Saturday, April 19, 2014

Day 7: Jesus is Buried; Jesus Among the Dead (Gay Passion of Christ series)

16. Jesus is Buried (from The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision) by Douglas Blanchard

“They took the body of Jesus, and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom.” -- John 19:40 (RSV)

A mother mourns her dead son in “Jesus is Buried” from “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision,” a series of 24 paintings by Douglas Blanchard. Mary leans over the body of Jesus, ready to kiss his ashen face goodbye. Crucifixion wounds are still visible on his wrists, feet, and side. An identification tag from a morgue is tied around his wrist. His corpse is bloodless and wrapped in a plain white shroud. The gravedigger shovels dirt from the grave where Jesus will be buried. A simple wooden coffin waits. The night is dark with city lights in the distance.

The simple dignity of the scene conveys the deepest sorrow and the finality of death. The burial of Jesus is described in all four gospels and discussed in the earliest summaries of the Christian message in the epistles. His burial has been important to Christians since Biblical times because it confirms that Jesus really died, thus laying the groundwork for the miracle of his resurrection. The Bible reports that Jesus was laid in a rock-hewn tomb with the help of his disciple Joseph of Arimathea, while Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” watched.

The subject is common in art history, where it is known as the Lamentation. A notable version was painted by Italian Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna, who showed Jesus’ foreshortened cadaver on a slab, wounded feet first. Like most scenes from the Passion, the Lamentation was not depicted at all until the 11th century, and then proliferated in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. The last two scenes in the traditional Stations of the Cross show Jesus being taken down from the cross and buried in his tomb. Nothing touched viewers more deeply than a mother’s grief, so artists gave an increasingly central role to Mary. They focused on the heart-rending moment when the bereaved mother cradles her son’s dead body in a specific type of Lamentation known as a Pieta (Italian for “pity”). The most famous Pieta is the sculpture by Michelangelo at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. It has become one of the Passion’s most iconic scenes, often copied or parodied to make a point.

Modern artists have used his Pieta composition to express other forms of grief. Some relocate it or switch the characters to make a political statement. Others, such as German Surrealist Max Ernst, use it to depict the unconscious mind. He replaced Jesus and Mary with a self-portrait of the artist held by his stern, staunchly Catholic father in “Pieta or Revolution by Night.”

Some versions address the impact of AIDS and homophobia on LGBT people. The magnitude of the AIDS death toll was made worse by Christians who saw the disease as God’s punishment for homosexuality. In her famous Ecce Homo series, Swedish artist Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin photographed an emaciated gay AIDS patient cradled by a leather bar employee in the AIDS ward of a Stockholm hospital. American painter Matthew Wettlaufer’s “Pieta” shows a gay man at the bedside of his dying lover while bombs drop and a blanket lists the names of war-torn countries and gay-bashing victims. “Stations of the Cross: The Struggle for LGBT Equality” by Mary Button weaves together past and present to make deadly comparisons: Jesus is taken down from his cross beside a map of states banning same-sex marriage, and LGBT youths driven to suicide watch as he is laid in his tomb.

Blanchard’s understated Lamentation is closely related to the next two paintings in his gay vision of the Passion. All three images use dark tones to convey Jesus’ experiences with death and the underworld. Life, not death, was Jesus’ focus, and he gave mixed messages about mourning the dead. He promised comfort for those who mourn. He was so concerned about the welfare of his mother and his beloved disciple after his death that from the cross he declared them to be family for each other. But he did not have an overly sentimental attachment to family or funeral customs. He even ordered a disciple to skip his father’ funeral, saying, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead.”

“You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” -- Genesis 3:19 (RSV)

After Jesus died, the authorities allowed one of his friends to take his body for burial. Almost all of his many supporters were gone. Jesus’ body was laid to rest in a fresh tomb at sundown, just before the sabbath began. When they buried him, they also buried a beautiful part of themselves. Sometimes the humiliations continue even after death… when homophobes picket the funerals of the LGBT people and other outcasts, when mortuaries refuse to handle the bodies of AIDS patients, when families exclude same-sex partners from memorial services, on and on. Jesus understood grief and didn’t try to suppress it. He said, blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Jesus, I wait in silence at your grave.

17. Jesus Among the Dead (from The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision) by Douglas Blanchard
Collection of Robert Wilder Nightingale

“Even the darkness is not dark to you.” -- Psalm 139:12 (Inclusive Language Lectionary)

Endless rows of corpses fill a vast black space in “Jesus Among the Dead.” Even in death, Jesus is not separate from humanity. He lays with the stink, the dead bodies, and the skeletons -- a common man in a common grave. Jesus can be identified by his crucifixion wounds. His corpse only stands out because it has not begun to decompose. He glows just slightly with a sick luminescence. Jesus just lies there, not judging, not fixing, not rescuing. He is simply present with people in the darkest state of being. This must be hell, or some human holocaust. Perhaps there is no difference.

At first glance Blanchard’s painting looks almost entirely black. The painting challenges viewers to keep looking until their eyes adjust to the lack of light. Then shapes and meanings emerge from the shadows to offer uncomfortable wisdom from the depths. Mystical traditions say there power to be gained by descent into the dark netherworld of dreams, intuition, death, and the unknown. In the mass grave Jesus is fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy that God’s suffering servant would be buried with “transgressors” and “the wicked.” The black void conveys utter despair over the meaninglessness of life.

