Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Day 4: Jesus before the priests, magistrate and people (Gay Passion of Christ series)

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

“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 house of worship 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 cleric deliberately 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 religious hypocrisy in an ordinary contemporary setting. The church and its ministers look familiar, maybe even comforting or boring. One might expect violence from police or soldiers on the streets, but not in a church sanctuary with approval from the priests. In the banality of evil, unspeakable acts are committed not by monsters, but by regular people who accept the premises of an institution and follow orders.

“Jesus Before the Priests” is based on the Biblical story of Jesus’ trial before Caiaphas, the high priest in the Jewish court of the Sanhedrin. After his arrest Jesus was judged first by his own people. He had threatened their power structure by living in a way that showed God is not confined to dogmatic boxes or controlled by religious institutions. The priests hurriedly called an emergency session of the Sanhedrin in the dead of night. The specific charge against Jesus was blasphemy. False witnesses were brought in to accuse him, but their testimony was inconsistent. During hours of questioning Jesus mostly kept quiet, giving only a few cryptic answers. Finally they declared him guilty. Then the priests spat in his face and beat him before hustling him off to the Roman authorities for sentencing.

The Sanhedrin trial has never been an especially popular subject in art history, but Blanchard finds the inherent drama in the scene by approaching it from a contemporary gay viewpoint. LGBT people often come into conflict with churches because of who they love. When viewed with queer eyes, this painting is a painful reminder that it feels like a slap in the face to be told that God condemns homosexuality or “hates the sin but loves the sinner.” LGBT people have been attacked with “clobber passages” from the Bible or tortured in “pray the gay away” therapy, also known as reparative or ex-gay conversion . While today’s LGBT artists mostly ignore the trial of Jesus, several have exposed the ancient purity laws that threaten queer people. For example, Swedish artist Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin photographed local LGBT people in Jerusalem with the dreaded scriptures projected on or near their bodies in her 2010 “Jerusalem” series.

Conservative Christians cherry-pick Bible verses from Leviticus to condemn homosexuality on religious grounds, but these rules do not necessarily apply today. The passages refer specifically to sex with male temple prostitutes in the fertility cults of the neighboring Canaanite nations. They were only intended to stop ancient Jews from adopting the idolatrous practices of other cultures, not as a blanket prohibition on same-sex relationships forever. Anyway Christians need not try to enforce laws from Leviticus. The New Testament firmly rejects imposing the old purity code on new Gentile Christian converts because Jesus replaced the old laws with the new commandment to love. Many of the other laws in Leviticus were abandoned by Christians long ago. In addition to its sexual rules, Leviticus also outlaws tattoos, eating shrimp, reading horoscopes, and wearing blended fabrics.

Religions have labeled queers as “sinners” and then refused to accept responsibility for the violence that they incited. A 21st-century 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. Priests, ministers, and congregations are still being found guilty and rebuked, ousted, expelled, shunned, or silenced for such “crimes” as speaking in favor of LGBT rights, performing same-sex marriages, or ordaining LGBT clergy. Queer Christian art has been denounced as blasphemy, the same crime for which Jesus was condemned.

The ugly pattern is repeated with other groups. The Bible teaches love, but it has been used to justify slavery, wife-beating, genocide, and other horrors. “Jesus Before the Priests” sums up all religious hypocrisy in a single image. Religion, which supposedly promotes peace, justice, and love, instead has often become the impetus for war, discrimination, and acts of hate. Christians claim to follow Jesus, but if he showed up today they might reject him as a heretic and a troublemaker, just as the priests did 2,000 years ago.

“The Human One must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” -- Luke 9:22 (Inclusive Language Lectionary)

The police arrested Jesus and took him straight to the priests -- the ones whom Jesus had often accused of hypocrisy. These priests rigorously enforced minor rules, while neglecting the purpose of God’s law: justice, love, and faith. They were like today’s church officials who put ministers on trial for blessing same-sex relationships or ordaining lesbians and gays. The priests interrogated Jesus for hours, trying to get him to say something that could be used against him. When they asked about his teachings, Jesus replied, Why ask me? Ask those who heard me. At that, an officer struck him, snarling, Is that how you answer the high priest?! The priests watched the violence with bland indifference. There were some good men among them, but they accepted their role as part of the system. They kept silent as evil triumphed. Violence in God’s name was routine. The unthinkable had become normal.

