“There appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.” -- Acts 2:3-4 (RSV)
A winged woman literally lights up a crowd in “The Holy Spirit Arrives” from “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision,” a series of 24 paintings by Douglas Blanchard. This is a modern version of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came like tongues of fire to the disciples of Jesus. Pentecost is a major church holiday celebrated today (May 27) this year. It is also known as Whitsunday.
In Blanchard’s painting the Holy Spirit herself looks like a flame in her golden gown. She floats above the crowd at an intersection where darkened city streets meet at odd angles. The dusky sky and unlit buildings strike a mysterious mood, making miracles possible. The Holy Spirit carries flares in both hands. Tongues of fire literally flame up from the heads of the people on the streets. Many are arm in arm, forming a circle. Filled with the spirit, they make strange alliances. A soldier, a gangbanger, and a businessman wrap their arms around each other. An old woman and a young woman embrace. The person in the wheelchair appears to be the same hothead who demanded the death of Jesus in 10. Jesus Before the People. Looming behind them is a large building under construction.
The story of Pentecost is told in Acts 2 of the Bible. The apostles are sitting together indoors early one morning when they hear wind rushing and tongues of fire come to rest on each of them. They began speaking in other tongues and a crowd of devout people from all over the world gather to listen. Each one hears them praising God in their own native language. Some in the crowd scoff that they are drunk, so Peter explains that they are fulfilling God’s prophecy from the Book of Joel: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” Jesus also prophesied that the Holy Spirit would come after him to empower his disciples “to do even greater things” than he did.
Blanchard takes Pentecost out into the streets and humanizes it by presenting the Holy Spirit as a woman. His bold female Holy Spirit is one of the most unique features of this painting from an art historical perspective. Artists generally show the Holy Spirit as a dove in the Pentecost scene. In church tradition, the Holy Spirit is often presented as the female (and easily ignored) person of the Trinity. She is sometimes called Sophia, the embodiment of Wisdom. The word rendered as “Spirit” also means wind or breath. Jesus described the Holy Spirit with the Greek term paraclete, which means advocate, comforter, or teacher. Christians believe that the Holy Spirit continues to inspire believers in the present, especially in times of trouble or celebration. Progressive Christians attribute it to the work of the Spirit when churches begin to embrace LGBT members, bless same-sex marriages, ordain openly LGBT clergy, and teach queer theology.
The Biblical idea of a fire burning on one’s head is scary as well as implausible, but Blanchard makes the miracle of Pentecost both appealing and natural in a contemporary context. The flames look friendly and tame. This is miraculous fire that doesn’t consume, like the burning bush of Moses. Sometimes Pentecost is called the birthday of the church, and these flames look like birthday candles.
The building under construction in the background can be interpreted as the foundation of the Christian church. The artist himself offered a more cynical view: “I prefer to think of it as a reference to the story of the Tower of Babel.” The Holy Spirit turns her back on the half-built structure that symbolizes ungodly human arrogance, destined to be toppled by God.
This is the only image in Blanchard’s Passion series in which Jesus does not appear. But wait, the face of the Holy Spirit has his features! This, Blanchard told me, is deliberate. By giving the same face to Jesus and the Holy Spirit, he emphasizes that they are one being. Jesus can switch easily between male and female forms because he is both. Another surprise is that everyone is enflamed -- not just the twelve apostles. Many of the previous paintings have a tight, sometimes claustrophobic focus. This painting is like a breath of fresh air that shows the big picture at last. The past comes into perspective and the viewer can see the neighborhood where Jesus lived and died.
Intersections with odd angles like this are common in New York. Blanchard says that he did not intend any particular location. One of the many places it resembles is the site of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire where 146 garment workers died, the deadliest industrial disaster in New York history. That destructive fire contrasts with the Spirit’s holy flames.
Viewers may not expect to find Pentecost in a series on the Passion of Christ. Surprisingly artists do not always end the Passion narrative with the resurrection of Jesus or even with his ascension. Blanchard acknowledges that one of the inspirations for this series is Albrecht Durer’s Small Passion. Blanchard follows the Durer’s example by continuing the Passion for two more panels after the Ascension. This scene is traditionally called “The Descent of the Holy Spirit,” but Blanchard updates the hierarchical implications by titling it “The Holy Spirit Arrives.”
The Pentecost story is good news for LGBT people and other outsiders because the Holy Spirit comes to ALL people, regardless of age, gender, nationality, or any other differences -- including sexual orientation. In light of Pentecost, it may be significant that the most outrageously effeminate gay men have been disparaged as “flaming queens.” The bundles of sticks used to burn heretics were called “faggots,” now an insult for gay men. The Holy Spirit comes even to those who are called bulldykes or fairies, amazons or eunuchs, transfolk or genderqueer, two-spirit or third-gender. Every language has words for queer people: mariposa and marimacha in Spanish, schwuppe in German, finnochio in Italian, kuchu in East African languages, tongzhi in Chinese, tritiya-prakriti in Sanskrit, winkte in Sioux, to name but a few. We are the flaming friends of God. The story of Jesus has been translated into many, many languages. Now the gospel is available with a gay accent.
The Pentecost Celebration of Diversity, and the Holy Spirit (Queering the Church)
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 quotations are 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.
Scripture quotations are from the Inclusive Language Lectionary (Year C), copyright © 1985-88 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.