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Column: One professor’s ‘Passion’

Dislocated, almost torn out of their sockets, Christ’s arms looked as if they were pinioned from shoulder to wrist by the twisted cords of the muscles. The tendons of the armpit were cracking under the strain. The hands were wide open, the fingers contorted in a wild gesture in which were supplication and reproach, yet also benediction. The quivering chest was greasy with sweat. The ribs were pushed out like the staves of a barrel, and the flesh was swollen and bruised, spotted with flea-bites, speckled as with pin-pricks by splinters that had broken off from the rods at the scourging and still showed here and there under the skin.

Purulence had set in. The blood pouring over the hip from the wound in the side was thicker now and the deep red color of mulberry juice. Rivulets of pinkish serum, of milky matter, of watery fluid the color of grey Moselle, oozed from the chest, soaking the belly and the twisted loin-cloth below … The feet had begun to putrefy and were turning green beneath the rivers of blood. Spongy and gory, they were a horrible sight, the swollen flesh rising above the head of the nail …

The head, huge and shapeless, hung in exhaustion, a ragged crown of thorns encircling it, and an expression of pain and terror still gleaming in one haggard, half-open eye. The face was cavernous, the forehead drawn, the cheeks drained of blood …

A few weeks ago, together with my wife and 11-year-old granddaughter, as well as a number of close friends, I saw “The Passion of the Christ,” a movie by Mel Gibson. At the end of the showing, I had tears welling in my eyes, my wife was sobbing into a tissue and my granddaughter was saying, “That was cool! I want us to buy the DVD when it comes out!”

And it was cool, that is, a masterpiece of religious art in every respect, but this time in the still relatively new medium of cinema. The stations of the cross proceeded across the screen like a series of engravings or woodcuts by Albrecht D?rer or Martin Schongauer; or paintings by Duccio di Buoninsegna, Fra Angelico, Francisco de Zurbaran or Guido Reni; or the wall paintings or icons on the iconostasis of any of the monastery churches at Mt. Athos. Such is great Christian art, transfiguring suffering into beauty, inspiring compunction in the viewer.

And that means emphasizing, in many cases, the physical suffering of Christ. The words cited at the beginning were written, but not to describe the appearance of Christ on the cross as depicted in Gibson’s film. Rather, they depict the central panel of the transcendent Isenheim Altarpiece of Matthias Gr?newald, painted in 1515, and the inspiration for one of the greatest 20th-century operas, “Mathis der Maler,” by Paul Hindemith. The startling description of the scene was written in 1891 by Joris-Karl Huysmans, decadent novelist extraordinaire and a convert to Catholicism who wrote one of the most remarkable series of novels inspired by religious conversion ever attempted. Both the painting and the description, if anything, go further than Gibson did in stressing the sheer physicality of the Passion. And in his “Mocking of Christ,” in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, Gr?newald too, like Gibson half a millennium later, shows Christ enduring the vicious beating of a gang of thugs, their mouths twisted into sneers of mockery and sarcastic hatred.

But then, does one have to be a believing Christian to appreciate this film? Does one have to be a believing Christian to appreciate Gr?newald or D?rer’s “Great Passion” woodcuts or Duccio’s Duomo cycle at Siena? Does one have to be a believing Christian to be moved when the Jews in Bach’s “Passion of St. Matthew” cry out in one thunderous roar for Barabbas to be released instead of Christ? I loved them all when I was an un-bar mitzvah-ed, nonobservant Jew in my teens, twenties and thirties. But I must admit that now that I am a Christian, having been baptized at St. Katharine’s Greek Orthodox Church in Falls Church, Va., in 1988 at the age of 44, I love them even more. They all point not only toward aesthetic contemplation, wonderful as it is, but religious contemplation as well, toward which, in the last analysis, the aesthetic is intended to be a signpost.

The writer is a professor of Chinese literature.

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