The Bible doesn’t tell what Jesus experienced in the interlude between crucifixion and resurrection, but artists and theologians of the past were quick to fill the void. The Apostle’s Creed clearly states, “He descended into hell,” or in another translation, “He descended to the dead.” Artists traditionally show Jesus leading an uprising in hell. The subject is traditionally known as the Harrowing of Hell, when Christ descends to hell or limbo to rescue the souls held captive there since the beginning of time. Some churches mark the event on Holy Saturday by stripping their altars bare or covering them with black cloth.

Blanchard takes the dead Jesus to a whole new level. His Jesus is not triumphantly waking the deceased, at least not yet. He stays dead in the afterlife, sharing the reality of human powerlessness. A few artists, notably German Renaissance painter Hans Holbein, depicted the corpse of Jesus with gruesome realism. But Blanchard’s monolithically black visual vocabulary in “Jesus Among the Dead” has more in common with modern art, photography, and philosophy. He based the composition on documentary photographs of the Holocaust, especially photos of bodies laid out in long rows after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp at Nordhausen in 1945. New Mexico gallery owner Robert Wilder Nightingale singled out “Jesus Among the Dead” to purchase for his private collection when it was exhibited in Taos in 2007. “To me the work is haunting. A nightmare I wish never to see happen in reality,” he explained.

This is one of the most difficult paintings in Blanchard’s Passion series because it’s hard to see anything at all in the gloom. It resembles the all-black abstract paintings done by American artist Ad Reinhardt in the 1960s. Reinhardt claimed that these were the “last paintings that anyone can paint” -- a fitting concept for Jesus among the dead. Reinhardt painted them in the era when the “God is dead” theological movement announced that there was no longer any cultural relevance for the idea of transcendent God acting in human history. Another precedent for Blanchard’s black image is the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington DC. Inscribed with a seemingly endless list of war casualties, the memorial stretches like a long, black gash in the earth.

The most significant memorial for many in the LGBT community is the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. More than 48,000 handmade panels commemorate those who died of AIDS, including thousands of gay men. Before effective treatments were developed in the 1990s, AIDS was stigmatized as the “gay plague” and the LGBT community felt like a war zone as thousands died. Fundamentalists preached that AIDS was God’s punishment for homosexuality and President Reagan kept silent. Lovers, friends, and family learned to show they cared by staying present with the dying. Meanwhile they advocated change through groups such as ACT UP, whose motto was “Silence = Death.”

The AIDS pandemic is part of a larger queer holocaust. Many LGBT people experience a kind of living death, trapped in the private hell of the closet. Some have wished themselves dead and even taken their own lives. Those who wore the pink triangle were exterminated in Nazi death camps. The tragic history of church-approved persecution for homosexuality stretches back to the 13th century, when the first “sodomites” were burned at the stake. In Blanchard’s vision, Jesus rests with them in the ashes.

There are many hells and many types of limbo in which people are trapped neither fully alive nor dead. For example, the US Supreme Court overturned state sodomy laws in 2003, but same-sex marriage is still illegal in almost every state, leaving most LGBT people to exist in a non-quite-legal limbo.

“He poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors.” -- Isaiah 53:12 (RSV)

Like all human beings, Jesus eventually had to experience death. In effect, it was like he was buried in a mass grave with all humankind -- saints and sinners, queer and straight, male and female, all of us without exception, even the worst of us. His body rested in peace with the other corpses. Jesus lay buried like a seed waiting in the wintry earth. He didn’t believe death was the end. During his lifetime, he often talked about the afterlife. He said he would always be with us, connected like a vine to a branch. But when his body lay cold in the tomb, his friends and family simply missed him.

O God, can these bones live?

This is part of a series based on “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision,” a set of 24 paintings by Douglas Blanchard, with text by Kittredge Cherry.  For the whole series, click here.

The book version of “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision” will be published in 2014 by Apocryphile Press. Click here to get updates on the gay Passion book.

Holy Week offering: Give now to support LGBT spirituality and art at the Jesus in Love Blog

Reproductions of the Passion paintings are available as greeting cards and prints in a variety of sizes and formats online at Fine Art America.

Scripture quotation is from Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, and 1971 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Friday, April 18, 2014

Day 6: Jesus dies (Gay Passion of Christ series)

15. Jesus Dies (from The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision) by Douglas Blanchard

“While the sun’s light failed… he breathed his last.” -- Luke 23:44-46

“Jesus Dies” places Christ’s crucifixion against a 21st-century city skyline in “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision,” a series of 24 paintings by Douglas Blanchard. Jesus hangs on modern scaffolding that forms a cross behind him. He dies an outcast’s death in pain and humiliation. Jesus stayed true to his vision, even when it brought him into conflict with authorities, even to the point of death. Head bowed, Jesus looks like a corpse. Storm clouds blot out the sun in the sky above. The body of Christ dwarfs the crowd in the background. Some jeer at the dead martyr while others pray. Many, including a few priests, watch grimly. Once again Jesus has brought together an unlikely group. These spectators look like ordinary people today, becoming a visual counterpart to the African American spiritual that asks, “Were you there?”

