sainthood. Pope John Paul II this week beatified Anna Katharina Emmerick, a 19th-century German nun whose mystic visions inspired Gibson’s gory depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus in “The Passion of the Christ.”

Sunday’s move dismayed some Jewish observers.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which publicly criticized “The Passion” as anti-Semitic, expressed “deep distress” and said the beatification could harm Christian-Jewish relations.

“In our letter to Church leaders, sent in early June, we acknowledged that beatification is entirely within the realm of the Church and we understand that Sr. Emmerick has been proposed in recognition of her virtuous life and how she strengthened others in faith despite her own ill-health,” said an ADL statement.

“Yet,” it added, “it cannot be contested that in addition to the aid she offered many of her co-religionists, hatred and anti-Semitism were fomented in her name.”

The beatification was the latest move by the church regarding sainthood in recent years that has alienated some Jews.

In 1998, for example, many Jews reacted angrily when the pope made Edith Stein a saint, saying she had been rounded up and killed during World War II because of her Jewish identity, not because she was a nun.

Emmerick, who lived from 1774 to 1824, was almost illiterate and spent much of her life as an invalid. Her grisly visions of the torturing of Jesus were recorded by the German Romantic poet Clemens Brentano, who published them after her death in a book, “The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The book, which portrays Jews as cruel “Christ-killers,” has achieved cult status among Roman Catholic traditionalists who oppose the church reforms implemented by the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s.

These reforms included an opening to the Jewish world and a renunciation of the charge of deicide, that Jews were responsible for Jesus’ death.

Gibson used a number of the book’s images in his controversial film.

“Amazing images,” he told an interviewer earlier this year. “She supplied me with stuff I never would have thought of.”

Among them were elements not found in the Gospels, such as Mary mopping up her son’s blood after his scourging, and the hooded devil inciting Jews to demand Jesus be crucified or following him as he carried his cross.

Beatification is the last step before Roman Catholic sainthood. The process for Emmerick was begun in 1973 and approved in July 2003, eight months before “The Passion” came out.

The Vatican said it honored Emmerick for her virtuous life, not her visions, which it said it could not confirm.

A previous attempt to beatify Emmerick was halted in 1926 because of concern that Brentano had infused his account of Emmerick’s visions with his own views.

During the beatification ceremony, the pope did not mention the book. He praised Emmerick’s piety and concern for the poor and noted that she bore stigmata, or bleeding wounds in her hands and feet, similar to those of Jesus on the cross.

Still, said Shawn Landres, who co-edited a forthcoming book, “After The Passion Is Gone: American Religious Consequences,” on the impact of “The Passion,” the move was upsetting.

“The church’s decision to beatify Emmerick is especially troubling to those of us in the Jewish community who sought to defend the post-Vatican II Church against its critics, especially in the wake of the ‘Passion’ controversy.”

Landres, who is a research fellow at the University of Judaism’s Sigi Ziering Institute in Los Angeles, said the timing of the beatification also raises questions.

“[It] suggests an attempt to reach out to traditionalist Catholics energized by ‘The Passion,'” he said.

However, he added, “beatifying one relatively minor mystic won’t satisfy the traditionalists, whose objections to the post-Vatican II Church are much broader and more serious.”

He cautioned, however, that Jewish criticism of the beatification should be made with respect for the Roman Catholic Church as a whole.

“Our role should be to hold the church to its highest standards, not to denigrate and antagonize it,” he said. “There is dignity in dissent.”

Spectacle and Sadism

Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” which opened on Ash Wednesday, has inspired an argument over its revival of medieval Passion Play content, and whether such a project risks a revival of medieval-style, post-Passion Play Judeophobia. But there’s a closely related dimension of Gibson’s film that has so far received less attention, and which is at least as compelling: The movie is also a revival of medieval theatrical sadism.