Jesus, I follow your example, even if it goes against what the church authorities say.

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

“But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge; so that the governor wondered greatly.” -- Matthew 27:14 (RSV)

A defendant refuses to accept a plea bargain in “Jesus Before the Magistrate.” Jesus is caught between his lawyer and a guard wearing knee-high military jackboots. Dull men in suits are shuffling papers, but nothing seems to happen in the generic courtroom. All of them, even the judge, look like faceless pawns in a menacingly complex bureaucracy. There is no jury. A pole behind the judge’s bench is topped by an eagle, a symbol shared by imperial Rome -- and the United States. In this antiseptic setting, impartial to a fault, Jesus is found guilty of treason and sentenced to death.

This painting is a modern version of Jesus’ trial before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. The Bible says that after the priests found Jesus guilty, they took him to the governor for a second trial. Jesus was a Jew convicted blasphemy under the laws of his own people, but this was no crime in the eyes of the Roman occupation forces. The priests wanted Jesus executed, so they switched the charge to treason, a capital offense under the law of the Roman government that occupied their land. The Bible is packed with juicy dialogue, characters, and details about the interrogation and interactions between Jesus and Pilate. The episode has been dramatized -- and sometimes over-dramatized -- as the first stop in the traditional Stations of the Cross. The sensational scene has been a crowd-pleaser in medieval Passion plays and contemporary films about the life of Christ. In all four gospel accounts Pilate tries various tactics to avoid responsibility for killing Jesus. The angry mob and the seriousness of the charges eventually force Pilate to authorize the death penalty. The Roman and Jewish leaders were enemies, but they agreed that the man who loved without limits should die.

Jesus’ trial before Pilate is one of the most enduring images in Christian art, dating back to fourth-century sarcophagi in the catacombs of Rome. Some artists portray Pilate as a harsh tyrant or a clever politician, but Blanchard opts to show him as an uncaring bureaucrat, too bland to make a memorable villain. This painting takes the whole overblown scenario and strips away the embellishments that have been cultivated by countless artists over the centuries: There are no priests accusing Jesus of “perverting” the nation. Jesus does not engage in one-on-one repartee with the governor. King Herod, Barabbas, and Pilate’s wife never appear. Pilate does not ritually wash his hands to absolve himself. Blanchard condenses all the action into a single, simple scene. The understated result is one of the most tranquil images in his whole Passion series. The painting gets at the unvarnished truth: Jesus was a nobody in the Roman justice system. The decision to kill the child of God was no big deal. It happened without fanfare, and it could happen again now somewhere closer to home. Ultimately Jesus was executed for treason, but his “crime” might have gone by a different name in another time and place.

Queer people can relate to the experience of a man trapped in a system that is rigged against him. The deadly oppression begins with words of insult that serve to demonize and dehumanize a target group, paving the way for acts of violence. This hard truth is illustrated in “Stations of the Cross: The Struggle For LGBT Equality” by Tennessee artist Mary Button. In Station 1 she juxtaposes Jesus being condemned to death with the first use of the gay insult “faggot” in print (in a 1913 guide to criminal slang). Name-calling can escalate to assault. Anti-gay slurs are part of the continuum of oppression that includes murder by those who aim to purge society of sexual minorities. The scene of Jesus with the governor is also played out in courtrooms around the world. Many countries still outlaw same-sex acts between consenting adults, and a handful of nations punish them with death. Even where there is no state-sponsored persecution, people are fighting to pass laws that recognize same-sex unions and protect LGBT people from discrimination.

“And they began to accuse him, saying, ‘We found this man perverting our nation.’” -- Luke 23:2 (RSV)

The priests took Jesus to the magistrate, Pilate, demanding that he impose the death penalty. His government headquarters was bustling with dispassionate bureaucrats. For Jesus, the only law was love -- outright love for God and for people. He kept quiet in this alien place where loveless laws led to injustice. They used the legal system to force an uneasy “peace” on the local people, suppressing their culture and their very identity. Pilate’s lawmakers were like those who devised the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy or “defense of marriage act.” Pilate came from just such a narrow-minded viewpoint when he asked Jesus, What have you done? Jesus answered, I have come into the world to bear witness to the truth. Puzzled, the magistrate posed another question: What is truth?

