Gibson has said he was influenced by Sister Emmerich's visions as recorded in The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which was transcribed by Emmerich's secretary, Clemens Brentano. Many non-biblical events in the movie (see list) can be traced to this book.
Who was Sister Anne Emmerich? Anne Catherine Emmerich was an Augustian nun who lived in Germany from 1774 to 1824. She is remembered for her mystical visions of Jesus' and Mary's lives, recorded in works like "The Dolorous Passion." She is called "Venerable," a title given by the Catholic Church to holy men and women of "heroic virtue" who have not been beatified or canonized. Bedridden for years, Emmerich sewed clothes for the poor and attracted many followers who sought her advice and healing. Her supporters claim that she bore the stigmata--the wounds in the hands and feet that Christ suffered. Emmerich has been considered for sainthood. However, it is unclear whether all her writings were her own, according to Mary Francis Lester, editor at TAN Books and Publishers, which publishes "The Dolorous Passion." Emmerich's visions were transcribed by Clemens Brentano, a poet and literary figure who, many believe, extensively embellished what Emmerich told him. Because of the uncertainty, Emmerich's writings are not being included in the Vatican process by which potential saints' lives are researched. What did Emmerich see in her visions? As written by Brentano, Emmerich saw visions of the Last Supper and the Agony in the Garden, as well as Jesus' arrest, scourging, and crucifixion. The visions are quite detailed. "The Dolorous Passion" describes many non-biblical events--such as a conversation between Pilate and his wife--and non-biblical scenes, such as Pilate "reposing in a comfortable chair, on a terrace which overlooked the forum, and a small three-legged table stood by his side, on which was placed the insignia of his office, and a few other things." In Mel Gibson's movie, the role of Pilate's wife is expanded far beyond the gospel's brief mention of her dream. Gibson's Pilate interacts with his wife several times, and she is portrayed as the sympathetic proto-Christian character Emmerich describes. The visions often draw from medieval legends and travelers' tales, claims Sandra Miesel, a Catholic journalist who has researched Emmerich. For example, Emmerich describes the cross as being made out of five kinds of wood, as in medieval legend. Emmerich also describes Bible characters with "fantastic clothing and hairstyles that owe more to late medieval German art than to the actual fashions of Antiquity," writes Miesel in an article for Catholic International. Emmerich's visions of Jesus' suffering are very graphic. There is much more gore in her descriptions than in the gospels. In one vision, for example, Jesus "tottered rather than walked, and was almost unrecognisable from the effects of his sufferings during the night; -he was colourless, haggard, his face swollen and even bleeding, and his merciless persecutors continued to torment him each moment more and more." Why did Mel Gibson base some of the movie's scenes on "The Dolorous Passion"? Emmerich's visions imaginatively fill in the gaps of the Passion story. Whereas the gospels devote relatively little space to descriptions of Jesus' last hours, "The Dolorous Passion" envisions them in painstaking detail. The intense drama of her visions may also explain their appeal. For example, in the gospels, Jesus is shown praying in Gethsemane, but the devil is not mentioned. In Emmerich's visions, the devil tempts Jesus as he prays, saying "Takest thou even this sin upon thyself? Art thou willing to bear its penalty?" In Mel Gibson's movie, the devil also tempts Jesus in Gethsemane. How are Jews portrayed in "The Dolorous Passion"? The work shows the utmost reverence and respect for Jesus' followers, and references Mary, for example, as following Jewish customs. It also includes scenes where some Jews protest Jesus' death.
In general, however, the book deals very harshly with Jews collectively. It often describes Jewish mobs as "cruel," "wicked," or "hard-hearted," as in this chapter: "the sight of [Jesus'] sufferings, far from exciting a feeling of compassion in the hard-hearted Jews, simply filled them with disgust, and increased their rage. Pity was, indeed, a feeling unknown in their cruel breasts."
Do Catholics believe "The Dolorous Passion"? Before Gibson's movie came out, the work was not widely known among Catholics. It was most popular among traditionalist Catholics, a relatively small percentage of Catholics worldwide. "The Dolorous Passion" belongs to a devotional category of pious literature that some Catholics find value in. But since works like "The Dolorous Passion" are considered to be private--not public--revelation, Catholics are not required to believe in them.Emmerich was "imaginative, but her visions are not what really happened in Bible times," says Miesel. The imprimatur on "The Dolorous Passion" does not indicate that the Catholic Church accepts her visions as true, according to Mary Francis Lester of TAN Books. The view of the Jewish people reflected in Emmerich's writings is not in keeping with Vatican II-inspired documents on relations with the Jews or the U.S. Bishops' Guidelines for Passion Plays.
Will Emmerich be named a saint?Emmerich's sainthood process was stalled in 1928 because of the uncertainty over Brentano's embellishments. However, some voices--including German bishops--are pressing her cause today. Miesel worries that if she is beatified (the step prior to canonization), Catholics might "think her writings are validated."
Thigpen sees value in Emmerich less for her writings than for her holiness in the face of severe physical pain. "What the Church is focusing on is her heroic suffering, offering up that suffering to God," says Thigpen. "If she is canonized, she would be a wonderful role model for the disabled and those with chronic illness."