“One of the officers standing by struck Jesus with his hand, saying, ‘Is that how you answer the high priest?’” -- John 18:22 (RSV)
A guard hits Jesus in a church while clergymen do nothing, indifferent to the violence, in “Jesus Before the Priests” from “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision,” a series of 24 paintings by Douglas Blanchard. The blow is so hard that Jesus doubles over. The guard’s dark sunglasses cannot hide his hateful grimace. A bespectacled priest looks up from an open Bible, but his bland face registers no concern for Jesus. Another priest purposely ignores the assault, studying his fingernails. Red carpet on the steps leads to an altar with candles. Watching from the back are more white-robed priests and men in business suits.
This is one of the more shocking images in Blanchard’s Passion series because it exposes blatant hypocrisy in a familiar setting. The church and its priests look familiar, maybe even comforting or boring. We have been there. But we haven’t seen what would happen if Jesus showed up there today in person as a young man. One might expect violence from police or soldiers, but not from ministers in a church sanctuary. But in the banality of evil, unspeakable acts are committed not by monsters, but by ordinary people who accept the premises of an institution.
Religions have condemned LGBT people and others as “sinners,” and then refused to accept responsibility for the violence that they incited. A recent example occurred in Uganda, where a law that imposed the death penalty for homosexuality was drafted under the influence of Christian conservatives from America. Church trials for homosexuality continue in America too. In a highly publicized trial the Presbyterian church ruled in February 2012 that Rev. Jane Spahr violated their constitution by performing same-sex marriages.
“Jesus Before the Priests” is a counterpart to the Biblical story of Jesus’ trial in the before Caiaphas, the high priest, in the religious court of the Sanhedrin. After lengthy questioning they condemned Jesus for blasphemy and sent him to the Roman authorities for sentencing.
“Now Jesus stood before the governor.” --Matthew 27:11
A young defendant consults an attorney in “Jesus Before the Magistrate.” Jesus is caught between his lawyer and a guard wearing Nazi-style knee-high boots. Dull men in suits are shuffling papers, but nothing seems to happen in the generic courtroom. All of them, even the judge, look like pawns in Kafkaesque bureaucracy. A post behind the judge’s bench is topped by an eagle, a symbol shared by imperial Rome -- and the United States.
The Biblical parallel for this painting is Jesus meeting with Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor. Pilate has been portrayed as the villain that you love to hate in Passion plays and movies, played by the likes of Telly Savalas in “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” In Blanchard’s painting the judge is too bland to make a memorable villain. It is in this antiseptic setting, impartial to a fault, that Jesus is found guilty of treason and sentenced to death.
“They shouted out, ‘Crucify, crucify him!’” -- Luke 23:21 (RSV)
A mob turns against their former hero in “Jesus Before the People.” Jesus stands alone, handcuffed and motionless in the shadow, his back to the viewer, as he faces the angry crowd outside the courthouse. They are enraged, shouting, shaking fists, and waving signs with messages such as “Hell is hot, hot, hot!” Someone flips the finger at him in front of that sign, adding an obscene gesture. Another begins, “God hates...” with the last word hidden by the mob and a fist blocking it. The viewer can fill in the blank -- this mob could be turning against any disadvantaged group.
A man in a wheelchair points a finger sideways, signaling to cut his throat or get the hell out. Police struggle to stop the hostile crowd from killing Jesus right there. The crowd is multi-racial, but all male, which is realistic for mass street violence. Eggshells, squashed tomatoes and other debris litter the ground after being hurled at Jesus. Even the frame looks like it is spattered with eggs and gunk in a trompe l’oeil (fool the eye) artistic technique. Slashes are ripped into the back of his white T-shirt. His head is haloed by one of the “death” signs. The windows of a nearby office building are filled with people watching. A banner that says “Death” hangs between two windows.
The words on the signs suggest that Jesus is a gay man being jeered by fundamentalists. The signs are reminiscent of Westboro Baptist Church, led by Pastor Fred Phelps, who is infamous for picketing AIDS funerals with “God hates fags” signs. By scapegoating queers, the bullies maintain power. The scene is all the more tragic because the crowds adored Jesus less than a week earlier when he entered the city.
May be one of the few scenes that doesn’t have an exact parallel in art history. This could be an “Ecce homo” scene, although that normally comes after the flagellation. The order of events differs in various gospels.
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.
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.