“Soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him.” -- Luke 23:11 (RSV)
Marine look-alikes torment a naked man 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 from hell, baring their teeth. A leering soldier flips the finger at him while another holds an AK-47 assault rifle. They are crowded in a claustrophobic space. Behind them a skull sits inside a gaping black hole.
I find this painting and the next one (“Jesus is Beaten”) to be the most terrifying images in the series. It hurts to look at them. After these, death comes as a relief. Maybe that’s the point.
The arch in back adds a black halo to the scene. There is no other way to identify the nude prisoner 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 -- including when LGBT people are attacked or killed for loving someone of the same sex.
When looking at these paintings of violence and nudity, it is essential to keep them in the holy context of Christ’s suffering. Otherwise they only glorify violence or fuel sadomasochistic fantasies, adding to the exploitation in the pictures. These explosive subjects must be handled with care. Blanchard paints the frame around all 24 images in the series, but in these two images the frame is especially important. The frame puts the torture in context, naming Jesus and numbering it to show that it is part of a larger story. Even so, we viewers do become accomplices as the soldiers leer out at us, urging us to laugh as they hurt and humiliate their victim. Note that this frame bears the scars of war: a bullet hole and a gash.
Both paintings are reminiscent of the notorious photos showing U.S. soldiers and military contractors abusing and torturing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. The photos caused a major scandal when they became public in 2004, the same year that these were painted. Here it’s worthwhile remembering that the artist is a New Yorker who used these paintings to work through his feelings about the religious motivation of 9/11 terrorist attack there, which led to war with Iraq, which led to the abuses at Abu Ghraib.
There are Biblical parallels for these images. “Jesus Before the Soldiers” is a modern version of Jesus being mocked by soldiers and crowned with thorns . “Jesus is Beaten” is a new interpretation of Jesus being scourged, a scene often called “The Flagellation” in art history.
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.
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.