Narrative Highlights of Nahuatl Plays
The Nahuatl Passion Plays: Main Events
The six Nahuatl Passion plays share much of their content, in both general and specific ways. Here I present a general overview of the main events, broken into eight segments. For more detail and information, see the individual plays and see my book Staging Christ’s Passion in Eighteenth-Century Nahua Mexico.
Louise M. Burkhart, May 15, 2023
- The Farewell Between Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary
This scene occurs in four of the five complete plays (all except Axochiapan) and probably formed part of the missing first section of the Tlatlauhquitepec play. It appears at or near the beginning of the play except in the Tepalcingo script, where an earlier encounter between Christ and Mary Magdalene precedes Magdalene’s association with Mary in the farewell scene. Tepalcingo also retains the most elaborate treatment of this encounter, but the versions in the other plays may have been reduced and altered over time from sources that had a similar staging. A sixteenth-century model exists for this scene, for the Tepalcingo dialogue is very close to a narrative account in a Nahuatl Christian copybook at the Latin American Library at Tulane University. A one-leaf fragment of a Passion play from Atlihuetzia, Tlaxcala, preserves a part of this scene very similar to the one in the Tepalcingo play (Macuil Martínez 2016).
The idea that Christ and Mary shared a goodbye meeting before his final entry into Jerusalem comes from medieval European Passion literature. Specifically, it traces back to the fourteenth-century Meditations on the Life of Christ, one of the most influential compositions in the contemplative mode of Passion devotion, probably originally written by an Italian nun (McNamer 2010, 2018). A late-sixteenth-century Spanish play devoted to the farewell was adapted into Nahuatl. This script, housed at Princeton University, is one of the earliest surviving Nahuatl play manuscripts (Burkhart 1996).
While the encounter can be reduced, as in the Princeton play, to a brief exchange of blessings, in the more elaborate versions Mary attempts to dissuade her son from proceeding with his death, mentioning how she has suffered for his sake and encouraging him to find another way to save humanity. Christ does not contradict her, but insists that his father’s wishes and the prophecies in the sacred books oblige his obedience.
Burkhart, Louise M. 1996. Holy Wednesday: A Nahua Drama from Early Colonial Mexico. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Macuil Martínez, Raul. 2016. La Pasión de Atlihuetzia en lengua nauatl, siglos xvii y xviii. Indiana 33 (1):223-249.
McNamer, Sarah. 2010. Affective Meditation and the Invention of Medieval Compassion. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
McNamer, Sarah, ed. and trans. 2018. Meditations on the Life of Christ: The Short Italian Text. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
Pasión en lengua mexicana. n.d. Manuscript in the Latin American Library, Tulane University, 497.2100, P282.
- The Entry into Jerusalem and the Plot Against Jesus
In every complete play, Jesus rides a donkey into Jerusalem, accompanied by his students, as people wave fronds and flowers and sing hosannas. He first sends two of the students to fetch the female donkey that they will find tied up next to her foal. The disciples may then saddle the donkey with their cloaks or finer cloths. There follow variable scenes of Jesus preaching to his followers in Jerusalem and interacting with Jewish leaders or lower-ranking men. This sequence can include the biblical scenes of Jesus driving the merchants from the temple, being called to judge the woman caught in adultery, and/or visiting the home of Simon the Pharisee, where Jesus encounters Mary Magdalene. Here the Nahuatl plays introduce a striking change to the biblical accounts, which have Mary Magdalene bring an ointment she spreads on Jesus’s head or feet. Instead, Jesus honors and blesses Mary Magdalene by spreading on her head a precious healing unguent in his possession.
In all plays the Jewish chief priests and Pharisees then meet in council, under the leadership of Caiaphas, to discuss what to do about the threat Jesus poses to their authority. While some of the concerns they voice appear in the Gospels, the meeting is largely fictional. The leaders fear rebellion from his followers, loss of honor, and Rome’s response to the unrest. In four of the plays, Joseph (of Arimathea), a member of the council, speaks in Jesus’s defense, seconded by Nicodemus in the Tepalcingo play; Caiaphas expels them from the meeting. The council decides that Jesus must die, and issues a warrant for his arrest, going beyond the biblical accounts by also threatening anyone who befriends or offers shelter to Jesus with arrest and death. Caiaphas’s notary and/or the town crier declare this proclamation from different sides of the stage.