Jesus, show me your truth.

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

“Behold the man!” -- John 19:5 (RSV)

An angry mob confronts a young man in “Jesus Before the People.” Jesus stands alone, handcuffed and motionless in the shadows, before the religious zealots picketing outside the courthouse. He twists his body, turning the other cheek to the crowd that assaults him with insults and rotten eggs. They are enraged, shouting, shaking fists, and waving signs with messages such as “God hates...” The last word is hidden, so the viewer can fill in the blank. This lynch mob could be turning against any disadvantaged group. His head is haloed by a sign demanding “Death to….” Another sign warns, “Hell is hot, hot, hot!” Someone adds an obscene gesture by flipping the finger at Jesus.

A man in a wheelchair points his index finger sideways, signaling to cut his throat or get the hell out. Police struggle to stop the hostile crowd from killing Jesus right there. He turns his back on the viewer, revealing slashes in his tattered T-shirt. 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. The only barrier between the mob and the viewer is Jesus.

The words on the signs suggest that Jesus is a gay man being jeered by fundamentalists. These look like the “God hates fags” signs carried by hate-mongers from Westboro Baptist Church at AIDS funerals and pride marches. “Jesus Before the People” shows the plight of any individual pressured by a group. By scapegoating vulnerable people, bullies maintain power. Blanchard doesn’t dehumanize the demonstrators or resort to demeaning stereotypes. The crowd is multi-racial, but all male, which is realistic for mass street violence.

This painting updates the Biblical episode where Jesus was paraded before the bloodthirsty mob after being whipped. Pilate, the Roman governor, displayed the beaten Jesus to the crowd, exclaiming, “Behold the man!” They responded by shouting, “Crucify him!” The scene is all the more tragic because the crowds adored Jesus less than a week earlier when he entered the city. But the enemies of Jesus managed to stir up enough hate to turn the public against their former hero. In all four gospels Pilate yields to the crowd. He reluctantly sentences Jesus to death, trying to escape responsibility by blaming it on the people. In Matthew’s gospel he literally washes his hands in front of the crowd in a ritual to cleanse himself of guilt. Later interpreters have seen the sympathetic portrayal of Pilate as an attempt to cover up the role of the Roman government in Jesus’ death. The scene has been used to fuel anti-Semitism as Jews were scapegoated as “Christ-killers,” despite the fact that Jesus himself was a Jew, as were his apostles. The crowd in Jerusalem was lashing out at one of their own, erupting in the horizontal violence that often happens among oppressed people, including the LGBT community.

Many artists have painted the scene that is known to art historians by the Latin phrase “Ecce Homo” which is usually translated as “Behold the man.” Like many images from the Passion, the Ecce Homo theme first appeared in art around the 10th century. It was re-enacted in the Passion plays of medieval theater and became popular in the Renaissance, depicted not only in Passion cycles but also on altarpieces and in sculpture groups. Most followed the same pattern, showing Jesus, Pilate, and the unruly crowd in a Jerusalem cityscape. Artists occasionally included self portraits as Christ or members of the crowd. Sometimes they turned the tables on the crowd. Dutch Early Renaissance painter Hieronymus Bosch wreaked revenge on the anti-Jesus faction by turning their faces into ugly caricatures. During the late Renaissance artists began to show Jesus alone in the Ecce Homo scene. They created a new subject called Man of Sorrows that showed a close-up of the anguished face and upper body of Jesus as he was presented to his detractors. Blanchard’s version takes the iconography in the opposite direction, expanding the crowd and turning Jesus away from the viewer.

Modern artists have adapted the Ecce Homo theme to express other forms of human suffering and degradation. German expressionists seemed to have a special affinity for the motif. Otto Dix illustrated the brutality of war in “Ecce Homo with Self Likeness Behind Barbed Wire” and George Grosz satirized human greed, lust, and cruelty with his “Ecce Homo” collection of vignettes from 1920s Berlin. In contemporary times the Latin word homo naturally lends itself to LGBT interpretations. Swedish photographer Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin used it as the name for her famous 1998 photo series recreating the life of Christ with LGBT models. Ecce Homo became a pun meaning both “Behold the man” and “Behold the homosexual.”

