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Art History Reports: The Holy Land Experience

Updated on February 16, 2017

How did I learn about this park?

As I'm sure with other people, I learned about this magical, glorious place from watching Bill Maher's Religulous. Ever since seeing the 2008 documentary, my inner photographer wanted to capture this place with my cameras. While accomplishing this goal, I discovered that visiting The Holy Land Experience in person revealed that the documentary only gave a fraction of what this (based in Orlando, Florida) park contains.

Scene from "Religulous" (2008)

The Scriptorium

As a whole, the location waffles between respectable art museum and Christian entertainment at its most kitschy. On the respectable side, they have an exhibition (the Scriptorium) building that showcases a history of illuminated manuscripts that someone behind the Passages exhibition that I visited not too long ago clearly took inspiration from. They had to have known, because both Passages and Experience exhibitions used a model of installing manuscripts displayed in elaborately decorated rooms that matched the era they originated. It all felt very similar.

However, while Passages in my opinion had a more diverse selection of manuscripts and art to look at, the Scriptorium felt more theatrical in its interactive atmosphere. Passages had video of actors and animatronic robots dressed as historical (and mythical) figures explaining who they were (plus a video guide for kids and someone showing how to use an early printing press), but Experience had music and narration coming out of the speakers in nearly every room. In the ancient Middle East (and possibly Near East, I don't remember) section, I started belly dancing to a flute and drums instrumental emitting from some possible computer playlist, which I'm sure must have amused the people watching us from discreetly placed security cameras. Passages did have some of this, but not as much as Experience. I know you're probably thinking what could possibly be more theatrical than robots, but please keep reading. On the interactive part, they really shined in one room dedicated to the Lollard sect. As my mom and myself went into this room, I noticed that there was no corridor that led to the next section. As we looked around the room, we would learn from a disembodied narrator that the Lollards were a persecuted group, and then a secret door opened up, which allowed us to go into a hallway leading into the next room. As we left, I heard audio of guards making demands. Quite clever to manipulate visitors into understanding the kind of terrifying world this sect lived in. Furthermore, there was one part of this show that to me, came off as unintentionally scary. It originated from this one room that explained how books were made, but the sound effects combined with the dark shadows reminded me of a scene from a horror movie. The kind of harsh sound you hear before an unseen terror comes to kidnap you.

After traveling through the museum, came the grand finale the visitor had to bear witness before being let out into the gift shop and the hot Florida sun. It consisted of a room full of artistic representations of Old and New Testament figures being lit up while music and narration boomed and manipulated you into feeling a sense of awe at the divine beings before you.

My black and white photos of the Holy Land Experience

The other art gallery

More respectability comes the still unsolved mystery of the Paul F. Crouch collection. There, I gazed upon Russian icons, Baroque paintings, Proto Renaissance art gilded in gold leaf, sculpture, and a reproduction of Gianlorenzo Bernini's David. All with little or no labels to inform you of their origins.

The guide informed me that Crouch's collection has to this day not been catalogued.

My black and white photos of the Holy Land Experience 2

Christian Kitsch

Now about the kitschy part of The Holy Land Experience. All around the park, gold paint, astroturf, Classically influenced statues of angels and Roman soldiers, and architecture decorate the place. From the Chick Fil-A to the bathrooms, gold paint decorated everywhere. There were mirrors, which reminded me of pictures of Versailles' Hall of Mirrors.

All through the park, the speaker system pipes a never ending catalogue of Christian pop music. Music sung by singers in the most over the top way possible. However, I heard nothing by Handel or the more traditional standards. Not even traditional Jewish music.

By the way, the Chick Fil-A restaurant installed in one of the buildings? It had no air conditioning.


My color videos of the Holy Land Experience

A Holy Land in Orlando, Florida

As I wrote earlier, the park recreates the Holy Land in Jesus' time. This includes the cave with the door opened by Roman guards to reveal that He had risen. By the way, they have statues of Roman guards opening the door and looking shocked at the vacant room. Inside, the room contained a little exhibit of vases and other religious objects. I admit, when I first saw this, I thought that building had great potential to work as a prank for some cruel person. It didn't help matters that the Disney Park and Universal Studios were not too far away. I know, because I checked my Google Maps app, and it said that an under twenty minute driving distance existed between Walt Disney World Resort and The Holy Land Experience. Universal Studios? Under ten minutes. So I can imagine some actor willing to risk his or her career, sneak into the cave dressed up as a Disney/Star Wars/Marvel character and walk out when someone comes near that very place.

And pretend they're hungover.

The Modern American Passion Play

Now, let's talk about the Passion play the park put on. Beforehand, I knew a little about Medieval passion plays. Long after seeing The Holy Land Experience's take on this type of theater, I learned more from listening to an audiobook edition of Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century.

I have observations.

The costume designer must have ordered from a business that caters to belly dancers, because the angels were wearing Isis wings.

Satan does make an appearance, and he resembles a showered Rob Zombie decked out in Hot Topic wear. I think he even had a wallet chain. Whenever he talked or laughed, a modified voice would come out.

Satan even had three women dancers following him around. They were covered in shadow and spent most of their writhing around on the floor.

Jesus later fights Satan.

After Jesus fights Satan, he shows up in gold and white robes and an Imperial crown.

I think I heard recorded audio of an audience cheering.

When I later listened to the Distant Mirror audiobook, Tuchman devoted a section to medieval passion plays. The spectacle that Medieval people put together did not differ all that much to the play the Holy Land Experience executes.


Final thoughts

Despite my snark, I have an affection for this park. I enjoyed the exhibits devoted to illuminated manuscripts and art. While the exhibit has this over the top spectacle, I respect what the organizers were trying to do. They were trying to create this sense of atmosphere and context for the curious visitor, and they succeeded.

© 2016 Catherine

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