Questions on the Muessig’s “Performance of the Passion”

Questions on Muessig’s “Performance of the Passion”


  1. This article refines the distinctions that define ritual, theater, and liturgy. How does the Absent Other function in the performances of Elizabeth of Spalbeek, Margarita of Cortona, and Gertrude van der Oosten?


  1. Discuss the role of the witness in the above performances.


  1. How did Margarita of Cortona use visual art?


  1. How does the collective creativity participate in the construction of the ritual? Is this always a necessary ingredient in rituals?


  1. What was distinctive about the preaching strategy of Ladislaus on Good Friday in 1505? Isn’t the Middle Ages fundamentally theatrical in nature?!


  1. How did this article intersect with last week’s readings?



14 responses

  1. What I found particularly interesting in this essay was the ways in which the various “performers”–especially Ladislaus–blurred the boundary between the performance of ritual and the performance of theatre in their enactments of the Passion. In laying out the differences between ritual and performance, Muessig says Schechnner argues that ritual provides efficacy while theatre provides entertainment. I can’t help but think, though, that the dramatic spectacle of Laudislaus rising into the air or Margarita of Cortona’s apparent torment as she performs Christ’s death inherently has entertainment as well as efficacy. Yes, it brought about compassion in the viewers, but I would argue that their wholehearted engagement with the performance was also the effect of entertainment.

    I’m also interested in the cited passage from Philip of Herkenrode’s vita of Elizabeth of Spalbeek in which he compares Elizabeth’s body to “parchment or charters” and that it appears as if “she were a living and visible Veronica, just like a moving picture and animated narrative of redemption.” I think there’s a lot to be said on the bodies of these performers being meditated upon as if they were texts or images describing the Passion. Rather than images or texts provoking affective devotion, compassion, or visions from their audiences, it is the bodies of the performers that do so.

  2. Nicole, Your observations are very astute. I think there are several aspects of Schechner’s definition of ritual that are open to debate as they encroach on the characteristics of both entertainment and liturgy. Ladislaus’ sermon was a performance that fulfilled all the tenets of good theater! Your second point about Elizabeth’s body as parchment conforms to a popular late medieval trope of Christ’s body as parchment and his blood as ink. We will be looking at one of my favorite manuscripts from this period (Egerton 1831) where this idea is taken to extremes in several pages being covered by spattered blood drops that continue to rain on the images of Christ as a Man of Sorrows and the Arma Christi. In other words, I totally agree with you that the bodies are the mediating agents of Passion devotion.

    • I agree with Nicole that these performances certainly had entertainment value in addition to ritual or religious value. Consequently, while I disagree with Schechner that collective creativity is a necessary ingredient in all ritual, in these specific examples it is actually the key ingredient. As Muessig states later in the article, without an audience, or the collective creativity, the stigmata lost all its meaning. Similarly with the impassioned performance of Ladislaus and the actresses in the Passion plays. However, I don’t think that all rituals must include an audience. Can’t someone’s personal piety or devotion manifest itself in a ritual context while still remaining inherently personal, i.e. solitary? Do ascetics not perform rituals?

  3. Ashley makes a good point about rituals. For the ones Muessig refers to necessitate an audience to activate their power. Regarding the use of images in Margarita of Cortona’s 12 hour performances, she doesn’t explicitly use props (or at least this article doesn’t stipulate that she did), Margarita herself possesses the power of a holy image. During her trance she functions like a medium for the audience around her to access the divine. The Passion is reenacted for her alone and she conveys what she sees to her audience through sound, emotion, and physical gesturing. In this case, she herself becomes a work of art which people sought out to access a higher level of spiritual understanding. Supposedly, wounds and marks appeared on Margarita’s body during her 12 hour trance which further underscores her role as a dauerwunder.

  4. What I found most interesting is the shared connection between many stories, that is meditation/focus on the image of Christ, since we last discussed images inspiring visions. Another aspect not yet discussed sufficiently is how the viewer of these passion plays first takes on the role of Mary watching Jesus suffer before becoming transformed/transported into the feelings of Christ himself or pity.

    I agree that the body serves as the essential medium, for it is a 3-D version of images except animated whereas statues are inanimate (or so we think —weeping statues, statues coming to life, etc.).

  5. I find this discussion very interesting and very connected to the ideas we exchanged last week about images. Embodied knowing seems to be key here—and Mary experiencing the Co-Compassio becomes the ideal role model for those who wish to imitate Christ’s suffering.