“They shouted out, ‘Crucify, crucify him!’” -- Luke 23:21 (RSV)

How quickly the people turned against Jesus! Less than a week ago the crowds adored him. Now a mob was outside the government headquarters demanding his death. Pilate, the magistrate, wanted above all to maintain security. He made Jesus stand before the angry throng. They shouted with increasing frenzy: “Crucify him!” The chief priests stirred up the crowd, vehemently accusing Jesus of all kinds of sins. “He’s a traitor! Burn in hell!” Their words still echo today when hate-mongers tell ruthless lies: “God hates gays! Death to fags!” The magistrate saw that a riot was beginning. If one person had to die to keep the peace, then the end justified the means. Guilt or innocence was not part of the equation. The magistrate agreed to the demands of the crowd. He ordered the execution of Jesus.

Jesus, how can I meet hate with love?

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: 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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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Day 3: Jesus has a Last Supper, prays alone and is arrested (Gay Passion of Christ series)

5. The Last Supper (from The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision) by Douglas Blanchard
 Collection of Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art
Gift of Vincent Palange in memory of Louis Prudenti

““And during supper…one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was lying close to the breast of Jesus.” -- -- John 13:2, 23 (RSV)

Friends get together for an intimate dinner in “The Last Supper” from “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision,” a series of 24 paintings by Douglas Blanchard. The contemporary Christ figure dines with twelve people, the classic dozen disciples, but they are a multi-racial group of many ages, orientations, and gender identities. An elderly black woman sits beside a white businessman. A drag queen in high heels holds hands with a man. The face of Jesus looks almost the same as when he was preaching in the temple… impassive. He wraps his arms around the men beside him. The whole group is joined by touch, and yet they are not completely united. They express emotions ranging from surprise to sorrow, and each one looks in a different direction. Plates hold food for a Passover Seder meal, including matzo bread, a hard-boiled egg, and roast lamb. A single glass of blood-red wine stands out against the drab colors, hinting at the sacrifice to come. The room is simple, lit only by a bare light bulb. They are seated in a way that invites viewers to join them at the table.

All four gospels describe the final meal that Jesus ate with his disciples before he was arrested. Biblical accounts of the Last Supper are full of dramatic details and dialogue, making it possible to imagine what happened on that fateful night. Jesus announced to his startled disciples that one of them would betray him. They were shocked again when he identified the bread and wine as his own body and blood, urging them to eat and drink their share of it. By giving new meaning to the Passover meal, he helped prepare them for his impending death He summarized his teachings on love and gave them a new commandment: Love each other as I have loved you. He prayed for believers in the present and future. He told them that the greatest love is to lay down your life for your friends.

By inviting his friends to “do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus instituted a sacrament and invested all meals with a living sense of God’s presence. Christians relive the Last Supper every time they celebrate the ritual known as the Eucharist, communion, or Lord’s Supper. The sacred meal is a central act of worship in which believers remember Jesus and ingest God’s spirit. In Blanchard’s painting, one glass is still full of wine, meaning that Jesus hasn’t yet passed it to his friends, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.”

The man leaning his head on Jesus must be the unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved.” The beloved disciple is referenced five times in the gospel of John. The term implies that Jesus was in love with him, and for centuries some interpreters have suggested they had a homosexual relationship. The Bible describes how the beloved rested his head on Jesus’ chest at the Last Supper. Blanchard puts them in a pose that echoes medieval paintings and sculptures, such as the 14th-century German Johannesminne (John Love) by the Master of Oberschwaben. Their same-sex attraction has been spotlighted by today’s LGBT-affirming artists and Bible scholars, but here their relationship blends naturally into the group. Some also enjoy speculating about the homoerotic undertones of the relationship between Jesus and Judas, the disciple who betrayed him. But that is not Blanchard’s focus. It’s not even possible to identify Judas in his Last Supper.

