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* The article is reproduced based on materials of site strana.ru (direct link to the article), where it was published on 31 March, 2004. The collection of illustrations for the publication on our site is changed by the author.

© Dr. Uliyanov Oleg Germanovich, the Plenipotentiary Representative of the Russian on the Holy Mount Athos Hagios Panteleimon Monastery, text, illustrations, 2004

The introductory commentary from strana.ru: “The premier of film "The Passion of the Christ" gave occasion for the bitter discussions in all countries of the world. Moreover into these discussions are pulled both the representatives of confessions and the people, sufficiently distant from any religious directions. Already therefore is obvious the need for reasoning about the film itself and those artistic principles, which were assumed by the author—Mel Gibson—as the basis of his creation,—such is the opinion of the famous specialist in Church archaeology, Head of Department of Church Archaeology, St. Andrey Rublev’s Central Museum of Ancient Russian Culture and Art Moscow Dr. Oleg Germanovich Uliyanov”.

The Passion of the Christ

by Dr. Oleg Germanovich Uliyanov (Moscow)

"He has died for all us"

 

Poster of the movie

        The launch of the Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ", which was taken in 2002, presents great interest, because in 2004 occurs sufficiently rare coincidence in the liturgical celebration of Easter—in the western Christians (catholics) and in east (orthodox). As is known, the wide release of film both in Russia and in Italy, where the most part of shooting took place, begins on Holy Wednesday—on 7 April 2004. Being Old Catholic on the religion, Mel Gibson repeatedly proclaimed absolute movement to documentary principles in reflection of the final 12 hours of the earthy life of Saviour with that degree of authenticity, which the Gospel reports to us. For the giving to authenticity the film director even resorted to the unprecedented motion—he forced the heroes of this film to speak in those languages, such as the characters of the Scripture used. And sufficiently serious approach to the work already here appeared, since, in order to restore the lingual atmosphere of that epoch, significant studies were required.

        Now much speak, that the specialists, who master the Aramaic language, with their knowledge of the text of the Holy Write could not always identify and dismantle completely everything that the heroes in the film pronounce. But the native language of Saviour was the Galilean variety of the West-Aramaic language, which did not experience the influence of traditional rabbinical schools. This is the root of specific incomprehension by the specialists of that dialect, on which speaks the main hero. However, precisely this dialect (by the way in Jerusalem Galileans were recognized by it) used by Jesus, about which testifies the Gospel of St. Matthew. It is remarkable, that in those episodes, which are connected with the sacrament, Saviour speaks in the Hebrew language. This is reliable, since in the Gospel of St. Lucas there is the indication that during the divine service in the synagogue Jesus read the sermon from the Prophets on the Hebrew. The fact is that the Hebrew language was lingua sacra (sacred language), which was used precisely with the sacraments and during the accomplishment of rites.

        The critics of the "The Passion of the Christ" sometimes demonstrate disappointment, that the film pictures suffering, without giving hope for catharsis, to the enlightenment, purification. They charge Gibson with the superfluous forcing of passions, with the gloom of the atmosphere. In this case is ignored the corner episode of entire film—the Lord’s Supper. Although it anticipates the Passion of the Christ, but it explains exhaustively the sense of the sufferings of Saviour, that it does not require any cinematographic motion on the disclosure of further outcome of events. The fact is that the sense of the Lord’s Supper consisted not in some new ritual, but in the fact that Jesus connected customary in that epoch rite of table prayer "before and after meal" with the announcement about the sufferings and their interpretation. The accomplished meal was filled prognostic of the fact that will occur at the end of the times—in this its sense consisted. It is necessary to bear in mind that according to traditional rabbinical interpretations, there is no ransom whatever for the peoples. Ransom with the price of personal death exists, but—only—for the individual family. And for the first time in the Lord’s Supper Saviour speaks about his death as the expiatory victim for many peoples.

