Spinning the Passion Story

Humanities9 MIN READ

Colby scholars find 13th-century Christians altered central Biblical story to their own ends

By Laura Meader
July 30, 2020

In what looks like a modern-day comic strip, an ancient story unfolds. Deep-red borders separate seven scenes of brightly clad characters animating a tale of betrayal, bloodshed, and, ultimately, redemption.

Behold the Beam of the Passion, an 800-year-old painting that retells the story of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion—with a twist.

This version of the oft-told Passion Story unexpectedly includes Muslims. It also shows Judas, betraying Jesus in the first scene and reappearing in the crucifixion scene, though not as he’s typically portrayed—having committed suicide. Instead, he’s alive, engaged, and capped with a golden glow, a nimbus.

These alterations to an otherwise familiar story puzzled a team of Colby researchers, who spent years sleuthing for clues to reveal the hidden message embedded therein.

Beam of the Passion
The Beam of the Passion, a 13th-century painted pine beam measuring 20 x 233.5 x 4 cm, is part of the collection at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya in Barcelona, Spain.

With interdisciplinary collaboration and a wealth of finely honed expertise, Professor of Art Véronique Plesch, Pulver Family Associate Professor of Jewish Studies David Freidenreich, and Anna Spencer ’16 merged their skills to decode the Beam of the Passion. The result is a groundbreaking paper by Plesch and Freidenreich recently published in the journal Studies in Iconography.

“Nobody put it together the way that we did,” said Freidenreich. “Nobody had noticed certain aspects of the work, like the halo on Judas. … And no one tried to understand why figures would be portrayed as Muslims in this time and in this place.”

The artist altered the Passion Story, they argue, to use anti-Muslim sentiment raging across Europe’s 13th-century Iberian Peninsula to bolster faith in Jesus Christ and the Eucharist. The Beam of the Passion is not about Muslims, as other scholarship suggests, but was intended for Christians. The painting, they conclude, was meant to powerfully convey a message about what it means to be a good Christian.

To decipher the painting, the team considered it from different angles—architecturally, politically, and liturgically—employing their respective expertise: Plesch, in Passion iconography and representations of Judas; Freidenreich, in Christian representations of Jews and Muslims; and Spencer, whose curiosity and initial research spawned the entire project.

In 2013 Freidenreich learned about the painting while on sabbatical in Barcelona, where the painted pine beam resides in the collection of the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. The following year, he introduced the beam in a Jewish studies class in which Spencer was a student. Spencer, a religious studies major and art minor, researched and wrote two papers on the historic artifact. One was written jointly with Freidenreich and presented at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting.

Spencer shared her research with Plesch, with whom she’d taken art history classes. Plesch immediately took an interest and soon joined the research team. After Spencer graduated and started graduate studies at Union Theological Seminary, Plesch and Freidenreich continued to tease out the beam’s secrets.

They began by looking at the beam together, sharing hunches, and reading the existing literature, much of it written in Catalan. Plesch, a native of Argentina, discovered she could read Catalan, not because she can read Spanish but rather Medieval Provençal, which is similar to Catalan.

The Beam of the Passion measures more than two meters long and 20 centimeters high. It was painted on the Iberian Peninsula during a period of renewed emphasis on the Christian doctrine of transubstantiation—the belief that the wafer and wine of the Eucharist are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Worshippers of the time, Freidenreich said, found the doctrine difficult to believe.

Scene 2, Flagellation; detail from the Beam of the Passion; Barcelona, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. Photo courtesy of Véronique Plesch.

The beam most likely hung in a church above a Eucharistic altar where a priest celebrated the Mass directly below it, his back to the congregation. In 13th-century Europe, Plesch said, altars were often pushed against a wall to make room for growing congregations and secondary altars. Canopies and altarpieces, like the beam, proliferated, appearing behind altars and almost always incorporating an image of Jesus. These artworks became focal points during the Mass—and something more engaging than the back of priests’ heads.

They also functioned within the liturgy in a significant way.

During Mass, as the priest raised the host and evoked Jesus Christ, the altarpiece was directly behind him, Plesch said. Having the host juxtaposed with a representation of Jesus Christ made the transformation from wafer and wine to body and blood more believable.

The way this works in the Beam of the Passion revolves around how the story unfolds: from Jesus’s arrest, to the flagellation, the road to Calvary, and the crucifixion. Then the final scenes: the descent from the cross, the entombment, and the holy women at the tomb, found empty. Jesus has vanished.

“But the body’s not gone,” Freidenreich said. “It’s below the beam in the form of the Eucharistic host.” The beam reinforced the reality of transubstantiation and sent the message that to believe in it is central to devout Christian behavior.

