Sharing the Passion of Christ: Paolo Segneri Senior SJ (1624–1694) and the Ongoing Devotion to the Passion

Cristo Morto Dead Christ of Pusiano (Original)By Eleonora Rai,  The University of Western Australia

The Holy Week is a busy period for the inhabitants of Romagnano Sesia, a village located in Piedmont, northern Italy. A theatrical representation of the Passion of Christ has taken place there, in odd-numbered years, since the eighteenth century.

This tradition can be traced back to the establishment of the Confraternity of the Enterro in 1729 (from the Spanish Entierro, meaning burial. The area had been under Spanish dominion). On Good Friday night, this Catholic confraternity carried in procession statues of the Cristo Morto (Dead Christ) and the Madonna Addolorata (Our Lady of Sorrows). In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, new theatrical scenes of the Passion (for example, the Last Supper and Pilatus’s trial) were added to the already rich dramatic apparatus of the Good Friday festivities in Romagnano. The procession with the Dead Christ eventually became a complete representation of the Passion of Christ, comprising several episodes that are narrated in the gospels. Nowadays, every two years, approximately 350 nonprofessional actors perform the drama of the Passion in Romagnano, which attracts a wide audience of devotees and curious onlookers.

The Passion of Romagnano is not an isolated case. In Lombardy (less than two hours from Romagnano), a group of men living in the tiny village of Pusiano (Como) still recall the traditional procession with the Dead Christ, which took place in their village throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries but was permanently dropped during World War II. This rite was promoted by two sisters (Angela and Teresa Isacchi) who, from 1850s, claimed to receive celestial prophecies on the fate of the Roman Church and the Austrian Empire, and were venerated as living saints by a large group of devotees. According to tradition, the Good Friday procession was introduced in Pusiano in the mid-nineteenth century when Teresa, following instructions that she claimed to receive from God, found a statue of the Dead Christ behind a wall in the local oratory of Saint Francis and Dominic. The discovery of the statue was labelled as a miracle, and the Dead Christ became the most important visual object in the procession.

These two cases, although very different from each other, are fascinating examples of a long tradition of dramatic representations of the Passion of Christ. They had a remarkable reach in the Italian Peninsula from the seventeenth to the twenty-first century.

These representations presented (and, in some cases, still present) a vivid, realistic and highly emotional image to the public: the innocent suffering Christ, tortured and killed for the redemption of humanity. The theme of the Passion attracted the public on account of its tangibility, but also the opportunity it provided for spiritual and emotional engagement, and the dramatic representation of the Passion in turn fed popular piety.

In seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Jesuit missionaries and preachers developed visual theatrical techniques linked to the Passion that probably influenced these representations of the Passion of Christ, and fostered a religious sensitivity that popularised the Good Friday procession in Italy. The Province of Novara, for example, was home to the missions of Giovanni Pietro Pinamonti (1632–1703), a Jesuit who died in Orta (28 kilometres from Romagnano) during a mission. Then, in the early eighteenth century, the area of Pusiano hosted the missions of Jesuit Fulvio Fontana (1648–1723), an epigone of Paolo Segneri Senior (1624–1694) who developed a successful dramatic missionary method in collaboration with the abovementioned Pinamonti.

Paulo Segneri Senior
Paulo Segneri Senior

Segneri promoted a very concrete and visible devotion to the Passion, using theatrical methods that encouraged devotees to share in the suffering of Christ during his Passion. Segneri was a protagonist of Catholic missionary activity in seventeenth-century Italy. At that time, one of the major concerns of the Church was religious ignorance and disaffection in European Catholic societies. In order to address this situation, the Council of Trent (1545–1565) had established a process for re-evangelising Europe. Religious orders took a leading role in this process of renovating Catholicism by developing religious missions, which enhanced people’s attachment to Catholic faith and the sacraments, improving knowledge of the catechism and reforming morality.


The Jesuits were on the front line in this process. Segneri developed a visual theatrical communication method to inspire audiences. In particular, he focused on the Passion and death of Christ as a pathway toward internal conversion. In his preaching and missionary ‘performance’, he drew on the very concrete and touching image of Jesus’s suffering on the Golgotha as an instrument to open Catholics’ hearts and stir their emotions. Segneri’s visual method and preaching were highly emotional and succeeded in involving people in the mystery of salvation through visual representations of the Passion of Christ. In particular, they involved humble ordinary people in the Italian countryside in this religious narrative.

In the second half of the seventeenth century, Segneri promoted a visual pastoral mission, characterised by strong rhetoric and theatrical aspects, which formed the basis of Jesuit oratorical pedagogy. He fostered the so-called religio carnalis, a piousness that was experienced through the human senses (first and foremost, sight and hearing). He perfected the penitential mission by using visual objects connected to the Passion of Christ (arma Christi), such as the Cross, the crown of thorns, nails, whips and skulls. These visual objects recalled the theme of death, particularly the Golgotha and the death of Christ for the redemption of men. They could also be distressing, as they forced the public to face an unavoidable part of life – death – and to think about a crucial element in Catholic daily life – sin.

The Flagellation of Christ by Caravaggio, c.1751-1610. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The Flagellation of Christ by Caravaggio, c.1751-1610. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In order to move people, Segneri became the most important visual focus of the mission by presenting himself as the Christ of the Passion: he flagellated himself on stage and spurred adult men to do the same. Located near the crucifix, the image of the missionary was moving: dressed poorly, barefoot and sometimes with a crown of thorns on his head, Segneri flagellated himself in a controlled manner until he began to bleed. Although Segneri’s theatrical, bloody and typically baroque style was later criticised (especially by Rigorists), archival sources (reports on missions, letters and memoirs) provide evidence that the Jesuit’s method was successful, as Segneri was able to make people empathise with the pain of the Passion and Jesus’s death on the cross. Missionary sources describe the public self-flagellation of entire communities (only adult men), led by Segneri. The missionaries also distributed crowns of thorns to involve parishioners in the meditations on Jesus’s Passion.

