The Passion Play's DNA


The façade of the Oberammergau Museum made of the costumes worn by the people of Jerusalem during the Passion Plays of 2000 and 2010 (Foto: Oberammergau Museum)

The Oberammergau Museum appears in blue colours. The actual façade is hidden behind a new cube a few weeks before the Passion Play premiere, and the building itself becomes an art object. "(IM)MATERIAL - Fabric, Body, Passion" is the name of the building and room installation for the Passion Play 2022, which begins on the street and continues inside. The exhibition begins in the centre of the town, visible for everyone. The panels that make up the interim façade are covered with the blue costumes worn by the people of Jerusalem during the Passion Plays of 2000 and 2010. Many hands have unravelled them and glued them together to form a mosaic of fabric.

Oberammergau is a place of woodcarvers and Passion Play. Both have left their mark here for centuries, shaping the people. "When many people work together over centuries, visions can be realised," says Constanze Werner, who runs the museum. This exhibition is a "homage to almost 400 years of Passion Play and 500 years of woodcarving", she explains.

It wants to focus on the relationship between man and his environment, to see what materialises and what remains in the end. The whole project works with what is already there, with leftovers and remnants. The old is given new life in order to be confronted with existential experiences such as birth, transience and death. Ultimately, the museum director and her team of artists from Oberammergau and Munich are concerned with the materiality of people themselves, the realisation: "We are all the same."

The artist Klaus Vogt collected the long hair that the participants cut off after the Passion Plays in 2000, 2010 and the postponement of the Passion Play 2020. He felted a one-kilometre-long cord from them, which now leads through the exhibition as a visible guide in all rooms. The Passion only works by the interaction of many people, the crowd manifests itself in the cord, the common commitment with regard to the Play. If you like: the Play’s DNA.

Unlike other museums, the Oberammergau Museum was built and designed in 1910 for an existing carving collection, the architect Franz Zell designed the room settings especially for these exhibits. Only the second floor can be used flexibly for temporary exhibitions. The more than 6,000 wooden figures from four centuries can be found everywhere inside the display cases and on the walls. The images of people's lives and suffering, fears, worries and hopes stand and hang side by side. "If you have the religious view, that's Jesus," says Werner. "If you leave that out, it's simply the human being." The diverse and detailed presentation contradicts today's visual habits, sometimes even overwhelming the gaze. "In Kunsthaus Bregenz there is one picture on one wall, but here there are a thousand figurines on five metres. This exhibition highlights individual exhibits, brings them into focus. The "Christ in Distress" from 1830, for example, was taken out of the display case and mounted in an acrylic cube on an otherwise empty wall. Haning from the ceiling are wooden drops of blood created in 2014 by Hermann Bigelmayr, sculptor and teacher at the Oberammergau carving school: the sufferer finds himself in a rain of blood, his heart's blood. The small room becomes a place of contemplation and calm. The figure, previously part of the mass, becomes a work of art in its own right. "When I see a single object, I see it differently than when I see many," Constanze Werner says.

"Christus in Distress" with wooden drops of blood (Photo: Oberammergau Museum)

The path through the exhibition begins in the crib section, with the birth and leads through the cycle of life to death or (we are in Oberammergau, after all) to the resurrection. At the beginning there is an irritation: Jesus and Mary with the Christ child have been removed from the Oberammergau nativity scene from 1743 and presented in isolation in the room. There is a gap in the crib itself. Photos on the wall transport the familiar figures to Siberia or Hong Kong. Werner also wants to question the ideal world of nativity scenes, to make family structures and conflicts visible: "We can't choose which family, which structures and which country we are born into."

Chronos (Photo: Oberammergau Museum)

The rooms on the first floor have also been redesigned, exhibits veiled and alienated to make transience and interconnectedness visible. Light shows and projections set new accents and show man as part of the universe. Redemption comes, as it should, at the very end: on the top floor, behind a wall of blue garments. The walls are covered in white with the garments of the 2010 choir, showing a projection of a man carving and drone footage of the Ammergau Alps. If you like: the roots and the way up. "Our idea of redemption is always shaped by the place where we grow up," says Werner. But the centre of Michael Gene Aichner's light installation is the ceiling-high cylinder made of white boat ropes in the middle of the room. As soon as one enters this innermost circle, a carved figure is projected onto the ropes from outside, flying upwards in a whirlpool of light. Towards the sky, if you will. "Here we break away from the exhibit and take the carving to a new level," says Werner. "Well, sure, it's also a bit striking, but how do you want to depict redemption? After all the figures, we ultimately wanted the own body, the own self to be at the very centre."

Text: Anne Fritsch

Photos: Oberammergau Museum


(IM)MATERIAL - Fabric, Body, Passion. A building and room installation for the Passion Play 2022. 23. April to 16. Oktober 2022