THE Mystery Plays will be returning to York Minster for the first time in 16 years later this month - complete with helium-filled balloons, representing the sun and eight planets, which will rise and float through the cathedral during the creation scene.

These will, apparently, light up from the inside - creating what promises to be a truly spectacular scene.

But then the Mystery Plays have always made for a great spectacle in York.

The origin of the plays is shrouded in the mists of time - but there is a record of them being performed on pageant wagons during the festival of Corpus Christi in York in 1376. The wagons were paraded through the streets of York, stopping at 12 'playing stations' designated by banners.

The name of the plays has nothing to do with a mystery in the modern sense of the word. It's actually a play on words, meaning both a religious rite or truth and also, in middle English, a trade or craft. The plays told stories from the old and new testaments - from the Creation to Judgement Day - and in the middle ages, different plays in the cycle were traditionally performed by different guilds: the plasterers, for example, performing the Creation, and the coopers the 'Fall of Man'.

York Press:

Banners for the 1909 York Pageant

The York Mystery Plays survived Henry VIII and the Reformation, but were suppressed in 1569 under Elizabeth 1.

They faded from view for centuries, but in 1885 a transcript of the plays was published by Lucy Toulmin Smith, based on a manuscript belonging to the Earl of Ashburnham.

The York Pageant of 1909 included a parade of banners accompanying a wagon representing the Nativity - and later that year a selection of six of the Mystery Plays was performed as a fundraiser for St Olave's Church.

It was in 1951, however, that the modern history of the York Mystery Plays really took off.

York Press:

1951 Mystery Plays, with a young Judi Dench (2nd right) as an angel

They were revived for the 1951 Festival of Britain celebrations, and performed on a stage in front of the ruins of St Mary's Abbey in the Museum Gardens. Jesus was played by Joseph O'Conor - and a young actress by the name of Judy Dench played the part of an angel.

More than 26,000 people are said to have seen that 1951 production. Small wonder, then, that the cycle was performed again in 1954 and 1957, and regularly thereafter, both in the Museum Gardens and on wagons paraded through the city.

York Press:

1954: the proclamation being read in St Helen's Square

In 1992, a young Robson Green played the part of Jesus - and in 2000 a spectacular Millennium production was held in York Minster, with Ray Stevenson as Christ.

The 2012 production in Museum Gardens will live long in the memory - but even that didn't have planets fashioned out of giant helium balloons...

Our photos today run the gamut of 'recent' productions - from the 1909 pageant right through to 2012. Enjoy...

York Press:

1992: Robson Green as Christ, with Jenny Burrage as Mary Magdalene

York Press:

2012: Ferdinand Kingsley as Christ and Graeme Hawley as the Devil