The Last Supper is one of the most popular (and most often parodied) subjects in art. Artists usually focus on either the announcement of the betrayal or else, like Blanchard, on the institution of the Eucharist. Depictions of the Last Supper date back to the earliest Christian frescoes in the second-century Catacombs of Rome, although some scholars say the supper scenes in the Catacombs show a future meal in heaven promised by Christ. For the first thousand years of Christian history artists tended to skip from the Last Supper to the resurrection. The Eucharist was celebrated as a feast of life instead of a re-enactment of his death. The bread and wine were not the crucified Christ, but the resurrected Christ. By the Renaissance it had become a favorite subject. Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper from the 1490s continues to be one of the most famous paintings of all time. It has sparked a seemingly endless variety of imitations, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Some use it to make political statements, such as the all-female “Yo Mama’s Last Supper” by Jamaican-American artist Renee Cox and “The First Supper” by Susan Dorothea White of Australia. Modern interpretations of the Last Supper have been done by many renowned artists including Salvador Dali, who used surrealism and symmetry to portray the mystical meal.

By presenting a complex, up-to-date vision of the Last Supper, Blanchard makes room for viewers to inhabit a scene that may have grown monotonous from over-familiarity. Artists such as Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin and Becki Jayne Harrelson have created queer versions of the Last Supper by duplicating DaVinci’s famous composition and replacing the characters contemporary LGBT people. Blanchard goes further to re-conceive the whole composition. His queer touches include not only the beloved disciple, but also a drag queen in high heels. He puts her right up front as a courtesy. But his Last Supper is not a LGBT-only party. Queers are integrated into a mixed group. Jesus welcomes all kinds of people to the sacred meal where love connects people with God and each other, nourishing body and spirit. At the Last Supper Jesus taught his friends about love. Soon his own love would be tested.

“This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” -- Luke 22:19 (RSV)

Jesus’ friends didn’t know it would be their last meal with him, even though he tried to prepare them. All his closest friends were there, including the man whom Jesus loved. Jesus snuggled his beloved and talked about love, and then about betrayal, and then a lot more about love. Jesus said he was going away and urged them all to love each other as he had loved them. The greatest love, he told them, is to lay down your life for your friends. He handed bread to them and said something totally unexpected: Take, eat; this is my body. Then he passed around a cup, saying, Drink, all of you, this is my blood. He gave and they received completely, an act of true communion. The wine tasted sweet, with a touch of bitterness.

Jesus, thank you for feeding me!

6. Jesus Prays Alone (from The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision) by Douglas Blanchard

“He fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him.” -- Mark 14:34

A man claws the ground with gut-wrenching spiritual agony in “Jesus Prays Alone.” His face is lost in darkness -- he could be anyone -- but his tortured hand is spotlighted front and center in stark relief. Jesus kneels, utterly alone, on a rooftop with trash cans and brick walls. This is the modern Gethsemane -- not a garden, but an urban jungle where a lone man wrestles with an impossible dilemma: betray his own beliefs or die. City lights glimmer against the night sky.

The simplicity of the image makes an immediate impact. It is the only painting in Blanchard’s Passion series where Jesus is alone. Even in death Jesus is shown with other corpses, but here everyone has deserted him, and God is not visible. The solitude is absolute. The painting stuns many viewers more than the explicitly violent scenes ahead. The artist captures Christ’s emotional distress and makes it up close and personal, leaving the viewer alone with Jesus. With this painting Blanchard borrows the high-contrast lighting, grim urban setting, and fatalistic mood from film noir, making an almost cinematic statement.

In the Bible, Jesus and his friends went to the secluded garden of Gethsemane after the Last Supper. He confided that he felt “deeply grieved, even to death” and asked his friends to pray with him, but they all fell asleep. Jesus knew that his ministry had brought him into conflict with authorities who would arrest and kill him. He was so upset that he sweated blood. And yet he chose not to escape the harrowing journey ahead. The doomed prophet would not deny what he believed by running away to hide. Abandoned by his sleepy friends, he was left alone to beg God over and over: “If possible, please remove this cup from me: yet, not what I want, but what you want.” The episode establishes that Jesus is not God’s puppet or a victim of circumstances, but a free agent making his own moral decisions.