The crucifixion could be taking place on top of a building, or on some kind of terrace. The silhouette of a skyscraper like the Empire State Building stands tall in the distance. Its presence hints at a subtext of Blanchard’s Passion: the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened near Blanchard’s art studio while he was working on the series. The World Trade Center is missing from the skyline in this painting. It has gone up in smoke like the dark clouds gathering above Jesus.

Here the cross regains its uncomfortable power to disrupt lives. The crucifixion of Jesus is so important and widespread in Western culture that it is in danger of losing its impact from deadening over-repetition. Blanchard brings it back to life by updating the image, defying attempts to downplay the significance of the cross or turn it into an oversimplified test of faith. Even non-believers are moved by the story of the martyr who poured out his life for others. For Christians it proves that the Immortal loved people to the point of becoming mortal. Some see the crucifixion as an atonement required by God to redeem the world from human sins. Others view it as God suffering with humanity, longing to stop the cycle of violence. The mystery of the cross is remembered by the faithful through the bread and cup of the Eucharist, the central sacrament of church life.

All four gospels describe the events of the crucifixion in detail. Darkness fell over the land for three hours as the crowds mocked Jesus. One might hope that a gay vision of the Passion would show Jesus speaking from the cross to the man he loved, but the viewer is denied such comfort here. The unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved” is referenced five times in the gospel of John (John 13:23, 19:26, 20:22, 21:7, 20). He reclined next to Jesus at the Last Supper, resting his head on Jesus’ chest. He was the only male disciple present at the crucifixion. Speaking from the cross, Jesus entrusted his mother and his Beloved Disciple into each other’s care. Christ created an unconventional family by telling them, “Woman, here is your son” and “Here is your mother.” The scene was even included in the new Scriptural Stations of the Cross instituted by the Pope in 1991. The Scriptural Stations also flesh out the crucifixion by adding the conversation between Jesus and the two thieves crucified beside him. But in Blanchard’s vision, there are neither thieves nor family to talk with Jesus. He hangs alone.

The very name of Blanchard’s crucifixion -- “Jesus Dies” -- expresses the modern spirit of the image. The dying Jesus was not depicted at all in Christianity’s millennium. The cross is one of the world’s most common symbols now, but crucifixion images are not the only or even the original way to worship Jesus. Christians drew strength from the crucifixion story in the era of early Christian martyrs, but back then artists had to disguise crosses as anchors or tridents to avoid Roman persecution. After Christianity gained legal status in 313, a few images began to appear with the Christ on the cross, but he was vibrantly alive, head held high in victory over death. The Passion was always depicted with the resurrection as one unified triumph. But mostly the cross was absent until the 10th century. The way Jesus died was not very important to his followers. For a thousand years Christian art usually celebrated Jesus as the Good Shepherd or the ruler of God’s bountiful creation. The risen Christ brought life and abundance. The church was also relatively tolerant of homosexuality in this period.

A shift began when the church joined forces with political and military powers near the end of Christianity’s first millennium. (An especially enlightening and helpful book on the evolution of Christian imagery is “Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire” by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker.) The Pope crowned Charlemagne in 800 as Holy Roman Emperor. He began forcing Christianity upon the native cultures of Europe. In present-day Germany Charlemagne’s armies killed or deported thousands of Saxons and chopped down the sacred tree of their religion. Descendants of the surviving Saxons carved the Gero Cross from wood around 970. It is the oldest surviving depiction of a dead Jesus on the cross. As the centuries passed, Jesus’ death on the cross was portrayed with increasing intensity and realism. Crucifixion scenes spread across Europe, along with a new theology of atonement. Christians were urged to imagine themselves at the foot of the cross and contemplate Christ’s agony as he was killed to atone for their particular sins. People who felt guilty for killing Jesus were less likely to resist domination. The Gero Cross expressed the anguish of a conquered people, but it also served to normalize violence. Christian leaders began using religion to justify bloodshed with the first Crusade in 1095. Eventually the death scene was enshrined as the 12th Station on the Way of the Cross.

As crucifixion art proliferated, hostility began to be directed specifically at same-sex erotic behavior. In 1120 the Council of Nablus established punishments for sodomy, setting a new precedent in medieval church law. Then came campaigns against heresy, which often used the terms “heresy” and “sodomy” interchangeably. The church directly or indirectly caused the execution of thousands for homosexuality over the next 700 years. Witch burning occurred in the same period and claimed the lives of countless lesbian women whose non-conformity was condemned as witchcraft. Blanchard says that their modern counterparts -- LGBT people murdered in gay bashings, driven to suicide, or killed by AIDS -- were on his mind as he painted “Jesus Dies.”

The crucifixion of Christ became so crucial that it was portrayed by virtually every artist in the Renaissance and Baroque eras, including Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and Rembrandt. One of the most influential versions may also be the most horrific: the Isenheim Altarpiece. German artist Matthias Grünewald created it around 1505. He portrays a ghastly, emaciated Jesus writhing in pain, his body covered with oozing sores. Like it or not, such graphic crucifixions still fascinate 21st-centuries sensibilities, as shown by the popularity of director Mel Gibson’s brutally violent 2004 film “The Passion of the Christ.”