        This is very important fact, since, on the Jewish custom, before the execution the criminal pronounced expiatory formula only for his sins. However, Christ during the cross torment already directs prayer not to Israel, but to the hangmen, i.e. "and for many". This sense of sufferings "for many" is very accurately shown in the film. And Mel Gibson said himself that the sense of picture was wrongly interpreted, into the intention to depict sufferings with the naturalistic details, but not into the fact that Saviour suffered for many. Meanwhile basic Evangelical truth lay as the basis of author's concept, that the Crucifix possesses limitless force to expiate the sins of others. "He died for all us and served all us. It is time to return to this revelation, until peace finally descends from the mind ", said Mel Gibson.

Gibson's error

** "Stabat Mater" literally is translated from the Latin as "It stood Mother in sorrow"—the hymn in the Latin language, which describes grief of Mother of God in the foot of cross. The date of writing is unknown, authorship was assigned to St. Bernard of Clerv (1090–1153), Pope Innocent III (1160–1216) and Jacopone from Todi (1230–1306). Since XIV c. it is used in the liturgy. In 1727 Roman Missal (the book of worship) prescribed its performance during two holidays of Mothers of God’s Seven Grieves, and also the Lenten public prayers, named Stacee. It is set to music by many composers.

        It should be noted that the cinematographic language of Gibson is differed in terms of the special static character of his heroes from the fact that before occurred with screening of Gospel. In particular, it personifies artistic principles, known in the western tradition in the number of treatments of famous "Stabat mater" **. Specifically, similar proved to be the sorrowful means of Mother of God in the treatment of the Rumanian jewess Maia Morgenstern. Following canonical model, director forces it to abandon from any actor's game and as if to pass to sequence from composition "Stabat Mater", the imprinted unceasing grief mother, who loses son.

        However, it is not possible to go around by silence those errors, which were allowed during the shooting of the film with the recreation of "historical and archaelogical authenticity". Unfortunately author's treatment and reconstruction of events will move away from real historic evidence and real details. Certainly, a most important and destructive example—this is the scene of Crucifix. It is necessary to say that there are very precise evidence about how execution on the cross occurred in that epoch. Not only written sources speak about this, but also iconography and the preserved works of painting, which can be compared with the fact that it is reproduced in the film, and to reveal very serious readings in the scenes of flagellation, conducting to the Cross and Crucifix.

        The Crucifix, through which the Christ accepted expiatory death for the sins of many, was most shameful execution, which did not know the judaic law. The Judaic criminal law of that time, recorded in the mishna treatise "Sankhedrin" (sinedrion), knew four capital punishment: beating by stones, burning, death from the sword and strangling. It was practiced also "hanging on the tree", but only after the commited execution, for an increase in the disgrace. Since the Israelites were deprived by Romans of the "right of sword" (right to carry death sentence), Christ was condemned by them to the Cross execution according to the Roman laws. The usual form of this judical sentence sounded as follows: "go to the cross!".  

Pl. 1

        In the film "The Passion of the Christ" Saviour (in the performance of James Caviezel) is crucified backwards on the lying cross, and then the cross is already raised and strengthened in the earth. In reality, judging by the historical sources which reached us, Crucifix was occurred completely otherwise. The fact is that Christ was raised to the cross (Pl. 1) driven previously into the earth. To raise to the apex and to nail by nails the body of a living human it is a very difficult matter, for this was required some adaptations. In this connection, the stairs were put to the cross-beam of cross, two of the executors of Crucifix rose on them and raised condemned with the aid of the ropes, and those remaining below helped them.

        Before the raising to the proper height and so that the body of the crucified would have more than support on the cross and by its gravity it did not detach hands away from the nails, additional beam or horn was fastened on the middle of vertical post. It served as a kind of seat for the crucified, with which in the historical tradition were connected such expressions, as "to sit at the sharp cross", "to take a seat at the cross", "to rest at the cross". There are in the majority of languages these terms, in particular, on the Latin "Cruce sedere", which is translated as "to take a seat at the cross".

