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The life and death of Jesus Christ – the religious leader who was said to be born of a virgin, performed miracles throughout his life, and whom the Romans ultimately crucified for his beliefs – is one of the world’s most widely known stories.
Jesus of Nazareth became the central figure of Christianity, in which he is believed to have been the long-awaited Messiah (Christ) that the Old Testament had prophesied. After his tragic, untimely death, his spiritually driven life inspired four gospels written by his apostles and defined many of Christianity’s central doctrines and teachings.
Nearly 2,000 years after his crucifixion, the story of Jesus Christ continues to be re-enacted around the Easter holiday every year, all across the Christian world.
But once every 10 years in a small Bavarian town, a truly unique event occurs: An entire German village of over 2,000 people takes to the stage. It’s known as the Oberammergau Passion Play, and the massive production has become world-renowned, drawing over half a million people who travel to see the biggest, most elaborate passion play in the world. In 2020, Zegrahm guests will have an opportunity to witness this incredible production.
THE PASSION OF JESUS CHRIST
The Passion of Jesus Christ refers to the final period of his life, from the moment when he triumphantly entered Jerusalem to cheering crowds on Palm Sunday up until his crucifixion on Mount Calvary. In this case, the term passion refers to an account of the physical suffering and death of a Christian martyr (from the Latin passio, which means “to endure” or “to suffer”).
Christ’s passion is considered among Christians to be the passion, and centers around the climactic event of his suffering on the cross, culminating in his ultimate sacrifice and salvation.
Passion plays are reenactments of important life events, and the Passion of Jesus has been brought to life in many forms of art throughout history. You can see it portrayed in ancient frescoes, in stained glass windows, and inspiring books, music, and films (most notably Mel Gibson’s controversial 2004 biblical drama, which graphically portrayed the violent brutality of Christ’s suffering ).
The passion of Christ as we know it today has been taken from accounts recorded in the Bible’s books of Matthew (26:36–27:56), Mark (14:32–15:41), Luke (22:39–23:49), and John (18:1–19:37). Collectively, it tells the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, suffering, and death. It does not typically include the details of his resurrection.
The story begins the night prior to his crucifixion, and covers events such as his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (where he prayed so intensely that his sweat turned to blood droplets), his betrayal by Judas Iscariot, abandonment and denial by his disciples, and his arrest by the Sanhedrin priests. It also covers his trials: The Gospels record that seven different trials took place at the hands of the Roman and Jewish authorities who ruled Israel at the time, though the most famous was his ultimate trial before Pontius Pilate.
The final part of the play is arguably the most difficult to watch, as it portrays the increasingly violent beatings Jesus received, and his final hours spent nailed on the cross. Roman crucifixion at the time involved three nails, with one driven into each hand (or wrist), and one through both ankles as a way to secure the person’s feet. While Jesus hung from the cross, Roman soldiers pierced his sides.
This passion narrative is commemorated around the world during Holy Week – the week before Easter, starting on Palm Sunday – which is the most solemn week of the year for Christians. Countless churches, schools, and communities remember the passion, death, and resurrection. On Good Friday, people flood into Catholic churches to participate in the liturgy, listen to scripture, join street processions, and come together in prayer and hymn to honor Christ’s sacrifice for our sins.
Holy week traditions take place annually all around the globe and many feature performances of Christ’s passion. But the Bavarian town of Oberammergau has a truly unique tradition, and once every ten years hosts the largest known (and longest-running) passion play in the world.
THE PASSION PLAY IN OBERAMMERGAU
Taking place just once every decade, the Oberammergau Passion Play is the largest amateur stage production in the world. Around 2,000 locals (including 450 children) participate in bringing Christ’s story to life, which is almost half the total population of the town. The production takes place in an open-air setting over the course of eight hours (from 2:30 PM to 10:30 PM, with a 3-hour break for dinner), and is a massive event that attracts more than 500,000 visitors to Oberammergau.
The play is performed repeatedly over the course of five months, from May to October, and recounts the last five days of Jesus’ life. There were 102 performances in 2010, and a similar schedule is planned to kick off in May of 2020. All members of the cast are fully committed to their characters and dedicated to achieving authenticity. By February of 2019, the cast will have stopped shaving and cutting their hair (even local police are excused from the regulations that require them to stay cleanly shaven)
By August of 2019, rehearsals will be well underway. The passion play has taken place in Oberammergau every decade for the last 400 years, and participants dedicate a full year of their lives to preparing for the production. Only residents of Oberammergau are allowed to take part or people who were born and raised there.
From the main speaking parts to the production team and extras in the crowd scenes, the cast members are all ordinary people. They’re teachers, shopkeepers, lawyers, and other locals who ultimately return to their everyday lives after the play is over. But you won’t be able to tell they’re amateurs: The production has historically been described as so realistic, it’s easy to forget you’re watching a play.
The original script was based on four manuscripts from the 15th and 16th centuries, though it has been adapted and modernized a bit over the decades. The play you see today is a combination of dramatic dialogue, choral music, and tableaux vivants – static scenes from the Old Testament that are recreated by motionless actors (the word is French for “living picture”) while being narrated.
THE HISTORY OF THE OBERAMMERGAU PASSION PLAY
The history of the passion play in Oberammergau dates back to 1634, when the town’s first known production was mounted. The Thirty Years War ravaged central Europe from 1618–1648, and this was the most devastating war in history at the time. There was widespread poverty, sickness, and starvation, and countless thousands of people died as the result of a disastrous plague.