Christian art has been largely eclipsed by secular imagery in the modern era, with important exceptions. Some famous 20th-century artists still used the crucifixion motif to symbolize cruelty and sacrifice, convey emotion, and critique society. Russian avant-garde painter Marc Chagall emphasized Jesus’ Jewish identity to call attention to Nazi persecution in his expressionist “White Crucifixion.” Picasso painted a cubist crucifixion and surrealist Salvador Dali hung Jesus on a multi-dimensional cross in “Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus).” Others made political statements by changing the setting or substituting the standard Jesus with a variety of different figures. For example, German artist George Grosz was tried for blasphemy in the 1920s over his anti-military drawing of the crucified Christ in a gas mask, captioned, “Shut up and obey!” British artist Edwina Sandys caused an international uproar by sculpting a female “Christa” in 1975. Blanchard’s gay Passion series has also been attacked by conservatives as “perverted” and “blasphemous.”

The horrors of the cross resonate with LGBT experience. The crucifixion naturally became the most common subject in contemporary queer Christian art because queer people have been scapegoated, abused, and killed, often in the name of God. Some contemporary artists have made the crucified Christ explicitly gay, confirming that God identifies totally with queer suffering. They have photographed the crucifixion with contemporary LGBT models. They have changed the location to gay cruising areas or AIDS wards, showing how the marginalization of gay men led them to literally die for their sexuality. Atlanta painter Becki Jayne Harrelson and New Mexico iconographer William Hart McNichols placed a “faggot” sign on the cross over his head. Brazilian cartoonist Carlos Latuff wrapped him in a rainbow loincloth. Photographers Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin of Sweden and Fernando Bayona Gonzalez of Spain, working separately, each did a Life of Christ series where the crucifixion scene shows Jesus lying spread-eagle on the ground after a gay bashing. Mary Button of Tennessee pairs the crucifixion of Christ with the murder of a transgender woman. Blanchard takes a more subtle approach. There are no overt gay references in his crucifixion. The viewer needs to look at the subtitle and other paintings in the series to know that this is a “gay vision.”

Blanchard shows the crucifixion for what it was -- one man’s violent death. Like prophets and freedom fighters of every age, Jesus was killed for challenging the status quo. The man who loves too much must die. By witnessing the crucifixion with compassion, viewers can stand symbolically beside all who suffer. They can face their own suffering without losing hope by seeing it in a larger context. The body of Christ represents the Oneness that goes by many names. The god-man dies and God’s identification with humanity, and in this case gay humanity, is complete.

“He said, ‘It is finished’; and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” -- John 19:30 (RSV)

Jesus knows the worst human suffering from his own personal experience. As Jesus hung dying on the cross, a few of his supporters watched. Among them were his mother and the man he loved. One of Jesus’ last wishes was to make them into a new kind of family. He called to his mother, Woman, behold your son! And to his beloved, he said, Behold your mother! After about three hours on the cross, Jesus shouted, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? All the misery of a broken world seemed to come together at the crossroads of that awful moment. Nothing left, he emptied himself completely. The death of Jesus was unique, and yet it was also terribly common. His execution was one link in a long chain of human violence. Whenever anyone commits violence against another, Christ is crucified.

My God, don’t you care?! Why have you forsaken us?

This is part of a series based on “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision,” a set of 24 paintings by Douglas Blanchard, with text by Kittredge Cherry.  For the whole series, click here.

The book version of “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision” will be published in 2014 by Apocryphile Press. Click here to get updates on the gay Passion book.

Holy Week offering: Give now to support LGBT spirituality and art at the Jesus in Love Blog

Reproductions of the Passion paintings are available as greeting cards and prints in a variety of sizes and formats online at Fine Art America.

Scripture quotation is from Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, and 1971 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Day 6: Jesus goes to his execution and is nailed to the cross (Gay Passion of Christ series)

13. Jesus Goes to His Execution (from The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision) by Douglas Blanchard

“He went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called the place of a skull, which is called in Hebrew Golgotha.” -- John 19:17 (RSV)

A bloody prisoner carries a crossbeam through the city in “Jesus Goes to His Execution.” Jesus is surrounded by guards with guns. News reporters aim multiple cameras at him in a peculiarly contemporary form of intrusion. They broadcast his private pain to the world. He is walking barefoot to the execution site, carrying the means of his own death, the cross on which he will be crucified. He seems to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. Nobody offers sympathy. A cheering spectator on the left looks out at the viewer, assuming that everyone shares his glee at seeing the blasphemer punished. A boy in a wheelchair watches with excitement, and perhaps relief that he is not being targeted this time. Jesus strides straight at the viewer with his face in shadow. His bare feet crunch on the broken shells of eggs that were thrown at him. He seems to be walking under scaffolding on a construction site. The low, overhanging roof adds to the tension, loading the scene with a heavy sense of impending doom. Soon the viewer must move out of the way or get trampled.

All four gospels report that Jesus was forced to walk through Jerusalem to the execution grounds outside the city walls. Crucifixions were done on a hill resembling a skull. Thus it was named Golgotha (Calvary in Latin), which means Place of the Skull. Two encounters occurred along the way: A passerby named Simon, from the Libyan town of Cyrene, was enlisted to carry the cross for him. And the women of Jerusalem followed, mourning and wailing. Knowing that the tragedy was much greater than his own personal suffering, Jesus turned to them and said, “Do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.” [Luke 23:28 (RSV)] In Blanchard’s version, Jesus is isolated in the center of the crowd. Nobody shares his burden or laments for him.

