The Passion Narrative At Bellinge Church

Today is Maundy Thursday, the first day of the passion story of Christ (with Palm Sunday serving as a contrasting prologue). This story has been re-enacted through the written word, the painted image and theatrical or meditative performance for centuries. Easter is the climax of the Christian liturgical year and the centre-point of the Christian interpretation of the relationship between the human and the divine. The scenes of the paschal narrative are widely common in medieval art in all of its myriad forms. For this year's Easter season, I will present the passion story as it is told in the wall-painting programme of Bellinge Church in Denmark.

Bellinge Church, Fyn

Bellinge is a parish church situated on the island of Fyn in Denmark. It belongs to the bishopric of Odense, which is Denmark's third largest city, and the parish is located to the south west of the city. The church itself has traces of Romanesque architecture, suggesting that it was built in the twelfth century, a period in which several new churches were erected in Odense diocese. The current structure, however, is predominantly the result of a comprehensive rebuilding that took place in the second half of the fifteenth century.

In 1496, when the rebuilding of the church was done, the interior was covered with an impressive wall-painting cycle, which almost exclusively consists of scenes from the Old and the New Testament. (One exception is a scene of the legend of Saint George, but that is another story.) The wall-paintings are executed in two tiers, and they seem to present a typological connection between the episodes of the two parts of the Christian bible. Such an order was common, as medieval Christian exegesis - be it in sermons, in chronicles, in theological tracts or in everyday life - was marked by the emphasis on parallels and echoes between the Old Testament and the New Testament, and also between the past and the present.

The nave of Bellinge Church seen from the choir

The passion scenes at Bellinge present a contemporary vision of Palestine in the time of Christ. This was common in medieval art: Costumes, weapons and other details were depicted according to the time in which they were executed. For this reason, the scenes at Bellinge provide an added insight into life in fifteenth-century Denmark. This also alerts us to an important part of the Easter story: It was an annual re-enactment, and an act of remembrance that reminded the parishioners of the perennial relevance of its message, namely the salvation of humankind.

We can only imagine how the parishioners at Bellinge were told the passion story each year, but it is clear that from the wall-paintings the priest would have an excellent framework for connecting the vernacular sermons with the scenes that literally surrounded the church-goers. The wall-painting cycle as it survives today remains impressive despite the faded colours. It is possible that it is an incomplete survival, as there are several scenes missing, such as Christ's entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and the Resurrection. In its current form, however, the cycle gives a very comprehensive overview of the Passion of Christ, which can be followed step by step.

The last supper

Christ praying in Gethsemane, asking God to let this chalice pass him by (Luke 22:42)

Christ is crowned by thorns

Christ before Pilate

The scourging of Christ

Christ carrying the cross to Golgata with the help of Simon of CyreneThe text scroll reads "miserere nobis domine iheso christe", have mercy on us, Christ Our Lord

Leading the way before Christ: A knight wielding a club and a fool blowing the horn and shooting bullets

The crucifixionThe text scroll reads "popule meus", my people