The biblical content reflected in these scenes can be found in Matthew 21:1–16 and 26:3–13, Mark 11:1–11 and 14:1–11, Luke 7:36–50 and Luke 19:28–47, and John 8:1–11 and 12:1–8.
- The Last Supper
Jesus sends two of his students to find the house where he will observe Passover on Thursday evening. They will see someone fetching water and are to follow him home. In this way they come to the home of Gamaliel or, in the Tepalcingo play, John Mark. Both men appear in the Acts of the Apostles behaving favorably to Jesus’s followers. Gamaliel, a prominent rabbi and law expert well respected in Jewish history, had an elaborate afterlife in Christian legend, but an anti-Jewish text called the Gamaliel, which circulated widely in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Iberia, may account for his appearance in different Passion play roles (Delbrugge 2020; Ferrer Jimeno 2011; Duran i Sanpere and Duran 1984:53, 135–37; Lozano Prieto 1985:91, 97).
The Inquisition censor fray Francisco de Larrea (whose report can be found in the Inquisition documents on this website) expressed grave concern with how Passion players acted out Jesus’s consecration of the bread and wine at the Last Supper. Actors, he wrote, should not too closely mimic the Roman Catholic rites that derive from this meal: the Mass and the sacrament of communion. The Nahuatl scripts vary from very minimal treatments of the scene, with no mention of bread (or, in Nahuatl, tortillas) except in a Latin chant, in the play from Tlatlauhquitepec, to, in the Penn play, a full enactment of the blessing and distribution of tortillas and wine, with elements of a communion rite and the singing of the Eucharistic hymns “Pange lingua gloriosi” and “Tantum ergo sacramentum.” Some scriptwriters may have been responding to earlier interference from priests regarding how this scene would be acted out.
All plays also include Christ’s washing of the disciples’ feet, his lengthy after-supper oration, and his prediction of Peter’s denial.
The biblical antecedents for this material are in Matthew 26:17–35, Mark 14:12–31, Luke 22:7–23 and 31–34, and John 13:1–19, 13:33–35, 15:18–20, and 16:20.
Delbrugge, Laura, ed. and trans. 2020. A Scholarly Edition of the Gamaliel (Valencia: Juan Jofre, 1525). Leiden: Brill.
Duran i Sanpere, Agustí, and Eulàlia Duran, eds. 1984. La Passió de Cervera: Misteri del segle XVI. Barcelona: Curial Ediciones Catalanes.
Ferrer Gimeno, María Rosario. 2011. De entre los libros prohibidos: Gamaliel. eHumanista 17:271–85.
Lozano Prieto, Victor, ed. 1985. Autos sacramentales y folklore religioso de León. León, Spain: Editorial Celarayn.
- Judas’s Soliloquy and Betrayal
All the Nahuatl plays include a long speech by Judas that, like Jesus’s preceding after-supper speech, is very similar in each play. Like Jesus’s oration, Judas’s even longer speech has many features of formal Nahuatl oratory, but it carries neither scriptural authority nor the positive purpose of giving wise counsel. Judas dithers and deliberates with himself, trying to make up his mind whether or not to betray his teacher. He does not appear as a man who is evil by nature, and he is not possessed by the devil (as he is in the Bible); nor is he the thief and embezzler he was in European legend and some Nahuatl texts (Olko 2017). This depiction of Judas is very unusual in Passion literature, and suggests that Nahuas were interested in how someone who was part of an egalitarian group could betray their benefactor and comrades. Judas is motivated by poverty and greed, but what really clinches his argument with himself is his anger over how Jesus, in his opinion, wasted the precious unguent by spreading it on Mary Magdalene’s head. He breaks with the plays’ respectful treatment of women and the solidarity that they represent, and it is this, rather than demonic possession, that drives him to his fatal betrayal and subsequent suicide.
Judas then goes to find the high priests and offer to betray Jesus to them (except in the Tepalcingo play, where he does this right after they issue their arrest warrant). In the Gospels of Matthew (26:14–16), Mark (14:10–11), and Luke (22:3–6) this transaction is a matter of a few lines. Except for Tepalcingo, the plays tend to draw it out by, first, having a porter named Reuben mediate Judas’s access to the priestly council. Then there may be some negotiation over the price, with the high priest Annas offering twenty pieces of silver (or gold; the Nahuatl word is the same), Judas rejecting that amount, and then the offer being raised to thirty. A mayordomoh, the official in charge of the community cashbox, is then summoned to count out the money, which would take a bit of time to do in Nahuatl. Plans are laid for the arrest. Judas then thanks his benefactors and exults in his good fortune, imagining the things he will buy.