        The fact that Jesus was crucified on the cross fastened already into the earth, is testified by such ancient Church and historical authorities, as Cyprian of Karfagen, Gregory the Theolologian, John Chrysostom, Augustin the Blessed, Non. All of them speak, that the crucifix occurred on the cross fastened previously into the earth. It is the reliable evidence about this method of crucifix in the writings by the historian of that time Joseph Flavius, who reports about the pardon of the youth Eleazar after that "his cross was set". Cross was low, and the soles of crucified were located not far from the earth. The finished cross before the execution was digged in by lower end into the earth so that it solidly would stand in the vertical position, but not as shown in Gibson's film, where the cross was raised and digged into the earth together with the crucified person nailed to it.

 

Pl. 2
 

Pl. 3

        If experts, who worked with the director, would desire they could have access not only to the written sources, but also to the richest depictive material. In particular, it had been taken place in the Metropolitan museum (New York) the exhibition "Byzantium. Faith and Power", where there was exposed the reliquarium (stavroteka) of Cardinal Vissarion of the second-half of the XIV c., i.e., the special shrine, in which there were located the parts of the Precious Tree of the Lord’s Cross. And in the painted covering of this reliquarium (Academy gallery in Venice) there is the scene, where it is distinctly evident that Saviour is raised to the cross (Pl. 2) already digged into the earth. By the same irrefutable evidence of the Lord’s Crucifix on the driven into previously cross it is fresco in the Vatoped Monastery (Holy Mount Athos), painted in 1312 by famous Byzantine artist Manuel Panselinos (Pl. 3). The composition "leading of Christ to the cross" exists in the adornment of the Archbishop Dionysius of Suzdal's ark—reliquarium dated by 1383 (the Museums of the Moscow Kremlin—Pl. 4, 5). It was in Constantinople, where he attained to be elevated in metropolitans by the Byzantine Patriarch, in 1381, by "very great price", as the Archbishop Dionysius of Suzdal wrote, he "had acquired the Passion of the Christ", in number of which there were the "Hair pulled out from God Christ's beard and water drained from His edge to the Holy Rood", "The Lord’s Blood drained from the precious edges by the piercing spear", "Sponge soaked in vinegar and gived to drink the Christ crucified on the cross", etc.

 

Pl. 4
 

Pl. 5

        Furthermore, in the Gospel text about the conversation of Christ with Nicodemius—one of the judaic chiefs—there is the prophecy about the Crucifix, in which it is conducted the parallel with the copper serpent in the desert. This serpent was made by Moses on the command of God for the rescuing of any Israeli, which was suffered from the snake’s bites, and for the universal review the serpent was raised to the high pole of the banner, which stands in the march camp. For the salvation of any believer in the eternal life Jesus Christ announces His Passion to Nicodemius by reminding about the copper serpent, similarly for which the Son of Man must be raised to the cross. That is why so important what means were employed of put Christ to the Crucifix, and the annoying error of the director of film "The Passion of the Christ" literally removes out of the frame the recollection about copper serpent.

The Passion according to Andrey Tarkovsky

        Obviously, so inadmissible error of Mel Gibson at the culmination moment of Crucifix is connected with the fact that as director he felt strong external cinematographic effect in the raising of Jesus Christ already crucified on the 70-kilogram cross. It is possible that a similar producer method was influenced by the Andrey Tarkovsky’s film "The Passion according to Andrey", where the scene of crucifix was taken exactly the same way—at first Crucifix is commited on the cross, which lies on the earth, and then already this cross is raised by the ropes in a body. The influence of the known film of Tarkovsky about the Old-Russian iconographer Andrey Rublev is especially strong noticeably in the reproducing of the realistic details of the violence happened on the screen. Episode in Tarkovsky's film of the torture of fr. Patrickey, the sacristan of the Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir (in the performance of Yuri Nikulin), to whom alive boiling tin was poured into the throat, let us completely compare with the picture of crucifix in Mel Gibson’s film, where the blood flows as river, the crunch of the crucified bones is audible and to attention of the audience it is demonstrated how the 6-centimeter nails made in full size are clogged into the body. The hands, which crucify Christ nail by nails to the cross, are blowup showed, and this is the hands of director himself. Getting tired from the gossips about that, who is precisely charged by the film with the murders of Christ—Jews or Romans, Gibson thus decided to remove all questions by accepting himself the fault for the scene of crucifix. The same approach is inherent to James Caviezel, who said that "this film does not search for the guilties. We all are guilty in Christ's death. My sins and your sins raise Him to that cross".

