Re-enacting the death of Jesus: medieval Good Friday

Medieval churches tried to dramatize the death of Jesus; their idea of re-enactment was liturgical, symbolic, and heavily loaded with music. In Biblical dramas staged publicly during the summer, an actor might play the role of Jesus, tied and faux-nailed to a cross, but in the church at Easter season, the drama was not literal.

A typical small cathedral or large monastery had enough monks, priests and choir boys to act out several of the parts of the story. As the narrative was read or sung in Latin, actors might walk down the aisle or take the roles of asking or answering questions. One specific example I found in my research was that some choir boys might be assigned to take the altar cloths away when the story said that the soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ robe. Candles or other fires were put out when, in the story, Jesus died.

If you listen to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, which was composed around 1743, you can hear the later development of the medieval dramatic tradition. The choir often divides in two parts, asking and answering questions. One singer is the narrator, while another always sings the words of Jesus. When the narrative arrives at a dramatic moment, such as when the disciples all ask, “Is it I, Lord?” (that is, who will be the traitor), the music amplifies the drama by echoing the question eleven times. In this duet, Bach’s chorus interrupts the singers, demanding of the soldiers who have arrested Jesus, “let him go!” and later asks why thunder and lightning aren’t falling on the world for what is happening. The music becomes emotional and dramatic. While the medieval tradition was not as fully developed as Bach’s masterpiece, we know that they were using the harmony available to attempt a similar level of drama.

In the Depositio ceremony, the priests acted out Jesus’ burial. Some churches had a cross with a removable Jesus figure; in Germany, they were sometimes life-size. When a carved figure of Jesus was used, it was often symbolically washed with water and wine, just as if it were a real dead body. Sometimes they used a coffin, palls, and other real funeral trappings. Other (perhaps most) churches just buried a cross, as a symbol. They always included a piece of the wafer, the “host,” used in Mass. Since church doctrine stated that this bit of bread became a piece of Jesus’ body in a mystical way, it made sense to use the host literally as a bit of Jesus to bury.

They didn’t have to dig a hole or anything. Medieval churches had some kind of niche, box, or small closet that was the Easter sepulcher. The carved figure or cross, and the piece of host, were placed into the sepulcher in a solemn ceremony. Curtains were drawn across the niche, or the closet was closed; the burial was complete. The process was treated like a real funeral; the sepulcher had to be surrounded by candles, and monks began an all-night prayer vigil, just as they did when one of their brothers died.

The vigil continued all through Saturday. The church was dark, lit only by natural light from its windows. Lay people could come into the church and witness the constant prayer and singing. The priests hoped that their illiterate congregations would understand the story by experiencing the intensity of this dramatized death.

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