Gibson’s film is controversial in part because of its unrelenting depiction of the violence visited on Jesus. According to one deeply impressed review by Texas broadcaster Jody Dean, posted on Religion Today, “The brutality, humiliation, and gore is almost inconceivable — and still probably doesn’t go far enough. The scourging alone seems to never end, and you cringe at the sound and splatter of every blow — no matter how steely your nerves.”

That is almost surely the kind of reaction that would have satisfied the creators of medieval religious stagecraft.

That is because the theater of the medieval and early modern periods was filled with depictions of cruelty, pain and torture, sometimes extending over days of spectacle. While the suffering of Jesus was a major theme of these presentations, there were many other tales, drawn from the Bible, Apocrypha and the lives of the saints, which featured scourging, flaying, beheading and every imaginable type of horror.

Jody Enders, a professor of French in Santa Barbara, has written extensively on such plays. In her most recent work, “Death by Drama and Other Medieval Urban Legends,” she describes a 15th-century presentation of the life of Saint Barbara that lasted for five days. On Day One, the pagan Barbara becomes a Christian. On Day Two, she refuses her father’s order to marry. On Day Three, her angry father orders her to be tied to a pillar and beaten; he will eat his supper as he watches. On Day Four, Barbara is stripped naked and scourged harshly, salt and vinegar are rubbed into her wounds, her breasts are cut off, and she is led to a cell and ordered to lie down on a bed of sharp rocks. On Day Five, she is tied naked to a nail-studded barrel and rolled. Finally, her father beheads her.

Those who staged such scenes had become notably inventive at presenting pain and bloodletting in a convincing manner (convincing by contemporary standards, anyway). Mel Gordon, a theatrical historian at Berkeley, notes, for example, that “Promptbooks from the Middle Ages reveal an awful and bloody display of animal parts that realistically substituted for performers’ severed limbs and organs.”

Onstage flayings and beheadings could be achieved through carefully crafted outfits, body makeup, and dummies. Indeed, in “Death by Drama,” Enders writes about unconfirmed period reports that, on at least one occasion, a condemned prisoner was included in a drama and actually beheaded onstage. This is, as she notes, the exact equivalent of modern “snuff movie” legends. (Enders concludes that, for common-sense reasons, such an event was extremely unlikely.)

There is so much horror on the medieval stage that modern scholars of the period are themselves aghast, and have long been at odds over what to make of it all. Some have been troubled by features of medieval drama that are potentially applicable to Gibson’s film, too. For example, there are scholars who have concluded that the stage tortures of Jesus were amplified well-beyond those recorded in the Gospels, while others have attributed a pathological pleasure to the spectators, many of whom might travel considerable distances to see such spectacles.

It’s not necessarily that simple. The medieval world was, after all, heir to a history of sadistic spectacle that was well-known in antiquity, and one might even credit the Church with transforming an established tradition of public cruelty into a “moral” form. Enders herself has noted that staging the torment of the saints and of Jesus — whose suffering obviously has an essential meaning for believing Christians-evinced pity. In that context, Texas broadcaster Jody Dean’s sympathetic review of Gibson’s film features some especially interesting passages, such as this one: “What you’ve heard about how audiences have reacted is true. There was no sound after the film’s conclusion. No noise at all. No one got up. No one moved. The only sound one could hear was sobbing.”

Nevertheless, not all cruelty and suffering in these plays are staged to elicit compassion or pity. When the Jewish heroine Judith beheads the sleeping Holofernes, for example, it is the villain who is being punished by an act of onstage violence that, in all likelihood, elicited the audience’s cathartic satisfaction. For that matter, neither compassion nor pity is in any particular evidence for the many real-life victims of the period’s inquisitional and judicial torture. On the contrary, real public beheadings, burnings, hangings, quarterings, etc., continued to be a source of widespread holiday-making and merriment for centuries.