Olko, Justyna. 2017. The Nahua Story of Judas: Indigenous Agency and Loci of Meaning. In Words and Worlds Turned Around: Indigenous Christianities in Colonial Latin America, ed. David Tavárez, 151–71. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.
- The Garden of Gethsemane: Jesus’s Prayers and Arrest
In all the plays, Jesus brings his students to the Garden of Gethsemane. He encourages them to pray, but they doze off. Meanwhile, he prays repeatedly to his father that he not have to die, while acknowledging that he must obey his father’s will. In Luke 22:44, Jesus’s sweat is said to have been like drops of blood. The Nahuatl plays have him sweat blood in this scene, with the Princeton play instructing stagehands to provide a container of (imitation) blood the actor can use to create this effect. As in Luke, an angel appears to reassure and encourage Christ, with Michael the Archangel playing this role in the Penn Passion.
Thus fortified, Jesus is ready to submit to his arrest. Judas now leads the soldiers into the garden, identifying Jesus by kissing him. The students start to resist, Peter drawing his sword and appearing to cut off the ear of Malchus, a servant of Caiaphas and, in the plays, one of Christ’s worst tormentors. Jesus orders Peter to desist, and reattaches Malchus’s (pretend) ear. As in John 18:4–8, He then asks the soldiers whom they are seeking, and they reply “Jesus of Nazareth.” When he replies that he is this person, they fall on the ground. In some plays, this episode repeats three times. Then the soldiers chain him and rough him up. They drag him to either Annas’s or Caiaphas’s home, where he is imprisoned overnight.
Meanwhile, the scene of Peter’s betrayal, which Jesus predicted at the Last Supper, plays out. Three people claim that they saw Peter in the garden when Jesus was arrested, sometimes noting that he looks or speaks like someone from Galilee. In the Gospel accounts, these interlocutors include at least one woman, but with the exception of the Tlatlauhquitepec play, these are male roles in the plays, consistent with the generally positive roles played by women. After Peter contradicts the third accuser, a rooster or, in one case, a hen cries out.
- Jesus on Trial
On Friday, Christ is taken from official to official for interrogation. This process may start with Annas, or he may be taken directly to Caiaphas. Witnesses come to testify against him, claiming that he tells people to stop paying tribute to Rome, pretends to be a deity, and claims he could tear down the temple and build a new one himself in three days. Everyone agrees that he should be put to death, but the Jewish chief priests do not have the authority to impose a death sentence on their own. Hence, from Caiaphas’s home Jesus is taken before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. Despite witnesses repeating their testimony, Pilate does not see any cause for capital punishment. Hearing that Jesus is from Nazareth, in Galilee, Pilate attempts to pass the buck to King Herod, ruler of Galilee. The soldiers bring Jesus to Herod, who requests a demonstration of his miracle-working power. When he remains silent, Herod becomes angry and orders him to be mocked and then returned to Pilate.
The Jewish leaders again insist that Pilate order Christ put to death. They frighten the governor by claiming that the Roman emperor will be angry because of the threat Jesus poses to Rome’s authority. Pilate continues to consider Christ innocent. He orders Christ flogged, thinking that this may mollify Christ’s enemies. The plays vary as to how violently this whipping is described and staged. When the Jews continue to insist on Christ’s death, Pilate washes his hands and says the Jews may crucify him. He issues some sort of written death sentence, which his notary reads aloud. This can be a brief statement, as in the Axochiapan and Tepalcingo plays, or a long and detailed document, as seen in the Penn and Princeton plays. These latter two death warrants are based on a text purporting to be Pilate’s actual decree, allegedly discovered in 1580 in L’Aquila, in the Spanish-ruled kingdom of Naples. Very similar texts in Spanish, associated with the Ozumba and Amecameca plays, are among the Inquisition documents (for more on these death warrants, and the role of the notary, see Burkhart [in press]).
