Jesus–The Revenge!: A Medieval Drama

Signs and portents warning of the destruction of Jerusalem .

The British Museum recently acquired a beautiful illuminated manuscript of a fairly obscure mystery play called Mystère de la Vengeance de Nostre Seigneur Ihesu Crist.

In English: Mystery of the Vengeance of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Oh yeah, now we’re talking. I can see the movie poster already. “He’s back, and this time … it’s personal.” Bruce Willis, call your agent.

When we talk about Medieval “mystery” plays, we’re not talking about something like The Mousetrap. These were plays produced, most commonly by the citizenry and guilds on feast days, to illuminate mysteries of faith. It was a kind of dramatic catechism-cum-entertainment.

When Hamlet talks about an actor who can “out-Herod Herod,” he’s talking about the broad and bombastic techniques of acting common to mystery plays, where Herod was a stock villain for the Slaughter of the Innocents. In many regions–particularly England, which had a rich tradition of mystery plays until the Protestants came along and squashed them–the plays were performed on elaborate carts that served as mobile stages.

The version of Vengeance acquired by the Museum is one of the most elaborate, beautiful, and perfectly preserved medieval dramatic manuscripts we have. It was in the possession of the Dukes of Chatsworth for a couple hundred years until it was given up in lieu of estate taxes.

Doctors with the leprous Vespasian. (click to enlarge)

The manuscript is important for several reasons. Aesthetically, it’s a masterful work of 15th century illumination by Loyset Liédet, with 20 plates in pristine condition. It was commissioned by Philip of Burgundy to commemorate a specific performance of the play, so the art captures not only the scenes, but the staging and costuming of the drama as well.

Textually, it contains the most complete version of the play, which was written Br. Eustache Marcadé, a Benedictine monk who also wrote a passion play known as The Passion of Arras. The manuscript contains 14,972 lines of French verse: 1,000 more than the other surviving copy.

The action of the play covers the events leading up to the Fall of Jerusalem (the “vengeance” of the title), and the drama and miracles surrounding it. It’s length required the performance to be split over 4 days, beginning with a debate between the Virtues (Justice, Mercy, Peace and Truth) about whether God should destroy the city in revenge for the crucifixion. The debate concludes with a decision to offer the people many warnings before unleashing destruction.

On day two, Pilate sends a letter to Tiberius recounting the life of Christ, and Vespasian is cured of leprosy by Veronica’s Veil. On the third day, Nero sends Vespasian and Titus to Jerusalem to confront yet another an uprising. The last day of the play covers 69AD–the Year of the Four Emperors–and the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of Vespasian.

I don’t believe there is an English translation, but I’ll keep looking.

You can view the entire manuscript at the British Museum Digitized Manuscripts page, and you should.