  6. Question 2:
    Witness is important to the performances discussed in this article. Witnesses transform a personal spiritual experience into something that is shared by a community. This gives the performance additional power. On page 131, Muessig explained that Philip understood Elizabeth as a pedagogical tool, accessible even to those who were not able to read printed material. I think it is interesting that a woman gets credit for reaching so many people so effectively.

  7. Indeed, women continue their role as the emotional pulse of society, particularly in this context. Think of Greek women hired as mourners—this is a venerable tradition! What else struck you about this article? Could you see the parallels between preaching and the visual arts?

  8. Witnesses, and the importance of the community Hannah mentions, intersect with the collective creativity you ask about in Question 4; without the response of a crowd these performances would have been empty. As Muessig mentions on page 133-4, “Enactments of the Passion and the stigmata were not vehicles for personal devotion; rather they were an affirmation of belief in the crucified Christ for the whole community to gaze upon.” A performance of the passion like the ones Muessig provides us wouldn’t have the same effect as a personal meditation on the suffering of Christ; the really important part probably would have been that communal emotion, and the effects of watching, if not participating in, this ritual/performance together.

  9. I agree. I believe the community would have reinforced any personal devotional experience considerably. I think that is why the church was so nervous about the laity stepping up to the devotional plate and doing their own thing: it took away the power of the ecclesiastics!

  10. During our in-class discussion the topic of theatrics in medieval preaching was particularly interesting to me. While we do not use the same mechanisms today, such as pulleys or other ancient methods of stage production, I think that our preaching methods (especially in more extremist sects or churches) aren’t too far separated. As we mentioned in class, televangelists and other media portrayals of Christian leaders clearly try to grab and keep viewers’ attention, which is the main goal of theatrical presentation. Even on non-visual formats such as radio or in online articles, presenters use dramatic devices to the point that a Christian radio show may not be significantly different than a narrative podcast, which similarly attempts to hold onto listeners’ attention. I feel that then and now these theatrical methods signify both fragility and corruption. The latter is obvious–Ladislaus’s intricately detailed production surely costed more than a simple congregation might, with all his props and special effects. Likewise, televangelists often spend inordinate amounts of money on production costs, as well as on simply getting airtime on a major broadcasting channel. The fragility is one explanation for this corruption. I cannot fathom a reason for all this extravagance if not a deep-seated insecurity, then and now, for the continuation of the Christian church–if only the preachers’ own faction of the Christian church. In the late Middle Ages, of course, this was a legitimate insecurity for Catholicism, as the Protestant Reformation began with Martin Luther’s 95 Theses in 1517, only 12 years after Muessig cites the advent of Ladislaus’s sermons/stage productions (134).

  11. I agree with your analogy Amy between these two breeds of preachers. I was surprised, however, to read that the biggest threat to a medieval sermon was boredom! As a result, the guides that were written for preachers urged the use of special effects to keep their audiences engaged. Special effects were advocated to prevent the worshipers from sleeping in the back row. Le plus ca change….

  12. Question 4: How does the collective creativity participate in the construction of the ritual? Is this always a necessary ingredient in rituals?

    In Muessig’s article, the discussion of the meaning of the stigmata is extremely interesting. In Gertrude’s account, Muessig states that the stigmata has no meaning without an audience. Like I said in class, a spectacle cannot be such if there is no one around to be a spectator. I would consider these women as an aid for meditation and prayer in corporeal form. When thinking of performance art in a contemporary setting, we know it has tangible power that a static work lacks. I am intrigued by the intricacies of their experiences as real but also as performance. I can’t help but draw the connection between the performance of these women’s experiences and royalty giving birth in public. It is similar in the way that it is a naturally occurring experience but it is opened up to the public as a symbol of something greater. It’s a spectacle and a sign of proof in both of these cases. However, the collective creativity is not required for something that is as scientifically explainable as giving birth. The collective creativity in these pious performances give meaning to the stigmata, which is seen as a miracle, lacking explanation.

  13. Very interesting comment—-I would have never thought about comparing female manifestations of piety with royal spectacles. When the kings of France were crowned in France, they were anointed with holy oil that gave them the power to heal scrofula. This divine touch is the basis of politicians kissing babies in our day! As I heard today on Krista Tippett’s On Being, believing is seeing! (I like that almost as much as seeing is knowing!) Onward!

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