While it is not possible to recapture the “mentalities” of medieval audiences, it’s at least observable that the staggering cruelty of the period’s theater is of a kind with the cruelty of other popular pastimes that were being pursued simultaneously. The history of blood sports, for example, is a very long one. The public baiting, torture and killing of animals for pleasure was utterly commonplace for generations, as was betting on which of two fighting animals would kill the other. Common also was watching two men (or occasionally women) beat each other nearly to death — sometimes with cudgels or other weapons — for the entertainment of onlookers. Executions were such a treat that spectators made sure to hold young children aloft so they wouldn’t miss the sight of a man kicking and strangling at the end of a rope. In 18th century London, criminals like Jack Sheppard and Dick Turpin were folk heroes in the Grub Street press. Sheppard had a number of plays written about him, while one of Turpin’s most celebrated crimes involved torturing an old woman (by burning her) to find out where she had hidden her valuables.

This tide of cruelty was to turn only with industrialism and the consequent transformation of traditional culture. Although modern popular culture is often charged with coarseness, and the effect of commercialism is often equated with degradation, cultural history suggests an entirely different conclusion. However coarse a given viewer, reader, or listener may find a particular modern artifact, the unavoidable fact is that modern culture has either eliminated or marginalized an entire world of cultural brutality that was dominant for millennia.

Yet there are already efforts to place Gibson’s “Passion” in a context of modern commercial exploitation.

“How might the intense emotional experience of seeing such brutality affect viewers — especially children and youth already immersed in violent ‘entertainment’?” asks a posting on one Christian Web site. “Will it further desensitize some to intense violence, build a craving for other emotional experiences, or alter the foundation for their faith?”

If such questions are legitimate today, they were even more legitimate 1,000 years ago. Then, the experience of intense violence was not feared as a potential threat to the foundation of one’s faith, it was assumed to be a part of it.

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Actress Defends Gibson’s Jesus Film

Romanian actress Maia Morgenstern is Jewish, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and a resident of Bucharest, where she fields the occasional anti-Semitic remark. Which is why European reporters raised eyebrows when they learned the imposing actress was playing the Virgin Mary in Mel Gibson’s controversial "The Passion," about Jesus’ final hours.

Critics have denounced the hyperrealistic drama as a modern version of the medieval passion play, blaming Jews for the death of Jesus. But Morgenstern, 41, doesn’t view the film as anti-Semitic.

Yes, the villain is the Jewish high priest, Caiaphas, she said from her Bucharest home; but he clearly represents the regime, not the Jewish people.

"Authorities throughout history have persecuted individuals with revolutionary ideas," she said.

Morgenstern feels "The Passion" opposes such oppression. "It is about letting people speak openly about what they think and believe," she said. "It denounces the madness of violence and cruelty, which if unchecked can spread like a disease."

Morgenstern’s family experienced such violence during World War II. Her grandfather disappeared after being arrested in his native Transnistria; her father survived Nazi and Stalinist labor camps.

Morgenstern experienced her own share of anti-Semitism while growing up in Bucharest. When she was 9, a classmate called her "Jidan," a slur for "Jew": "But I was absolutely innocent, so I came home and asked my mother, "Who is a ‘Jidan?’" she said.

After her mother complained to the school, her teacher sat her in front of the class and explained she was no different from other students.

"But that hurt me more, because I realized she had to assure them I was a person like everyone else," she said.

Even so, Morgenstern felt proudly Jewish. At home, her mathematician parents taught her Jewish history and philosophy; around age 15, she became curious about ritual and started frequenting the Bucharest synagogue.

"I fell in love with the sound of the Hebrew language," said Morgenstern, who will attend services on Yom Kippur.

In her late teens, she auditioned for the Jewish State Theatre and began performing plays in Yiddish; the following year, she entered the prestigious Bucharest Film and Theatre Academy and landed her first film roles.

Early in her career, she said, "There were suggestions, ‘Maybe you should change your name, because ‘Morgenstern’ is not very Romanian, and maybe audiences will be unable to pronounce it." When she earned Europe’s coveted Felix prize in 1993, anti-Semitic observers scoffed "of course she won, she’s Jewish." The actress developed a technique for addressing such remarks: "When I see the irony is delicate, I give a delicate and a very spiritual answer. When it’s not a question anymore of irony and not delicate at all, I give quickly a sharp answer."

