The Netherlands: Passion for the Passion – University of Copenhagen

HERILIGION > Ongoing research > The Netherlands

The Netherlands: Passion for the Passion

In the Netherlands, HERILIGION will focus on a variety of performances of Passion plays. This subproject takes the Dutch Easter celebrations as an instance of using the religious past in shaping a present-day secular-but-religiously-based Dutch national identity. 

An important backdrop for this work package is formed by intense debates on religion, national identity and secularity in the Netherlands. The notion that the Dutch nation is built on a Judeo-Christian past has become common sense,, implying that this past is part of a Dutch heritage, which should be treasured as an inherent dimension of Dutch culture. This mobilization of a ‘Judeo-Christian heritage’ is to be understood against the background of a growing anxiety about the increasing presence of Islam, the arrival of (openly religious) non-western immigrants, and a perceived decline of knowledge on the ‘true meanings’ of Christian Holidays.

This Dutch ‘passion for the Passion’ is concentrated around three forms of expression:

  1. Performances of the Matthew Passion, which in the Netherlands is Bach’s most famous composition. Tracing the developments of the Matthew Passion from its deeply religious origin to multiple, secularized ‘high society events’, the subproject explores the relation between contemporary national identity and the religious past of the Netherlands and Europe.

  2. Numerous open-air Passion Plays performed all over the country. This tradition refers to both a shared European (medieval) past and a specific Dutch interpretation. A recent version of Jesus being played by a Muslim in the 2015 Tegelen Passion Plays indicates the complex interplay between religious identities, processes of authentication and heritage formation.

  3. The (since 2011) annual performance of The Passion, a contemporary musical Passion Play in the streets of a Dutch city on Good Friday, broadcast live on primetime national television. Initiated by Christian broadcasting corporations and staged by Dutch celebrity singers, religious heritage and secular spectacle meet in The Passion, but the event serves simultaneously as a spectacular missionary activity. In Holland HERILIGION will focus on the current tendency to value Passion performances as ‘religious traditions with heritage qualities’, as illustrated by the enlisting of the Tegelen Passion Plays (whose premiere always opens with an Eucharist) on the National Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage (2014)

The research will consist of ethnographic fieldwork, focussing on performers, audience and organizers of passion performances. This approach is informed by conceptual debates on (post)secularity and national identity. The research will be executed at the Meertens Institute of Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences by postdoctoral researcher Ernst van den Hemel in collaboration with principal investigator Irene Stengs and in joint affiliation with Museum Catharijneconvent.