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Mel Gibson's Spanish Connection
Passion film photo of Jesus' mother Mary and Mary Magdalene
by Marilyn H. Fedewa

The link between a 17th century Spanish mystic and a 21st century popular icon is not as far-out as it might first seem. Mel Gibson, in preparation for making his new film, The Passion of the Christ, read not only biblical records of the last 12 hours of Christ's life, but also other background works, including Mystical City of God by Venerable Maria de Jesus of Agreda, Spain.

"Mel probably read every book on the passion written since the Middle Ages," Jesuit William Fulco told this author. Fulco should know - he translated Gibson's film into Latin and Aramaic and was a frequent visitor to the film's set, when not teaching Ancient Mediterranean Studies at L.A.'s Loyola Marymount University. According to him, Gibson relied primarily on the biblical accounts of Christ's death when writing the actual script, but he did read Agreda's work and many others during his early research.

Mystical City of God chronicles the life of Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, and is based on visions of Mary and private revelations that Maria de Agreda had over a period of many years. In her book Maria de Agreda also shows Christ's own life in rich detail, including His passion and death. Since it is written from Mary's point of view, it touchingly portrays the loving presence of Mary throughout her son's ordeal. This is an important element of Mel Gibson's film, as Mary's magnetically sorrowful eyes follow the repeated tortures endured by her son.

There are other notable similarities between Gibson and Agreda's treatment of the Passion. As in the film, Mystical City of God describes Mary meeting Jesus on the way to Calvary, Mary's wishing she could die in her son's place, the insidious presence of Satan throughout the proceedings, and the gentle nun's pained descriptions of ceaseless blows and shredded flesh. More importantly, however, Maria de Agreda provides countless images of Mary's unflinching strength, her motherly love for her Son, and the unbreakable though often unspoken bond between them.

Given the criticism of Gibson's film as anti-Semitic, it is not surprising that the Passion's opponents also claim that the authors of Gibson's background reading were similarly prejudiced. Yet it is unlikely Gibson would have encountered anti-Semitism in Agreda's works. Like her countrywoman Teresa of Avila, Agreda's own ancestors were Jewish. She held them in high regard, despite the danger of doing so in the paranoid days of the Spanish Inquisition.

Known for her "energía bondadosa" - kind-hearted energy - Maria de Agreda developed an unlikely cadre of friends and confidantes, including Hapsburg monarch and Defender of the Faith, King Felipe IV. She advised the king on spiritual and worldly matters for 22 years, until her death in 1665. Their collected correspondence consists of over 600 confidential letters. One can almost imagine, if Mel Gibson had lived in 17th century Spain, that he too would have tracked her down in Agreda. In fact, someone from the American Southwest did journey to Spain to find her. Incredible as it may seem during those pre-Internet days, Maria de Agreda was known as far away as New Mexico as the supernatural "Lady in Blue." How? Although she was a cloistered nun, her lifelong missionary zeal often surfaced in ecstasy after Communion, resulting in her reported supernatural appearances to the Native American Jumano tribe.

By 1630, news of her apparitions reached Padre Alonso de Benavides, director of Franciscan missions in New Mexico. Benavides went back to Spain to investigate. After reporting to his superior in Madrid, he went on to Agreda. There he identified Sor Maria as the Lady in Blue, both from the Jumanos' descriptions of her, as well as her descriptions of them, including their chieftain, whose distinctive features she described in detail.

Consequently, while Mel Gibson’s film represents his unique vision of Christ's suffering and death, it is heartwarming to note his exhaustive research, including his exploration into the remarkable works of Maria de Jesus of Agreda, Spain.

                For more information on Maria de Agreda, visit Marilyn Fedewa's website at www.cambridgeconnections.net

Copyright 2004 Marilyn H. Fedewa
Published in MiGente Magazine March 2004

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