Morgenstern eventually became a star of Bucharest’s National Theatre and more than 30 Eastern European films; in Maria Meszaros’ "The Seventh Room," she played Edith Stein, the Jew who died as a nun in Auschwitz and was canonized in 1998. Between scenes shot just outside the camp gates, Morgenstern — who shaved her head for the role — perused Nazi records and discovered her grandfather had died in the camp.

"That greatly affected my performance," she said. "It gave me a sort of motivation that I could somehow fight violence through the weapon of my art."

Apparently it was Morgenstern’s performance as Stein that drew Gibson’s attention; but she was so busy rehearsing a Gogol play that she initially ignored several voice mail messages from his casting director last year. She assumed the filmmaker was scouring Eastern Europe for an actress to play a minor role and didn’t take the query seriously. Even after the casting director finally reached her, "I didn’t think my chances were high,"she said.

She changed her mind when Gibson — whose work she had admired — promptly mailed her the script and flew her to Rome to meet with him.

"It was the day after my theater opening and I was exhausted but full of emotions," she recalled. "My heart was about to burst."

When she walked into his preproduction office at Rome’s Cinecitta studios, her first impression was "of a man who was utterly enthusiastic and confident of his artistic vision." He didn’t ask Morgenstern to read from the script, which was written in Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew, but rather chatted with her about her Gogol opening.

"We started a conversation like two actors, and we were talking and talking until the casting director interrupted and said, ‘I have to know, what is your decision about Ms. Morgenstern?’" she said. "And Mel Gibson replied, ‘Of course I’ll take her — now please keep telling me, Maia, how was your opening?’"

Afterward, the actress was whisked away to the wardrobe department, where she said, "Everyone was so disappointed with me at first. They said, ‘Oh, she has short hair, what a pity.’"

Gibson, unperturbed, simply had them make her a wig.

When Morgenstern arrived for the shoot in November 2002, she found Gibson to be a director "who knows exactly what he wants. He makes no compromises with his art, and he respects actors very much."

Gibson agreed with her interpretation of her role as "essentially the question of a mother losing a child." He was gracious when she discovered she was pregnant with her third child in the middle of the four-month shoot.

Over the course of the production, Morgenstern emphasized, not a single scene struck her as anti-Semitic. Characters such as Mary and John are sympathetic Jews, and Gibson "allowed me to make suggestions based on my Jewish culture," she said. In the scene in which Mary learns Jesus has been arrested, it was Morgenstern’s idea to whisper the Passover question, "Why is this night different from all other nights?"

When visiting reporters asked why a Jewish actress was portraying Jesus’ mother, she replied, "I played Clytemnestra in ‘Oresteia,’ and it didn’t mean I killed my husband. And as far as I know, Mary was a Jewish lady, so I think it is very normal."

In between takes, priests visited the set and the devout Gibson attended Mass, but the Catholic presence was "discreet," according to Morgenstern.

"We worked hard but it was a very relaxed environment. We were actors from all over the world, and the atmosphere was of sharing, like an exchange of cultures. And we had our jokes. Mel Gibson came once with a red clown nose and asked me, ‘Would you please put this on for your close-up?’"

After Morgenstern returned home in 2003, she said she read a New York Times article about the "Passion" controversy, but remained relatively isolated from the conflict. She was unaware of charges that Gibson’s father was a Holocaust denier, for example, or that Gibson told the New Yorker "modern secular Judaism wants to blame the Holocaust on the Catholic church."

The actress said she never heard him make such remarks; she is concerned that the media scourging amounts to a kind of "censorship" that will prevent the movie from finding a distributor. "I’m very worried about that, because I want this film to be seen by many, many people," she said. "Despite the blood and the violence, it’s a beautiful film. I believe it brings an important message, a peace message."