Early Christians did not depict Christ suffering on the cross, but they did show him carrying it. Jesus (or Simon of Cyrene) carrying the cross is one of the earliest and most enduring images in Christian art. The scene is sculpted in marble on a fourth-century sarcophagus from the Catacombs of Domitilla. In the early images the cross looks light and easy to carry, but over the centuries it seems to get heavier until Jesus can barely drag it. From the start Jesus was usually shown in profile, almost never coming right at the viewer as in Blanchard’s version.

Jesus carrying his cross is the heart of the traditional Stations of the Cross, which originated as stopping points for pilgrims along an actual road in Jerusalem. Known as the Via Dolorosa or Way of Sorrows, it is the route where the historical Jesus supposedly walked to his execution. Eight of the traditional fourteen stations occur as Jesus carries his cross, falling three times under its tremendous weight and encountering various people. Blanchard crystallizes the eventful walk to Calvary into a single image. Until about 1100 artists most often showed the cross being by Simon of Cyrene, but then the burden shifted to Jesus. Artists also gradually increased the number of characters in the scene. The trend culminated in 1564 when Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted an enormous crowd of more than a hundred people accompanying Jesus through a vast landscape in “Procession to Calvary.”

Art history includes many variations on Jesus carrying his cross, including Renaissance masterpieces by Hieronymus Bosch, who caricatured the mob with grotesque faces, and El Greco, whose haunting close-up showed an elongated Christ lifting his eyes to a stormy sky. Michelangelo bucked the trend by sculpting a muscular nude Jesus who practically swaggers with his cross. Modern mainstream artists have done surprisingly little with the motif of Jesus carrying his cross, preferring instead to draw inspiration from other scenes from Christ’s Passion.

The road to Calvary has inspired some powerful LGBT Christian art. Swedish photographer Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin included it in her controversial Ecce Homo series that recreates the life of Christ in a contemporary LGBT context. In “Weighed Down by the Cross,” she showed Jesus stumbling under his cross through a crowd with red ribbons and a Names Project memorial panel, symbolizing AIDS as a Way of Sorrows. Tennessee artist Mary Button matched each traditional station with a milestone from the past 100 years of LGBT history in “Stations of the Cross: The Struggle For LGBT Equality.” Jesus carries his cross against a backdrop of violence aimed at queers, including Nazi persecution, the Stonewall Rebellion, and the assassination of gay politician Harvey Milk.

For LGBT people, their God-given sexuality may feel like a burden in a world that disapproves of being queer. Earlier in his life Jesus spoke of carrying the cross as a metaphor for the spiritual journey with its inevitable costs. “If any would come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” [Matthew 16:24] he told his friends. Sometimes queer people learn to collaborate in their own oppression by carrying the “cross” of internalized homophobia and self-hatred. Whether they deny or embrace their identity, oppression of LGBT people is usually part of the load that queer people carry on their particular path to wholeness.

“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” -- -- Isaiah 53:4 (RSV)

The soldiers made Jesus walk to the execution grounds. They forced him to carry the cross on which he would be crucified. It was big news and crowds gathered along the road. They had watched Jesus rise to mass popularity, and now they wanted to see him fall. Many jeered at him. Some of the hecklers were once among his followers. Maybe they shouted louder than the rest to prove that they were not associated with Jesus -- like closeted lawmakers who loudly oppose LGBT rights. For those whom God created queer, the struggle to be fully human in a homophobic world is a heavy cross to bear.

Jesus, I will pull my own weight and walk with you.

14. Jesus is Nailed to the Cross (from The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision) by Douglas Blanchard

“There they crucified him.” -- Luke 23:33 (RSV)

Bruised and bleeding, a condemned man cries out in agony as a spike is hammered through his wrist in “Jesus is Nailed to the Cross.” The guard shows no emotion as he pounds a cruel spike through human flesh and bone. A shadowy guard in sunglasses wields a rifle to keep spectators away. Paparazzi with cameras jockey for position, prying into his pain and making it a commodity for public consumption. A rope is ready to hoist Jesus up to the cross that looms the background. Even the frame is splashed with blood.

Jesus grimaces. The pain is excruciating, a word that comes from the Latin cruciare, “to crucify.” The viewer is right there, closer than the news cameras, close enough to get spattered with blood, to hear Jesus’ cries and the metallic clank with every hammer blow. Of all 24 paintings in the series, this is the only one where the viewer can see agony on Jesus’ face. Previously his face was turned away or hidden in shadow when he felt pain. Now the viewer must look directly into his suffering face. This is also the bloodiest picture in the series. The painting forces the viewer to witness everything, to be an accomplice, voyeur, or victim. One of the beauties of this series is how even the men who torture and execute Jesus are still presented real people. They are cruel or oblivious or blinded by the drive for power at any cost, but ultimately they remain human.

When the gospels were written, there was no need to explain what was meant by “they crucified him.” The Bible doesn’t describe it in detail. The terrors of the cross were all too familiar to first-century readers. Blanchard actually spares the viewer some of the horror by skipping over other scenes reported in the gospels, such as Jesus being stripped, raised on the cross, and refusing the “benumbing drink” of wine mixed with gall.

