Origins of the modern day Jesus movie

'John Carroll believes that the spiritual baton has been passed in the West from the Church to popular culture, in which spiritual and communal myths and values once associated with institutional religion and Christian culture are now to be found - modified, to be sure, but still sufficiently widespread and foundational to represent the spiritual community'.[1]

Must then a Christ perish in torment in every age to save those that have no imagination?[2]

Since the late first century and throughout the succeeding millennia there has been a desire, or perhaps a need, to portray the image and stories of Jesus in the media of the day. From images on the walls of the catacombs, to the passion play and street theatre of the medieval period, to paintings and frescoes of the renaissance. Christians have wanted an image of their saviour for all to see. This suffered somewhat of a setback in the fifteenth century at the reformation where images of Jesus were banned as Catholic and idolatrous in large parts of Western Europe. This embargo has led through the years to many protests and vandalism in the name of Protestant Evangelicalism, see below on 'Censorship'.

The great artists of the Renaissance together with the 'Passion Play'; see below, were to provide much of the raw material for later media to exploit as directors tried to legitimise their work by including readily recognisable images within their own work.[3]

The celluloid retelling of the Jesus story and the portrayal of the passion has been a cinematographic main stay from the inception of the media until the present day. Starting with the showing of the Oberammergau Passion play to audiences in 1897/8 many of the public have been engaged, fascinated, reaffirmed, and edified. While at the same time others have been shocked, vilified, appalled, and generally disgusted with the Jesus story on film.

The film has, in the main, been the depiction of a melodrama retelling the then theologically sound story of the 'perfidious Jew'[4] and their machinations to kill 'Jesus the saviour of the world'.

The Passion Play role model:

The Passion play started taking people's interest in the late 1800's. With the Jesus story for the general masses having it's genesis in the 1890's in the theatres and more significantly with the development of the photographic image. Society was changing and the middle class found themselves with a disposable income and more importantly time in which to enjoy their leisure. This filtered down into the lower levels of society as people trapped in 'sweatshop' work longed for the freedoms of their betters. Suffragettes and emancipation of slaves and the masses[5]. With the end of the civil war and the re-admission of the confederate States to the union[6]. Much more info required!

Just as the Cinema/Movie Theatre and television would be the great vehicle for escape in the 20th Century the theatre/stage was the instrument for the lower classes to escape from the drudgery of their daily lives in the late nineteenth Century.

In 1880 an impresario's Henry E. Abbey announced in September that he was planning to present a 'passion play' at Booth's Theatre in New York City. This as we will see below was met with extreme hostility and organised protests from clergy and influential theatrical people with the threat of closure if the play went ahead.[7] More Info!

The passion play included in the travelogue, however, was particularly well received as public showings of 'magic lantern' presentations at churches and the various self help groups run by the unions and other organisations, let the audience see a world that was not their own indeed they saw and participated in a world that was the stuff of history. It was into this social climate that the media 'Jesus story' began to progress. This was not subjected to the same opprobrium as the stage show[8]. Indeed sets of these slides could be bought from suppliers like the Riley Brothers of Bradford, UK.[9] For example they retailed a set of slides on the Life of Christ which contained 950 individual slides, quite an evening's entertainment or education. The acceptance of slides instead of live theatre and later cinematographic images was due in part to the fact that many of them were staged paintings much like the illustrated Bible. This method of imparting biblical knowledge to the people goes back at least to the Henrician 'Great Bible' or the Bible of Archbishop Cranmer, 1539, illustrated by William Tyndale. The 'Great Bible', as it became known due to its large size, was the first royally commissioned printed Bible in English. Its title- page illustration was a key instrument in conveying a fundamental political message: that papal authority over the church in England had been replaced by Henry VIII's Royal Supremacy.[10]

From the Reformation, through the Renaissance to the modern day artists and sculptors have found a ready market for their work. It is therefore appropriate that the first film makers should use these tableaux, and as we will see below in the section on the various films of the genre, proved a help and a hindrance, a legitimisation or a distraction when the movie, both silent and 'talky' came to the fore.[11]

The movie when it did appear was not universally seen as a new, innovative entertainment media. Indeed, "the cinema at this time was scarcely more than a novelty, momentarily doomed to occasional end-of-the-bill performances at vaudeville houses".[12]

  1. Scott Cowdell (2004) p.58
  2. George Bernard Shaw, St Joan - spoken by Bishop Cauchon.
  3. See. The Greatest Story Ever Told Stevens (1965)
  4. The Roman Mass prior to XXXX
  5. The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution officially abolished and continues to prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. It was adopted on December 6, 1865, and was then declared in a proclamation of Secretary of State William H. Seward on December 18.
  8. Couvares, (1996) p. 43
  9. Couvares, (1996) p. 45
  10. For more information see The Joseph Riley Archive, Bradford University,j.php
  11. Henry VIII's illuminated 'Great Bible' Full citation needed for bibliography!
  12. See the criticism of the 'Greatest story Ever Told' (George Stevens) in Medved (1984) pp. 134-142
  13. Fielding, R. (1970) p. 35

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