Burkhart, Louise M. In press. Nahua Notaries of Jerusalem: Lucio Sestilio and his Partners in Crime. In The Nahua: Language and Culture from the 16th Century to the Present. Edited by Galen Brokaw and Pablo Garcia Loaeza. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.
- The Via Crucis and the Crucifixion
From Pilate’s house, on the stage, the Jesus actor walks to the set for Calvary, probably located at an offstage spot to allow for a procession-like movement as he carries his cross and encounters other characters. The actors playing the two thieves crucified along with him also tread this route. Many Nahuas were familiar with the Stations of the Cross devotion, in which people commemorate Christ’s journey with the cross and would have been familiar with the sequence of events along the way, as Christ encounters his mother; Simon of Cyrene, who helps him carry the cross; Veronica, who cleans his face and is rewarded with a miraculous image of his visage and, in some plays, a cure for her own illness; and the “daughters of Jerusalem” (Luke 23:28–30; on the Stations of the Cross in colonial Mexico, see Schwaller 2022).
At the spot where the crucifixion is to be staged, the cross is laid on the ground and actors tie the Jesus player to it, pretending to hammer nails into his hands and feet. The thieves are tied to their own crosses or poles. These are then raised up. While on the cross, Jesus interacts with the thieves and with his mother and John. Magdalene comes to embrace and/or kneel by the cross.
At some point in this process, there is a dispute over the signboard, reading “Jesus Christ, King of the Jews,” that Pilate orders posted on the cross in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. The Jewish leaders object and send soldiers to Pilate to protest, but he refuses to change it.
Christ complains of thirst, and some sort of bitter drink or, in one case, simply water is given to him. The thieves are killed: their shins are broken so they will suffocate. Jesus commends his soul to God and also dies; in one case, the actor is instructed to drop his head to indicate this moment. Then the lancing of his side occurs, engaging the legend that a vision-impaired man named Longinus carries out this act, then has his sight miraculously restored and laments what he has done. The plays speak of a great deal of blood now being shed, so a large bag of stage blood must have been attached to the actor’s body or to the cross, to be pierced and spill its contents at this moment.
Schwaller, John F. 2022. The Stations of the Cross in Colonial Mexico: The Via crucis en mexicano by Fray Agustin de Vetancurt and the Spread of a Devotion. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
- The Aftermath
The play from Tepalcingo concludes with Christ’s death and lancing, but others continue past this point. In the Princeton play, John delivers a lengthy speech at the end discussing what has happened and how people should respond. The actors playing the apostles then take the Jesus actor down from the cross and “then the procession will begin,” perhaps a procession in which the audience can participate.
The Penn, Amacuitlapilco, and Axochiapan plays have an aftermath derived from the same source, perhaps the original or model play. This earlier source probably featured Joseph of Arimathea, who in the Gospels provides a tomb for Jesus’s body, and the pharisee Nicodemus, who assists Joseph with the burial and whose name is retained in a couple of contexts. However, at some point along the sequence of transmission to these three extant plays, Joseph of (Latin ab) Arimathea was split into two characters, “Joseph” and “Abarimatea” (with variable spelling), with the latter taking over Nicodemus’s role. These two men go to petition Pilate for permission to bury Jesus. At first he turns them away, but after they pray before Christ’s body they try again and Pilate agrees. The play ends with them kneeling before Christ’s body and saying that they will now take him down from the cross. In Axochiapan some of this text is crossed out, such that the men are successful on their first try. In the Penn play, Joseph and Abarimathea (labelled Nicodemus in his first turn at speech) win Pilate’s permission on their first attempt, but then the play continues with a poignant scene in which these men go up on one or two ladders and, step by step, in response to John’s instructions, gently remove the signboard, the crown of thorns, and the nails, giving these to Mary. Finally, they take down the actor and lay him in Mary’s arms. She utters a brief lament and John says “let us go to bury our beloved savior.” The actors then wrap up the actor impersonating the dead Christ and carry him away. Although staged with the live actors from the play, these variants had much in common with “descent plays,” which enacted the removal of Jesus from the cross using statues to represent him and Mary. Sixteenth-century murals at Huejotzingo depict such a ceremony and an associated procession (Webster 1997).
Webster, Susan Verdi. 1997. The Descent from the Cross in Sixteenth-Century New Spain. The Early Drama, Art, and Music Review 19 (2): 69–85.