At this point it may feel like overkill to show a blow-by-blow account of Jesus being crucified. But past artists, goaded by the Stations of the Cross format, often divided the crucifixion process into multiple steps. Compared to many historic paintings of this scene, Blanchard’s Jesus looks active, like he might still be able to escape from the cross. Another painter who brings the horror of the crucifixion into a modern LGBT context is Mary Button. In Station 11 of her series “Stations of the Cross: The Struggle for LGBT Equality,” Jesus is nailed to the cross while queer people are hooked to electrodes for electroshock therapy meant to “cure” homosexuality. In Blanchard’s version a 21st-century gay man stands for all those who have been victimized. The crucifixion of Jesus comes to symbolize all human violence.

“They have pierced my hands and feet--I can count all my bones --they stare and gloat over me.” -- -- Psalm 22:16-17

The soldiers nailed Jesus to the cross. It was high noon on Friday. The pounding of the hammer left no room for neutrality. People were forced to choose sides, us versus them. If you didn’t want to be a victim, you had to join the perpetrators. The psychic terror extended to those who watched. By abusing one person, the authorities intimidated everyone like him, everyone who was different in any way… religion, race, gender, sexual orientation, whatever. And what about the men who nailed him to the cross? Their actions were monstrous, but Jesus still saw their humanity. He prayed for the men who crucified him: God, forgive them because they don’t know what they’re doing.

God, help me find meaning in the brutal death of Jesus.

This is part of a series based on “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision,” a set of 24 paintings by Douglas Blanchard, with text by Kittredge Cherry.  For the whole series, click here.

The book version of “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision” will be published in 2014 by Apocryphile Press. Click here to get updates on the gay Passion book.

Holy Week offering: Give now to support LGBT spirituality and art at the Jesus in Love Blog

Reproductions of the Passion paintings are available as greeting cards and prints in a variety of sizes and formats online at Fine Art America.

Scripture quotation is from Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, and 1971 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Day 5: Jesus before the soldiers; Jesus is beaten (Gay Passion of Christ series)

11.Jesus Before the Soldiers (from The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision) by Douglas Blanchard

“Soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him.” -- Luke 23:11 (RSV)

Marine look-alikes torment a naked prisoner in “Jesus Before the Soldiers” from “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision,” a series of 24 paintings by Douglas Blanchard. Jesus kneels, naked and vulnerable, as a knife-wielding soldier grabs him by the hair. War dogs bark at him like hounds of hell, baring their teeth. A leering soldier flips the finger at him while another brandishes an assault rifle. Behind them a skull stares out from a gaping black hole. A dark halo seems to arch over him. The soft, round curves of Jesus’ exposed buttocks make the blade of the knife look even sharper. Dust clings to the soles of Jesus’ bare feet.

The soldiers smirk, compelling viewers to laugh with them as they hurt and humiliate their victim. The viewer is pushed to become an accomplice, unable to change the course of events. Even the frame bears the scars of war: a bullet hole and a gash. The only choice is to turn the page, closing one’s eyes on human suffering, or to watch and perhaps pray. The reason to relive the horror of what happened to Jesus is to bear witness to the ongoing suffering that the Passion represents. Perhaps it can motivate compassionate action in the present.

This picture begins a section of four violent images leading to the crucifixion. When considering Blanchard’s paintings of violence and nudity, it is essential to keep them in the holy context of Christ’s life. Such explosive subjects must be handled with care. Otherwise they may serve to glorify violence or fuel sadomasochistic fantasies, adding to the exploitation pictured. This painting and the next one (“Jesus is Beaten”) may well be the most terrifying images in Blanchard’s Passion. They are the only paintings in the series to combine violence and nudity. It hurts to look at them. After these, death comes as a relief. Maybe that’s the point. In these two images the frames are especially important because they keep the naked torture in context. All 24 images in the series have inseparable frames specifying their title and their number in the series. Blanchard painted the frames directly on the same wooden panel with each image, ensuring that the suffering will be seen as part of a larger story. His Passion paintings report the truth about violence. At the same time he condenses the barrage of contemporary violence into a few images suitable for deeper reflection.

“Jesus Before the Soldiers” is a modern version of the mocking of Jesus by soldiers in gospel accounts. They dressed him up as a king with a crown of thorns and ridiculed him. As still happens today, verbal abuse was a warm-up for serious physical assault. Graphic violence was not depicted in Christianity’s first thousand years, but since the 10th century grisly depictions of the Passion have been used to condone war and other forms of violence. Evidence suggests that early Christian artists cared more about how Christ’s spirit lived in them than about how he died. Early Christianity was also relatively tolerant of homosexuality for a millennium. Then the 10th and 11th centuries brought the first Crusades, the first gruesome artistic depictions of Jesus suffering on the cross, and the first church council saying that homosexuals should be burned at the stake. Atonement theologies arose saying that God wanted Jesus to suffer on the cross to pay the price or “atone” for human sin. Church leaders started encouraging believers to meditate on how Jesus was punished for their own individual sins. Blanchard questions, dismantles, and frees people from that deadly mindset with his gay vision of God suffering with humanity in the Passion.

