Artist Appreciation Month: Graphic Images of Christ's Passion in Art

Mel Gibson is not the first person to shock the public with a graphically violent portrayal of the Passion and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. In 1515, Matthias Grunewald revealed an artwork called The Isenheim Altarpiece to the monks and churchgoers at the Abbey of Saint Anthony in Isenheim, Germany. It was intended to provoke an emotional and devoted response at a time when many had grown frustrated with the Church and with the increasingly decadent secular lifestyle. The Passion of the Christ seems to have a similar intent.

If you are unsure of how much violence your students or youth group members can handle, consider exposing them to some violent art of the Passion and crucifixion before you decide whether to show the film with the group.

Reproductions of The Isenheim Altarpiece are available at your local library or on the Web. (For information on how to find Christian art on the web see article 441). Any book on late Gothic or early Renaissance art would offer several violent paintings of Christ crucified. Books containing Christian art from Latin America would contain violent images in a different style, both from the colonial era (1520-1700s) and from the latter half of the twentieth century. One of the most violent is The Tortured Christ, a Brazilian work. A photo of the sculpture can be found in a book by Hans-Ruedi Weber called On a Friday Noon: Meditations Under the Cross (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979).

Another alternative is to show a video of a passion play that includes testimony of what the play means to the community. A good option isThe Passion Play of San Fernando Cathedral. Each year the people of San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio, Texas, stage a passion play on Good Friday. The play takes place throughout the streets of San Antonio. The video includes comments from parishioners about what the event means to them and shows how the community puts the event together each year. The video is available at San Fernando Cathedral TV Ministry, P. O. Box 831058, San Antonio, TX 78283-1058.

Inviting young people to dwell on a variety of artworks and consider the intent of the artists while exploring something about the times in which these violent works were created will either prepare them to encounter a contemporary work of art such as The Passion of the Christ or to tell you that they are not ready to see the film.


(Copyright © 2004 by Saint Mary's Press. Permission is granted for the free use of this article for classroom or campus ministry purposes; however, it may not be republished in any form without the written permission of Saint Mary's Press. For more resources to support your ministry, call 800-533-8095, or visit our Web site at

Published February 18, 2004.