So how did the darker-skinned figures factor in? Previous scholarship had established them as Muslims because of the fringed scarves and sashes they’re wearing, seen in other pieces of the period. Plesch and Freidenreich unearthed yet other examples of Muslims in artworks with the aid of Colby student research assistants Sarah Rossien ’19 and Annie Muller ’22. They also consulted David Simon, the Ellerton and Edith Jetté Professor of Art, Emeritus, whose field is Spanish Romanesque art.

They wanted to understand why, if Islam didn’t exist at the time of Christ, were Muslims in the beam?

“Precisely because we’re in 13th-century Spain,” said Freidenreich, “and Christians are defining themselves in opposition to Muslims,” also called Moors. During this period called the Reconquista, Christian forces were driving out the Moors, who had lived in the Iberian Peninsula for the last 700 years.

More importantly, Freidenreich and Plesch noted, the Moors in the Beam of the Passion displace Jews—long cast as “killers of Christ” who steal consecrated Eucharistic wafers, and stab them or boil them or do other things to get at Christ, Freidenreich said. The purpose behind these stories in the 13th century was to reinforce transubstantiation. Because if Jews believed the wafers embodied Jesus Christ, so should Christians.

The same dynamic is true in the Beam of the Passion, but in 13th-century Iberia, vilifying Muslims was “more urgent, more salient, and more compelling” than vilifying Jews, Plesch and Freidenreich argue. “By making Muslims the villains of the Passion Story, the artist can make his point that much more effectively,” Freidenreich said.

If the message wasn’t clear enough, the artist loaded the beam’s crucifixion scene with meaning. To decipher this critical scene, Plesch and Freidenreich relied heavily on the tools of iconography, the study of how images tell stories. They compared and contrasted scores of images of the Passion Story. Freidenreich traveled to the Index of Medieval Art at Princeton and consulted with experts there.

Scene 1, Arrest; detail from the Beam of the Passion; Barcelona, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. Photo courtesy of Véronique Plesch. Here, a bearded Judas is seen betraying Christ with a kiss. The bare rectangular block reflects damage that occurred when the beam was likely moved to a new location and perhaps attached to a ceiling.

They began by looking at Judas, who typically appears in the Passion Story betraying Jesus with a kiss. In the beam, however, he’s given extra attention with the addition of the Latin words AVE RABI, or “Hail, Rabbi!” next to him.

“It’s very rare to have text added on like this,” said Plesch, an expert in word and image studies. “And it’s unnecessary. It’s clear what’s going on—there’s no need to highlight the scene with words.”

Latin words also appear in the crucifixion scene, where Judas reappears and converses with the Moors. QVID AD NOS—“What is that to us?”—the Moors shout out. According to the Bible, a similar conversation took place between Judas and the priests and elders of Jerusalem before the crucifixion. Judas shows remorse for forsaking Jesus, saying “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” The priests then exclaim QVID AD NOS, dismissing the notion that Jesus is innocent.

Scene 4: Crucifixion, detail from the Beam of the Passion; Barcelona, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. Photo courtesy of Véronique Plesch. Judas, far right, appears with a nimbus at a time in the Passion Story when the Bible tells us he was dead by suicide.

Transporting Judas and this conversation into the beam’s crucifixion scene, the artist transforms it, making the Moors exclaim QVID AD NOS as they gesture toward Jesus on the cross. Their cry implies: “What is this crucifixion to us? We don’t believe in the crucifixion. It is nothing to us!”

But to Christians, the crucifixion is everything—it’s Christianity’s core tenet. The Moorish “priests” mocking the crucifixion and rejecting Judas’s own statement epitomize evil, Freidenreich said. “So compared to them, even Judas is a saint.”

All of this points to the beam’s clear message: To be a pious Christian, reject the opinions expressed by the evil Muslims. Renounce your doubts and revere the body of Christ in all its forms, including the contemporary form embodied in the Eucharist wafer.

What Plesch and Freidenreich’s scholarship has brought to the understanding of medieval art is that anti-Muslim rhetoric and anti-Jewish rhetoric serve the same purpose—to persuade fellow Christians to adopt certain contested aspects of Christian beliefs and practices, said Freidenreich. The Beam of the Passion reveals that medieval Christians cast both Jews and Muslims as villains.

This understanding has implications in the present day, said Freidenreich, who is currently writing a book on Christian representations of Jews and Muslims. These representations, he said, shed light on contemporary definitions of what it means to be a good American.

“I can’t do premodern scholarship that doesn’t relate to the present day,” he said. “What I’m doing helps us to understand where we are, how we see the world today, how we might make different choices than our predecessors.”

Unraveling the motives and beliefs our ancestors left unspoken in artworks is work broadened and deepened by interdisciplinary collaboration. Plesch and Freidenreich exemplify the power of using more than one lens to unearth their voices—even those muted for eight centuries. “As a result,” Plesch said, “we went to places we might not have individually.”