In art history the mocking of Christ is traditionally shown with Jesus blindfolded and facing the viewer. A popular version was painted by Fra Angelico, an early Italian Renaissance artist and friar. His idealized Christ remains at peace even as he is slapped and spit upon. Blanchard’s interpretation has more in common with the modern, humanistic view in “Jesus Mocked by the Soldiers” by avant-garde French painter Edouard Manet. When it was first exhibited in 1860, critics reviled Manet for vulgarity because he used lower-class models and pictured the near-naked Jesus as an ordinary man.

Blanchard has acknowledged that one of the artists who influenced his Passion is modern American painter Leon Golub. He was a figurative expressionist who painted scenes of military and paramilitary torture in his 1980s series “Mercenaries,” “Interrogations,” and “White Squads.” Blanchard echoes Golub’s compositions and moral tone, mixing political critique with artistic sensibility. Today’s artists almost never paint LGBT versions of Jesus being mocked. Instead they get accused of mocking Jesus whenever they portray him as queer.

With this painting Blanchard employs an unusual composition in which Jesus is seen from behind. The viewer can’t see the face of Jesus. Blanchard’s version of soldiers mocking Christ owes its imagery not only to time-honored masterpieces, but also to shocking photos that dominated the news during his painting process. This panel and the next (“Jesus is Beaten”) were completed in 2004, the same year that the new media first revealed snapshots of American soldiers and military contractors torturing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. The abuse occurred during a war sparked by the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Blanchard is a New Yorker who painted the Passion while in turmoil over the attacks that led to the war. Here he addresses the potent connection between religion, terrorism, and torture.

Apart from the frame, there is no way to identify the prisoner in this painting as Jesus -- except by remembering his words, “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.” Whenever anyone commits violence against another, Christ is crucified again -- including when LGBT people are stripped of their rights, bullied, beaten, driven to suicide, or killed for loving someone of the same sex.

“He was despised and rejected… a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” -- -- Isaiah 53:3 (RSV)

The soldiers pulled off Jesus’ clothes and mocked him with contempt. They made ethnic jokes about him for being Jewish, and taunted him as a “king” because he taught that God’s kingdom of love is here and now. They could have used “queer” or a “faggot” or “lezzy” or any other slur. Whatever the words, whenever one person insults another, a child of God is humiliated. As Jesus said, whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me. The soldiers were young men similar to Jesus in many ways. The bullying was done by the soldiers, but the religious leaders were also to blame for the cruelty. The priests had set the stage for violence by calling Jesus a sinner. They targeted Jesus, but the pain spread far beyond him to terrorize many more people.

Jesus, what can I do to end violence?

12. Jesus is Beaten (from The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision) by Douglas Blanchard

“Then Pilate took Jesus and scourged him.” -- John 19:1 (RSV)

A naked prisoner hangs helpless while a soldier bashes him with a club and chain in “Jesus is Beaten.” His precious blood drips into a drain in the floor. A man in a necktie supervises with grim determination. The torture occurs in a bleak, gray room. It is bare except for a sink and an empty chair. The anonymous victim is turned away from the viewer, so only his wounded backside is visible. He cannot be identified as Jesus except by reading his name in the title on the frame. A ceiling lamp forms a distant halo over the head of the battered Jesus, casting shadows in the starkly lit torture chamber.

“Jesus is Beaten” is perhaps the most disturbing of the 24 paintings in Blanchard’s Passion. Blood is shed here for the first time in the series. The nudity stirs up sexual tension and an unbearable sense of vulnerability. It is similar to the previous image (“Jesus Before the Soldiers”) as a scene of violence inflicted on a naked man. There is no other nudity in the rest of series. Despite the sadomasochistic undertones, Blanchard refused to allow the scene to be taken out of its holy context. He painted the frame and title directly on the wooden panel, redeeming the horror by establishing it as an integral event in the life of Jesus.

The scourging of Jesus is mentioned briefly in gospel accounts and was standard procedure before crucifixion under Roman law. “Jesus is Beaten” is a new interpretation of Jesus being scourged, a scene often called “The Flagellation” in art history. Crucifixion scenes dominate Christianity today, but early Christians emphasized the risen Christ, depicting his life instead of his suffering and death. Images of Jesus being whipped first began to appear in art around the 10th century, along with other increasingly gruesome scenes from the Passion. During this period the church also began to encourage self-flagellation as a way for believers to share in the suffering of Christ.

Artists usually depict the Flagellation by showing Jesus with two men who flog him. After the 12th century Jesus almost always faces the viewer while he is whipped, but Blanchard reverts to an earlier tradition by showing him from behind. A well known version was painted by Italian Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca, who places the scourging in a pristine tiled courtyard with perfect perspective. There is a homoerotic flavor to many of these historic paintings of the Flagellation, including the robust versions by Caravaggio and Rubens. The same-sex eroticism was made explicit in the 1990s by gay artist Delmas Howe. His “Stations: A Gay Passion” includes a flagellation scene at the gay sex piers of New York City in the 1970s.

Like the previous panel, “Jesus is Beaten” is reminiscent of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse photos released while Blanchard was painting these images. It delivers a shocking glimpse of the trauma that is inflicted behind closed doors. The painting makes a visual protest against all forms of human violence, including “ex-gay conversion therapy” that aims to change the sexual orientation of LGBT people. Thousands have been subjected to harmful techniques such as pairing homosexual imagery with electric shocks or nausea-inducing medication. The trauma endured by Blanchard’s contemporary Christ is not an isolated incident, but a theme that recurs in human history and perhaps the human heart. With this image, all victims become one with Christ and receive a chance for compassionate attention from the viewer.