From the evil to the good

 

Pl. 6
 

Pl. 7

        However, the picture of crucifix far outgoing from the historical authenticity could be inspired to Mel Gibson by cultural tradition of West, and also by Catholic experts, among whom it is mentioned the professor of the theology Dr. Willi Burgheimer (Wuerzburg university). Such picturesque masterpieces as "Raising of the Cross" (Nuremberg, 1480/1490) from the National gallery of arts, "Crucifix" (1617 g.) by Pieter Brueghel the Younger from the Museum of fine arts (Budapest), "Raising of the Cross" by Rubens (1620–1621) from Louvre, "Raising of the Cross" by great Rembrandt (1632) (Pl. 6), and also a number of book miniatures (Pl. 7),—all of them are followed to one and the same traditional scheme of the scene of crucifix, as in Gibson's film. It is here appropriated to resemble about the remark of French researcher Jacques Brean, that after Byzantine emperor Constantine the Great's cancellation of execution through the crucifix people rapidly forgot how such a death occurred. In his opinion, it is difficultly to find the image of the crucified Saviour, which corresponds to historical authenticity, in the western fine art.

        Some observers of Mel Gibson’s film hurried to treat its genre as "passion operation", which, allegedly, is inherentede to the predominantly western Christian (Catholic) mentality of the producers of the film, where the emotional-sensual perception of Gospel subjects is postulated. In this case the criticisms completely miss from the form, that the development of the passionate part of the human soul was one of the main artistic principles of eastern Christian culture in the epoch of Paleolog’s revival. It is remarkable in this connection the statement of one of the most authoritative Byzantine theologians of the XIV c. Gregory Palamas, whose writings about the monastic practice of silence (hesychia) are now claimed by intellectuals throughout the world. Exactly in the controversy with the representative of the western spiritual schools Varlaam Gregory Palamas asserted that "the impassivity (apateia) consists not of killing of the passionate part of the soul, but of her transfer from the evil to the good".

        On these spiritual principles there were founded the clearly expressed emotionalism and the expressive artistic manner of such world famous iconographers of the XIV c. as Manuel Panselinos in Greece and Theofan Greek in Russia. It is gratifying that the work of contemporary western director, dedicated to the Passion of the Christ, can help the Russian audience to find the lost capability in many respects and many to be anxious to the very depths of soul and to direct their personal passions from the evil for good.

List of plates:

  1. Exaltation of the Cross. Icon. 1497. St. Andrey Rublev’s Central Museum of Ancient Russian Culture, КП 184
  2. Raising to the Cross. The scene of the reliquarium (stavroteka) of Cardinal Vissarion. The second-half of the XIV c. Academy gallery, Venice.
  3. Leading to the cross. Fresco by Manuel Panselinos. 1312. Vatoped Monastery (Holy Mount Athos).
  4. Leading of Christ to the Cross. The adornment of the Archbishop Dionysius of Suzdal‘s ark—reliquarium. 1383. Detail. Museums of the Moscow Kremlin.
  5. Entombment. The adornment of the Archbishop Dionysius of Suzdal‘s ark – reliquarium. 1383. Detail. Museums of the Moscow Kremlin.
  6. The Raising of the Cross. Rembrandt. 1632.
  7. Crucifix. French miniature. XIV c.


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