Characters (evangelicals, historians, legends)

Characters from the Gospels

The main character of the Holy Thursday Procession is clearly Jesus Christ, who carries the classical crux immissa on his shoulder. According to the custom of Mendrisio, the identity of the person (necessarily in his 30s or 40s) who interprets this role, with the face covered by a thick beard and the forehead wearing a crown of thorns, must remain a secret. In the past, it was a tradition that Christ should be impersonated "by a converted sinner or by a public penitent who was selected by the Prior of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament." The chosen one had to make his confession and receive Holy Communion and… disappear into the woods in the Selvetta area at the end of the procession. According to the Gospels, Simon of Cyrene walked beside Jesus along the Way of the Cross, helping him carry the cross up to the Golgotha. The three Marys, namely the Blessed Virgin (usually in the centre in the Mendrisio procession), Mary of Magdala or Magdalene (on the left) and Mary of Clopas or of Cleophas (on the right) participated in the climb up Mt. Calvary. Until the late 1800s the role of the pious women was played by three men completely attired in black, with face covered, who participated in the procession weeping. The group of the Christ is preceded by the warriors of the Sanhedrin and surrounded by the Crowd of Jews, which demands that Jesus be condemned and sentenced to death (though the cries "We want him dead! We want him dead!" are recent additions). The Jews, portrayed with grotesque features and movements, represent the crowd that gathered to witness the crucifixion but also the one that collected before the praetorium and which, instigated by the priests, chose to release Barabbas. The group draws to a close with the two Thieves who proceed running and hopping, chained with bare feet covered by wounds. The good one and the bad one cannot be distinguished.

The historical characters

The Roman and Jewish authorities are the protagonists of other important moments of the story of the Passion parade after the dice players, namely Roman soldiers who decided by lot which of them should have the Jesus' seamless robe.

During the procession the small group throws the large dices on Christ's robe at every stop. The leading Jews head the parade, precisely Anna (or Anània), High Priest from 6 to 15 AD, and his son-in-law Caiaphas, he too was a High Priest from 18 to 36 AD. They were the two most influential figures of the Sanhedrin and instigated the people of Jerusalem in order to obtain the death sentence of Christ before the Roman procurator.

Pontius Pilate, the Fifth Procurator of Judea from 26 to 36 AD follows accompanied by the red Banner, symbol of imperial majesty. Consistently with a medieval tradition that can be recognised in some paintings even of subsequent centuries, in the Mendrisio procession Pilate is dressed with Middle Eastern clothes and not as a Roman officer. Fearing the reaction of Emperor Tiberius and the revolt of the crowd incited by the Sanhedrin, Pilate agreed to sentence Jesus to be crucified.

Jesus' sentence is personified at the beginning of the procession by the Roman soldier called Sentenza (a fictional name that summarises his function), who carries a pole with at the top an eagle and the words S.P.Q.R.. He is appointed to carry the titulus, namely the reason of the death sentence which, in the case of Jesus, is stated in the sign with the acronym I.N.R.I. (Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudeorum), which is traditionally nailed on the cross.

The long cloak held by pages, the crown and the sceptre are, instead, the items that distinguish King Herod. It is clearly Herod Antipas, though the character is often confused with his father, Herod the Great, who ordered the massacre of the innocents to prevent the prophesy that announced the advent of the Messiah from coming true. Tetrarch of Galilee and of Perea, Herod Antipas questioned and made fun of Jesus, who remained silent before him and was, therefore, sent back to Pilate.

Finally, the play ends with the two figures who are the protagonists of episodes that follow the death of Christ, namely Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, whose presence during the Way of the Cross is, therefore, not relevant. The two, who were secretly disciples of Jesus, carry amphorae that recall those which, as indicated in the evangelical story, are supposed to have contained a mixture of myrrh and aloe, which was used to perform the funeral rites and intended to prepare the body of the Messiah prior to burial.

The legendary characters

The legendary characters present in the procession of Holy Thursday embody the main feature of the Funziun di Giüdeeand are distinguished into two categories, namely those cited in the apocryphal Gospels who have thus entered the popular tradition, and those entirely invented by the people of Mendrisio.

The apocryphal writings of the middle ages (like the legend entitled Mors Pilati) have yielded, for example, the character of Veronica, a pious woman who dried the face of the Lord, whose features remained impressed on the cloth she displays throughout the play. Actually the woman's name indicates the object she carries, precisely the actual icon, the genuine image of the face of the Christ.

The Roman soldier Longinus who walks ahead of the group of the Christ and who is supposed to have pierced Jesus' side with his spear to ascertain that he was dead is present in the apocryphal Gospels (precisely in the Gospel of Nicodemus or Acts of Pilate).

Other figures have been entirely invented. It is the case of Unginus, the Roman soldier who drags Jesus with a rope tied to the cross, and holds a peach blossom branch like a whip. And again, the cup bearer, a boy who quenches the Messiah's thirst during the climb to Calvary, symbolising the tradition of the time that is also mentioned in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew of offering a drink of a mixture of wine and myrrh that would narcotise those who were sentenced to death in view of the atrocious pain of the crucifixion.

The axe bearer should, instead, be a popular invention applied to the figure of the teacher of justice (the executioner) who perhaps participated in the procession during the period of the Italian Bailiwicks. The following too lack historical reference, precisely the Jewish youth with nails and hammers (a hint at the crucifixion) who open the parade, the two cross bearers who accompany the thieves and the Moors, attired with earrings and turbans surmounted by the Muslim half moon, thus artfully representing Herod's sumptuous eastern court where we also find a High Priest, identified by the tables of the law he carries in his lap but which proves to be an obvious repetition.

As a matter of fact, Caiaphas, who was the High Priest during the years of the crucifixion of Jesus, and his predecessor Anna can be clearly seen a little while before.

The most mysterious character of all is the knight called Nascia, who parades soon after the group of the Christ. Nascia, whose figure is unknown both in the Gospels and in the popular tradition, rides a horse in the company of a child who holds his waist and has a silver stone in the hand. The only theory presented to explain the presence of this strange pair is that the boy represents one of the many urchins who, during the executions, threw stones at those sentenced to be crucified who walked down the streets of Jerusalem towards Calvary.