17/06/2024

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The Oberammergau Passion Play in Bavarian Germany

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The Oberammergau Passion Play in Bavarian Germany

The life and death of Jesus Christ– the religious leader said to be born of a virgin, who performed miracles throughout his life, and whom the Romans crucified for his beliefs story has been performed since 1634 as the Oberammergau Passion Play. 

Jesus of Nazareth became the central figure of Christianity, in which he’s 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 2000 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. 

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Old Town Oberammergau Germany
Old Town Oberammergau

Oberammergau Passion Play Guide

  • The Passion of Jesus Christ
  • The Crucifixion
  • The Passion Play In Oberammergau Germany
  • The History Of The Oberammergau Passion Play
  • Oberammergau Passion Play History
  • Things To Do in Oberammergau, Germany

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passion play in oberammergau

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 climatic 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 and films (including 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, 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. 

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Oberammergau Germany passion play

THE CRUCIFIXION 

The final part of the Oberammergau Passion 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 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 Germany has a truly unique tradition, and once every ten years hosts the largest known (and longest-running) passion play in the world. 

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Passion Play Oberammergau stage courtesy of Passion Play Oberammergau
Passion Play Oberammergau stage photo by Kienberger courtesy of Passion Play Oberammergau

THE PASSION PLAY IN OBERAMMERGAU GERMANY

Taking place just once every decade, the Oberammergau Passion Play is the largest amateur stage production in the world. Only residents of Oberammergau, Germany are allowed to take part, or people who were born and raised there. 

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. 

This play is performed more than 100 times over the course of five months, from May to October, and recounts the last five days of Jesus’ life.

All members of the cast are fully committed to their characters and dedicated to achieving authenticity. The entire cast stops shaving and cutting their hair months in advance (even local police are excused from clean-shaven regulations).

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. 

From the main speaking parts to the production team and extras, the cast members are all ordinary people. But you won’t be able to tell they’re amateurs: The production is so realistic, it’s easy to forget you’re watching a play.

Its 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 combines dramatic dialogue, choral music, and tableaux vivants– static scenes from the Old Testament recreated by motionless actors (the word is French for “living picture”) while being narrated. 

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Cemetary in Oberammergau Germany
Cemetary in Oberammergau Germany

OBERAMMERGAU PASSION PLAY HISTORY

Oberammergau Passion Play history dates back to 1634, when the town’s first known production was mounted.

From 1618 to 1648 the Thirty Years War ravaged central Europe. There was widespread poverty, sickness, and starvation, and hundreds of thousands of people died as the result of Bubonic Plague. 

Desperate to ease their suffering, the people of Oberammergau made a solemn vow in 1633 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 the plague reported. 

Believing they’d been spared, the townspeople 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 (including a cancellation in 1940 due to WWII, and a postponement of the 2020 schedule due to COVID).

But the venue and script has evolved over the years, and a state-of-the-art theatre capable of seating 4,700 people now houses the production. 

The Passion continually evolves to reflect the times. Christian attitudes towards Jewish people during the Nazi era saw anti-semitic themes introduced, with the Jews blamed for the death of Christ. But the script has since been revised.

In 2000, the 41st production of the play 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 that point, only Christian citizens of Oberammergau had been 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). 

It is likely that the passion of Christ was acted out before the 1600s, even in Oberammergau Germany.

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!

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Rotkappchenhaus with Luftlmalerei Painting (Little Red Riding Hood house) in Oberammergau Germany
Rotkappchenhaus with Luftlmalerei Painting (Little Red Riding Hood house) in Oberammergau

THINGS TO DO IN OBERAMMERGAU, GERMANY

Oberammergau is a charming Bavarian town nestled in the breathtaking mountain landscapes of the Bavarian Alps. And while the passion play is the biggest feather in the area’s cap, there are plenty of other things to do in Oberammergau Germany. 

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 hiking trails throughout Oberammergau, but one of the most popular is the trail to the summit of Kofel, one of the town’s most prominent landmarks.

The round-trip hike only takes about 90 minutes, but this is a rocky peak that is quite steep and does require good hiking shoes. Alternatively, you can take a chairlift that carries you directly to the picturesque summit. 

Truly adventurous type will enjoy 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, and includes a 1,300 foot drop. The track starts at 1,258 meters, and at its highest point you’ll be 4 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 fairytales) and biblical scenes are painted on many buildings, a tradition that began about two centuries before street art started becoming a trend elsewhere.  

Taking a walk down local streets and through neighborhoods feels like stepping into a storybook. Referred to as Luftlmalerei in German, the buildings are covered in stories and characters painted in bright lively colors.

Local churches typically have the finest displays of woodcarving worked into their décor. Religious sites worth noting include the Ettal Monastery and the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Wieskirche pilgrimage church, which is located about 30 minutes outside of Oberammergau.

If you find yourself visiting the town when the passion play isn’t running, you can still take a tour of the theatre and explore museum exhibits that tell the story of each performance since 1634.

Costumes and props that have appeared in previous plays are on display, and you can also catch historic films of previous productions. Tours are held in German every day at 2 PM and 4 PM, and there’s a daily tour in English at 11 AM. –by Meg Jerrard

BIO: Megan Jerrard is an Australian journalist and the founder of Mapping Megan, an award-winning travel blog bringing you the latest in adventure travel from all over the globe. 

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