“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.
To read this article in Russian, go to:
Иисус перед солдатами: ЛГБТ-перспектива (Nuntiare.org)
“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.
“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.
“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.
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.
To read this article in Russian, go to:
Распятие: ЛГБТ-перспектива (nuntiare.org)
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Top image credit:
11. Jesus Before the Soldiers (from The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision) by Douglas Blanchard
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.
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