Bringing the bible to life medieval style

Every year in towns across Europe – scenes from the bible are re-enacted with colourful processions. In the Portuguese town of Viana do Castelo – August is when the passion of Christ is acted out. But the centre of attention is Mary and her Sorrows. The festival is called the Santa Maria da Agonia – Our Lady of the Agony.

Medieval churches at the time of the Templars would have been full of decoration and illumination. People were forbidden to read the bible – and, well, they couldn’t read anyway! So the best way to convey bible stories to the average medieval peasant was through gaudy pictures.

Conveying scripture through visual display

In a society where literacy wasn’t as widespread as it is today and there was no entertainment from theatres, cinemas or the TV – let alone online technology – the average serf in the Middle Ages was a sucker for visual and colourful display.

This was most in evidence on the many feast days that the church peppered the calendar with, normally associated with rhythms of the agricultural year.

Rituals, processions, mystery plays and gaudy decoration where all part of bringing the bible to life for ordinary people – particularly given that the bible was an expensive book, illuminated by monks, often chained up in the church and written in Latin.

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Protestants clamp down on too much visual display

In those parts of Europe where the Reformation resulted in the Catholic church being overthrown, it’s rare to see this kind of showy religiosity anymore. The use of idols and reference to saints and superstition was hated by the Protestants. But in many parts of southern Europe, you can still get a sense of what the medieval festivities would have been like.

I visited the northern Portuguese town of Viana do Castelo during their “Romaria” this year – a four day festival celebrating Our Lady of Agony. Saints were carried round, biblical scenes acted out and local people danced and sang.

The willingness of the Catholic church to turn a blind eye to some of the more pagan elements of this goes back to the early church and the need to subsume pagan ritual and practice into the church – to swallow up old practices and re-brand them. So where a pagan goddess was once processed round a Roman town – she was duly replaced by the Virgin Mary.

The mix of pagan and Christian is still very evident to me but I leave you to judge from the images below.

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