Nahuatl Passion Play, The Penn Passion Play (University of Pennsylvania)/la
pasión de la Universidad de Pennsylvania


Nahuatl Passion Play, The Penn Passion Play (University of Pennsylvania)/la
pasión de la Universidad de Pennsylvania


The Penn Passion Play

La Passion de n[ues]tro Señor Jesuchristo

Berendt-Brinton Linguistics Collection, Ms. Coll 700, item 200

Kislak Center for Special Collections, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center

University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia


Written in a uniform hand on 44 leaves of paper, the Penn Passion comes from the collection of Daniel Garrison Brinton (1837-1899), an American who studied Native American and Mesoamerican literature and linguistics. It was given a half-leather binding late in the nineteenth century. At some point the recto pages were numbered in pencil, but without counting the first folio; my numeration begins with that page. The pages are 210 x 150 mm in size. The library has posted this descriptive information and high-quality digital images of each page online. The manuscript includes no date, community name, or name of any copyist or other party,


The text is listed in the catalog as originating “possibly in the first half of the 19th century”; however, it is consistent in writing, language, and content with the Nahuatl plays securely dated to the eighteenth century and I consider it part of the same corpus of work. No community of origin is given. Beginning on folio 32, approximately the lower half of each page is slightly to seriously damaged, rendering some of the writing too faint to read. In some cases, there are whole lines of text, even several lines, that I could not reconstruct, even when I worked with the manuscript at Penn, and hence there are some ellipses in the transcription. These gaps do not interfere much with the integrity of the story as dramatized, but some lacunae, such as a portion of Veronica’s longest turn at speech, are regrettable.


This is the only one of the Nahuatl Passion plays in which the scriptwriter begins with a list of the play’s characters dramatis personae, on the front and the upper back of the first page.

He then wrote the beginning of a farewell exchange between Christ and the Virgin Mary, with one speech for each character. Then he stopped and inserted Latin text copied, except for a couple of errors, from the first two pages of fray Juan Navarro’s choral setting for the Passion according to Saint Matthew, seen here and here. When he returns to his play, he starts all over again, with a more elaborate exchange between Christ and Mary, as if he has switched to copying a different version of the play.


Most of the play is consistent with the other Nahuatl Passion plays. One exchange found only here is blind man who appeals to Jesus after the farewell with his mother, and has his sight miraculously restored. All the plays have an angel visit Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, but only in this play is the angel identified as Saint Michael, and only here does the angel bring instruments of the Passion—cross, rope, crown of thorns, nails, lance—to the garden encounter. A warrior archangel known for his battle against Lucifer, he is, in a sense, arming Jesus for his upcoming ordeal with implements that are also known as the Arma Christi. And only in this play does Mary call for angelic aid at the end of the play, her call answered by two angels, probably those who earlier visited Jesus in jail and were asked to attend to his mother—a visit that occurs elsewhere in the corpus but with different dialogue. The two thieves crucified alongside Christ are in every play, but this is the only one that gives them the names they were assigned since the fourth-century Gospel of Nicodemus: Dimas and Gestas.


The Last Supper scene has the most daring version of the consecration of the bread (tortillas in the plays) and wine. Fray Francisco Larrea’s report to the Inquisition investigation (to be posted on this site) spoke against certain actions that were performed in some Passion plays, though not in Nahuatl plays that he himself had witnessed. These include the raising up of the blessed tortilla, like a priest performing mass raises up the consecrated host, kneeling, and the singing of the Eucharistic hymns Pange lingua gloriosi and Tantum ergo—the latter being the last two verses of the former. In this play the Jesus actor is to raise the tortilla, the apostles kneel when Jesus gives them the wine, and those hymns are sung (see notes on the translation).


Like the Princeton play, this one has a version of a version of Pontius Pilate’s death warrant derived from a forged document supposedly discovered in 1580 in L’Aquila, in the Kingdom of Naples. It is similar to the Spanish one from Amecameca in the Inquisition file (to be posted on this website), but is not a direct translation of, or model for, that text. Allegedly discovered in the ruins of an ancient house, written on sheepskin in Hebrew, the circulated around western Europe in various translations. The Penn play here gives the Notary character a name that comes from the L’Aquila document, which names a plethora of Roman and Judean personages, the great majority of them fictional. One such name is a Roman notary named Lucius Sextilius, or Lucio Sextilio in Spanish and Italian translations. The Penn scriptwriter here takes this name for his own Notary character. Later in the play, he takes another name from the L’Aquila text, in this case the name of a Roman centurion mentioned in the preamble to the death warrant, itself not included in any Nahuatl play. This is the character named Flanquino, who participates with particular zeal in the nailing of Christ to the cross, carried out here with unusual attention to such matters as how optimally to place his hands.


The scene near the end of the play where the Biblical personage Joseph of Arimathea is split into two characters who seek permission from Pontius Pilate to take Jesus’s body down from the cross for burial, is found also in the Amacuitlapilco and Axochiapan plays, and in the Spanish plays. Unique to the Penn play, however, is the poignant scene in which these men go up on one or two ladders to remove the signboard, crown of thorns, and nails from Jesus’s body. In each case, the apostle John tells them what to do and then presents these Passion insignia to Mary. Then they take the weary actor down from the cross and lay him in the arms of the Mary actor, recreating a tableau common in Christian art (such as Michelangelo’s Pietà). Lastly, they wrap him in the sheet that Joseph has brought and carry him away, Mary and the other women following.


44 leaves: paper ; 210 x 150 mm. bound to 218 x 165 mm.


Written in Mexico


From the collection of Daniel Garrison Brinton (ex libris stamp on f. 1)


UPenn Ms. Coll. 700, Item 200


18th century


Anonymous Nahua playwright(s) and copyist


© University of Pennsylvania


Ms. Codex. Title from caption title (f. 1r); incorrectly listed in Weeks as Pasión de Nro. Señor Jesuchristo en la lengua zoque. Foliation: Paper, 44; modern pencil foliation, 1-43 beginning on f. 2, lower outer corners. Layout: Written in 29 long lines; pricking visible at inside margins. Binding: Late 19th-century half leather.


Nahuatl with some Spanish and Latin


Codices. Passion plays. Manuscripts, Mexican - 18th century. Manuscripts, Spanish - 18th century.


Ms. Coll 700, item 200

Permanent Link:


Berendt-Brinton Linguistic Collection, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania.

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