“Do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.” -- Luke 23:28 (RSV)

Pilate, the Roman governor, ordered that Jesus be scourged -- a severe whipping before execution. This cruel punishment was state-sponsored terrorism against a man who defied the established order and hierarchy by teaching unlimited love for all. When they hit him, they did violence to everyone who has ever dared to be different. We are the body of Christ, and every individual’s suffering affects the whole. The charge against Jesus was treason, but his “crime” might have gone by a different name in another time and place. Governments and churches have imposed similar tortures on people who don’t fit in or threaten the system in various ways, including homosexuality. Those who carry out the dreadful orders are demeaned in the process too. The painful scourging left Jesus bleeding and in shock.

Jesus, be with all who suffer… and with all who cause suffering.

This is part of a series based on “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision,” a set of 24 paintings by Douglas Blanchard, with text by Kittredge Cherry.  For the whole series, click here.

The book version of “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision” will be published in 2014 by Apocryphile Press. Click here to get updates on the gay Passion book.

Holy Week offering: Give now to support LGBT spirituality and art at the Jesus in Love Blog

Reproductions of the Passion paintings are available as greeting cards and prints in a variety of sizes and formats online at Fine Art America.

Scripture quotation is from Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, and 1971 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Sor Juana de la Cruz: Nun who loved a countess in 17th-century Mexico City

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
By Lewis Williams, SFO

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was a 17th-century Mexican nun whose critically acclaimed writings include lesbian love poetry. She is considered one of the greatest Latin American poets, an early advocate of women’s rights, and some say, North America's first lesbian feminist writer. Her feast day is today (April 17).

Production begins in fall 2014 on a film based on “Sor Juana’s Second Dream,” a novel in which author Alicia Gaspar de Alba explores Sor Juana's romance with a Mexican countess.

Sor Juana (Nov. 12, 1648 - April 17, 1695) was born out of wedlock near Mexico City in what was then New Spain. She was a witty, intellectually gifted girl who loved learning. Girls of her time were rarely educated, but she learned to read in her grandfather’s book-filled house.

When she was 16, she asked for her parents’ permission to disguise herself as a male student in order to attend university, which did not accept women. They refused, and instead she entered the convent in 1667. In her world, the convent was the only place where a woman could pursue education.

Sor Juana’s convent cell became Mexico City’s intellectual hub. Instead of an ascetic room, Sor Juana had a suite that was like a modern apartment. Her library contained an estimated 4,000 books, the largest collection in Mexico. The following portrait from 1750 shows her in her amazing library, surrounded by her many books.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz by Miguel Cabrera, 1750 (Wikimedia Commons)

She turned her nun’s quarters into a salon, visited by the city’s intellectual elite. Among them was Countess Maria Luisa de Paredes, vicereine of Mexico. The two women became passionate friends. It’s unclear whether they were lesbians by today’s definition, but Maria Luisa inspired Sor Juana to write amorous love poems, such as:

That you’re a woman far away
is no hindrance to my love:
for the soul, as you well know,
distance and sex don’t count.

Click here for more of Sor Juana’s lesbian poems in English and Spanish.

The romance between Sor Juana and Maria Luisa continues to be an inspiration for contemporary writers and film makers. Poet and Chicano studies scholar Alicia Gaspar de Alba writes about it vividly in her novel “Sor Juana’s Second Dream.” The novel became the basis for the play “The Nun and the Countess” by Odalys Nanín.

Production begins in fall 2014 on a movie based on Gaspar de Alba's novel. Mexican actress Ana de La Reguera will play Sor Juana in "Juana de Asbaje," the film adaptation of Gaspar de Alba’s novel. She co-wrote the screenplay with the film's director, Rene Bueno.

Gaspar de Alba also writes about Sor Juana in her new book “[Un]framing the ‘Bad Woman’: Sor Juana, Malinche, Coyolxauhqui, and Other Rebels with a Cause.” It will be published in 2014 by the University of Texas.

Church authorities cracked down on Sor Juana, not because of her lesbian poetry, but for “La Respuesta,” her classic defense of women’s rights in response to opposition from the clergy. Threatened by the Inquisition, Sor Juana was silenced for the final three years of her life. At age 46, she died after taking care of her sisters in an outbreak of plague.

She is not recognized as a saint by the male-dominated church hierarchy that she criticized, but Sor Juana holds a place in the informal communion of saints honored by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people of faith and our allies.  She is especially revered as a role model by Latina feminists.

The icon at the top was painted by Colorado artist Lewis Williams of the Secular Franciscan Order (SFO). Sor Juana sits between Mexico City’s two volcanoes, the male Popocatépetl and the female Iztaccíhuatl, symbolizing the conflict between men and women that she experienced in trying to get an education. She holds a book with a quote from her writings: “The most unforgivable crime is to place people’s stature in doubt.”

Related links:

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (Qualia Encyclopedia of Gay Folklife)

Sor Juana de la Cruz: La monja le encantó la Condesa en la Cidade do México en el siglo 17 (Santos Queer)

This post is part of the GLBT Saints series at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints and holy people of special interest to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

Icons of Sor Juana de la Cruz and many others are available on cards, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, candles, mugs, and more at Trinity Stores

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