Penitential processions were also important instruments for involving the public. The contrast between the dark of the night and the feeble light of the torches, combined with the use of the whip, were effective in eliciting strong emotional responses. In this way, people were not only viewers, but became absorbed in the atmosphere created by the missionaries; they were at the same time actors in and spectators of the Passion of Christ.

Penance was a fundamental part of Segneri’s missionary method. Through personal atonement and public penitential practices, the Jesuit and his listeners shared in the suffering of the Passion. A large number of Catholics flocked to Segneri’s missions, and his companion Giovanni Pietro Pinamonti noted that Segneri’s dramatic preaching was so successful that it was necessary to stop the public from practicing self-flagellation after the end of the mission.

Pinamonti also recorded that his friend was tormented by the idea of sin, and as a result personal penitence occupied a predominant role in his daily life. He walked barefoot, wore sacks, slept on planks and subjected himself to various tortures such as cold, fasting, flagellum and corda. Suffering as Jesus did for humanity’s sins was Segneri’s main aim.

Segneri’s literary masterpiece was the Quaresimale (Lenten), a printed book (written in Italian) that includes a long series of homilies for Lent, composed and recited between 1655 and 1665. Lent was a time for reflection and penance. In the Catholic tradition, it refers to the 40 days preceding Easter, the day of Jesus’s Resurrection after his death on the cross. Lent starts on Ash Wednesday and ends on the Saturday before Easter. It includes Holy Thursday and Good Friday; that is to say, the meditation on Jesus’s Last Supper, Passion and Crucifixion.

The first text in the Quaresimale is a homily for Ash Wednesday. In Catholicism the rite of the Ashes, which are put on the forehead of devotees during a liturgical ceremony, recalls to men the transience of life. ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return’. This is the liturgical sentence (from the book of Genesis) that Catholic priests pronounce while placing the ashes on the foreheads of devotees during the rite. It is also the main idea expressed by Segneri in his homily for Ash Wednesday:

‘We are all here, young and old people, masters and servants, rich and poor: and finally we all have to die’.

Segneri expresses astonishment that nobody seems to care about this certain common fate. Everybody, he writes, knows they are destined to death and to the final judgement; however, people still spend their lives committing sin. Until the day before Ash Wednesday, he continues, they celebrate the Carnival, which he considered to be the most sinful and corrupt period of the year. ‘Per peccatum mors’, we read in the Quaresimale. Sin leads to death. Segneri preached tirelessly that people who sought the immortality of the soul had to repent, confess their faults and abandon the state of mortal sin in which they lived.

The moving image of Jesus’s Passion on the cross was strategically used by Segneri to draw people’s attention to sin and penitence. In this sense, the homily for Good Friday is the apogee of Segneri’s dramatic preaching. The description of the body of Christ on the cross is moving, concrete and detailed. He describes Jesus’s wounds and pain in a very affective way. Nobody in the world has suffered as Christ did, he states: he is the man of sorrows. Segneri’s Jesus is a very human Jesus, whose suffering attracted the public. In Segneri’s preaching there is no room for the image of an idealised dying Jesus, as was promoted by Jansenists in the same period. Segneri’s Jesus is a real man, the son of God who suffered as a common man.

Jesus on the cross, Chiesa del Sacro Nome di Gesù, Rome
Jesus on the cross, Chiesa del Sacro Nome di Gesù, Rome. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Spectators could imagine Jesus’s suffering, feel guilty for their sins and fear God’s final judgement. The Spiritual Exercises (the masterpiece of Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit Order) promoted the use of imagination, especially in the meditation on the Passion of Christ. The Jesuits were encouraged to use imagination to improve their contemplation. Segneri proposed the same method in his missions, to facilitate people’s understanding of the mystery of salvation. Through these mental images, as through dramatic representations of the Passion, Segneri moved the public. His oratory ability was so appreciated that the Pope requested his presence in Rome, to preach at the Apostolic Palace.

Over the centuries, the drama of the Passion of Christ has been represented on stage using various methods, by the Jesuits and other religious orders. The Catholic world has inherited past traditions and continues to foster a devotion to the Passion, especially during Lent. The Italian costumed processions involving theatrical representations of the Passion seem to be a mild expression of this devotion when compared, for example, to real crucifixions that take place every year in the Philippines. Even Paolo Segneri Senior’s bloody penitential practices seem restrained when compared with the ‘passion’ of Ruben Enaje, a Philippine carpenter who has been crucified (with nails in both hands and feet) 30 times in order to share Jesus’s suffering.

Segneri’s visceral method allowed the audience to feel closer to God by sharing the pain of the Passion. Public penitence and Segneri’s performance pushed people to search their conscience, ask for forgiveness for their sins, and open their hearts. As a result, reconciliations with enemies and repentance of “sinners” occurred during missions.

Dramatic representations of the Passion offered people the opportunity to understand and feel Jesus’s human suffering, and to experience an inner upheaval essential to internal conversion. Missionaries and preachers worked on the audience’s emotions, and the moving image of crucified Jesus was an extremely valuable ally for conquering souls.

Eleonora Rai is a Research Associate with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (The University of Western Australia). She has previously held a postdoctoral fellowship at the Fondazione Fratelli Confalonieri (University of Milan). Her research focuses on various aspects of the history of the Roman Church and Christianity in the early modern and modern periods. She is particularly interested in early modern and contemporary European religious and cultural history, Jesuit emotions and visual culture. She is currently working on the Suppression of the Society of Jesus, Jesuit missions, and causes for canonisation.

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