Desperate to ease their suffering, in 1633 the people of Oberammergau made a solemn vow that they would stage a play every 10 years to commemorate the passion of Christ if God would save them from the plague. Legend has it that shortly after this vow was made, the local death rate sharply declined. Those who were already afflicted quickly recovered, and there were no further cases of Bubonic Plague.
Believing that they had been spared, the town kept their promise: During Pentecost in 1634, they staged the first passion play on the graves of those who had fallen victim to the plague. Their pledge to continue producing the play once every decade has been kept with few exceptions (one being a cancellation in 1940 due to WWII), but the venue and script has evolved over the years in line with the style of its time. A state-of-the-art theatre capable of seating 4,700 people now houses the production, which is worlds away from a makeshift stage over an open pit for victims of the plague.
Originally a simple reformation tragedy, then an elaborate Baroque play, the Passion continually evolves to remain reflective of the times. Christian attitudes towards Jewish people during the Nazi era saw a controversial theme of anti-Semitism introduced, with the Jews blamed for the death of Christ. But the script has since been revised. The 41st production of the play in 2000 saw the greatest revision of the script since 1860, with nearly 2,000 new costumes and 28 new production designs.
This also marked a new era of inclusivity in terms of casting. Up until this point, only Christian citizens of Oberammergau were permitted to take part, but in 2000 this regulation was revoked to allow Muslim residents to participate. In 2010 the play was re-scripted once again, and new compositions were created to involve music as a more fundamental part of the performance.
The show was also extended into the evening, and a new movable stage roof introduced (the stage itself is still open air, but seats are now under a roof cover in case of rain). There is no doubt that the script, music, and stage design will be revised once again for 2020 in order to keep the message relevant to modern times.
It is likely that the passion of Christ was acted out before the 1600s, even in Oberammergau. Pastor Joseph A Daisenberger writes in his village chronicles that the community’s pledge “didn’t intend to introduce a new, formerly unfamiliar custom, but to preserve an age-old custom for all eternity by promising to perform it regularly.”
Preserving the history of the Oberammergau Passion Play is clearly a major point of pride for the community, and roles often run in the family. Some local families are able to trace their ancestors’ participation back for centuries, and it is not uncommon for up to four generations to take part in a production at any one time.
HOW TO SEE THE PLAY IN 2020
In 2020, there are 103 performances of the Oberammergau Passion Play planned between May 16 and October 4, and tickets (as always) are in high demand. Some 500,000 people are expected to attend, and more than half of those expected will travel from outside of Germany.
This will be the fourth production mounted by 56-year old director Christian Stuckl, who was credited at age 27 with ridding the performance of its former anti-semitic and patriarchal tones.
While the play is presented in German, scripts are provided in several languages. The Oberammergau production of this ancient story (which most people already know) is so captivating, the language barrier is hardly an issue.
Accommodations and tickets to the play are included in Zegrahm’s Austria, Germany & Switzerland with the Oberammergau Passion Play tour. Seeing the passion play as part of a group tour means that tickets will be available on those specific dates, as individual tickets will often sell out years in advance.
OTHER THINGS TO DO IN OBERAMMERGAU
Our expedition highlights include a full morning at your leisure in the charming Bavarian town. This beautiful hamlet, which is nestled in the breathtaking mountain landscapes of the Bavarian Alps, is a quintessential German fairytale town. And while the passion play is obviously the proudest feather in the area’s cap, there are plenty of other worthwhile things to do in Oberammergau.
For travelers interested in nature, the village sprawls along the Ammer River Valley, which offers scenic hikes and challenging climbing opportunities. There are around 150 different walking trails throughout Oberammergau, but one of the most popular is the trail to the summit of Kofel. It’s one of the town’s most prominent landmarks, and the view from the top offers dramatic views across the valley and the Bavarian Alps. The round-trip hike takes about 90 minutes, but this is a rocky peak that is quite steep and does require good footwear. Alternatively, you can catch a chairlift that takes you directly to the picturesque summit.
For truly adventurous types, an especially fun thing to do is taking the Alpine Coaster at the Kolbensattel. With breathtaking views of the valley and white-knuckle curves, this is one of the world’s largest toboggan runs. The 1.6-mile steel track snakes around 73 bends at speeds of up to 25 mph (40 kilometers per hour) and includes a 1,300-foot drop. The track starts at 1,258 meters, and at its highest point, you’ll be four meters above the ground.
Oberammergau also has a long history of traditional arts and crafts and is celebrated for its traditional woodcarvings, intricate frescoes, and façade paintings. Bavarian themes (such as fairy tales) and biblical scenes are painted on many homes and buildings, which is a tradition that began about two centuries before street art started becoming a trend.
Taking a walk down local streets and through neighborhoods feels a little like stepping into a storybook. Referred to as Luftlmalerei in German, the buildings are covered in stories and characters painted in bright lively colors. Oberammergau’s main street is lined with craft shops: Woodcarvers reflect 500 years of tradition, and for a unique souvenir you can purchase an authentic Bavarian cuckoo clock.
Local churches typically have the finest displays of woodcarvings worked into their décor. Religious sites worth noting include Ettal Monastery and the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Wieskirche pilgrimage church, which is located about 30 minutes outside of Oberammergau.
BIO: Megan Jerrard is an Australian Journalist and the founder and Senior Editor of Mapping Megan, an award-winning travel blog bringing you the latest in adventure travel from all over the globe.