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The art of promoting biblical cinema

A Dominican friar's vast collection of movie posters -- dating back to 1895 -- reveal evolving styles and interpretations while drawing from the same source of inspiration.

March 21, 2010|By Louis Sahagun
  • Father Michael Morris of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology has one of the largest collections of religious movie posters in the world. "Sometimes the posters were superior to the films," he says.
Father Michael Morris of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology… (Robert Durell / For The Times )

Reporting from Berkeley — A 19th century German nun who was prone to trance-like states of consciousness has been a divine inspiration for many films involving Jesus dating back to 1895, according to Father Michael Morris, a Dominican friar and the owner of one of the world's largest collections of biblical movie posters.

The detailed, visionary accounts of Jesus' passion and death channeled by Anna Catherine Emmerich were transcribed by the poet Clemens Brentano and later artistically rendered by James Tissot for a popular illustrated Bible published more than a century ago at the dawn of cinema.

Ever since, the motion picture industry has been cribbing from the Tissot illustrations for costume designs, choreography, sets, cinematography and movie posters, those eye-catching advertisements designed to lure prospective ticket buyers inside darkened theaters.

It's all part of what Morris, a professor of religion and the arts at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, calls "reel religion." The school is a member of the Graduate Theological Union.

"A lot of people got their idea of what the Bible was all about from these images," said Morris, who also directs the school's Santa Fe Institute, a research library on religious art. "Sometimes the posters were superior to the films they represented."

Morris was beguiled by religious movie posters in the 1970s when he was a graduate student at UC Berkeley.

"Several were on display at UC Berkeley's art museum," he recalled. "They were huge and more than just heralds for movies -- they were incredible works of art unto themselves."

Morris bought his first poster in 1985 and now stores his collection of more than 100 works from around the world at the institute. Restored and framed, they serve as windows into pivotal events recounted in the Old and New Testaments and the early Christian era.

The posters chronicle trends in advertising and marketing, as well as society's changing views of Good Book plot lines in films from the 1906 French production "La Vie du Christ" to Mel Gibson's 2004 " The Passion of the Christ."

Works in the collection range from postcard-size illustrations to bold 9-foot artworks. More often than not, the artists' names have been lost.

"The big thing was the movie, not the poster," Morris said.

Among them is a 33-inch-by-27-inch poster made for an 1898 reenactment of the passion of Christ that Morris said "is among the oldest movie posters in existence."

All of the posters were designed to capture the essence of motion pictures based on biblical stories from Adam and Eve to the acts of the apostles, from the beginning of Judeo-Christian history to the liberation of Christians under Constantine the Great.

Among the faces trumpeting the celluloid Bible genre: actor Ramon Novarro playing a galley slave for a promotion of the silent film version of "Ben-Hur" in 1925; actress Gina Lollobrigida striking a suggestive pose in posters for "Solomon and Sheba" in 1959; actress Michele Morgan gazing longingly out to sea in the 1948 film "Fabiola," which Morris said "brought sword and sandal epics back to Italy after World War II."

The posters tend to reflect the social milieus and artistic tastes of their time and place, from Tissot's illustrated Bible and Neoclassicism to Art Deco and Andy Warhol. "Warhol's coining of the repetitive image is even seen in a poster of director Roberto Rossellini's last film, 'The Messiah,' " Morris said.

A year ago, selections from Morris' collection were exhibited at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City. "The Bible has had more influence on art than is commonly believed," said Ena Heller, director of the museum. "This collection is fascinating because it reveals how much the history of film revolved around biblical subject matter."

Morris is trying to find benefactors to underwrite the collection so that it can be presented as a permanent gift to the Vatican Museum and Library.

"It costs a lot of money to track down these posters, then restore, archive and frame them for transport and display," he said. "One of my favorites, for example, is a poster for the 1956 Mexican production of 'Adam and Eve.' It was in five pieces with a hole in the middle when I got it."

That poster features the Bible's first couple standing naked before the Tree of Knowledge. A more modest version, with leaves and branches partly covering Eve, was later released in Argentina, Morris said.

Morris has behind-the-scenes stories to tell about every poster in his collection. Take one designed for the 1948 production "Samson and Delilah," which features actor Victor Mature bursting free of his shackles to topple a massive temple with his bare hands.

The film's director, Cecil B. DeMille, was disappointed to learn that his muscle-bound leading man was "deathly afraid of animals, especially cats," Morris said.

But of course, that fact is not revealed in the poster, or in the film in which Mature single-handedly kills a lion in the desert.


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