“Jesus Prays Alone” marks a turning point in Blanchard’s own relationship to his Passion series, which he began painting in summer 2001. He had finished four panels on Sept. 11 when hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center near his studio on New York’s Lower East Side. He watched the terrorist attacks in shock from the roof of his apartment building in the East Village. Horrified by the religious motive for the 9/11 attacks, Blanchard became alienated from religion. The artist acknowledges that he began to use the Passion series to resolve his spiritual conflict. Jesus, with his own rooftop agony, takes on the sorrows that stretch to the 21st century.

Artists mostly ignored the scene of Jesus’ inner turmoil until the rise of individualism in the Renaissance. Then the subject, often called “The Agony in the Garden,” became increasingly popular. A notable modern version was painted by French Post-Impressionist Gauguin, whose poignant self-portrait in “Christ in the Garden of Olives” expresses his own pain over crushed ideals.

This scene can symbolize any spiritual anguish, including the struggles of LGBT people to reconcile their sexuality with their spirituality, to live as whole human beings even when church and society label them sinful or sick. In a world that often denies the value of queer lives, many LGBT people have felt utterly alone, trapped between denying themselves and confronting the “social death” of persecution and exclusion. Crouching in a back alley, the Jesus of today could be praying for a world where all God’s children are honored.

“And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down upon the ground.” -- Luke 22:44 (RSV)

After supper, Jesus and his friends went to an isolated place. Jesus wanted to pray alone. He asked his friends to wait and pray nearby. He knew that his actions -- even his very existence -- brought him into inevitable conflict with authorities who wanted him dead. His wildly inclusive way of loving challenged the power structures and the status quo. But he could not deny who God created him to be. He wouldn’t stop loving. He couldn’t. He had to be true to himself. Authorities would condemn him as a sinner because his love broke all the rules. They would denounce his love as sin. They might even kill him. Jesus was in so much agony that he sweated blood as he prayed: God, if it’s possible, let this cup pass by me. I don’t want to drink it. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.

Guide me, God! I put my life in your hands.

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

““Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me?” -- Matthew 26:55 (RSV)

A young suspect stops his friends from fighting back when officers seize him in “Jesus is Arrested.” A disembodied hand points an accusing finger at Jesus from the left. Another hand aims a gun at him. A friend tries to defend him with a knife, but Jesus stops him. Flashlight beams and searchlights pierce the urban night, forming a partial halo behind Jesus’ head. Standing in the background, shrouded by darkness, is a bald man in a suit, probably one of the creeps who spied on Jesus at the temple. Dark silhouettes on the horizon show that many more guards are on the way. Jesus is caught off-balance in the cross of an X-shaped composition, adding to the dramatic tension.

The painting captures the moment when Jesus stops the violence, meeting hate with love by submitting to the unjustified arrest. Blanchard strips the scene of sentimentality by presenting it with gritty realism. The image gets a film-noir vibe from its stark black-and-white lighting and the sense that an innocent man is caught in a deadly web.

The arrest of Jesus is a pivotal scene that ends his public ministry and begins the chain of events leading to his execution. The gospels describe the action in quick succession: The traitor Judas arrives with a large squad of police, guards, and soldiers.  They are armed to the teeth with far more swords and clubs than necessary. Judas kisses Jesus, signaling the soldiers to arrest him with a particularly intimate gesture of betrayal. Another disciple counterattacks, drawing a sword to cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant. Jesus commands his companions to put away their swords. The soldiers seize Jesus and bind him. His disciples flee. A young man follows wearing only a linen cloth. The soldiers grab him, but he pulls free and he runs away naked. They lead Jesus to the high priest.

One surprise in this “gay vision” is what is missing: history’s most famous same-sex kiss, the kiss of betrayal between Judas and Jesus. Artists have been depicting the arrest of Jesus at least since Giotto’s famous 1305 version in Arena Chapel in Padua, and the Judas kiss is almost always included. Kissing was a common form of greeting in Biblical times, but Judas’ man-on-man kiss of betrayal has been used as a vehicle to instill homophobia for the centuries, equating homosexuality with betrayal of God. Blanchard must have figured that people have seen it way too often… although the Judas kiss remains a popular subject among LGBT artists and viewers. Blanchard also ignores another arrest subplot that fascinates many queer Bible scholars: the naked young man who runs away in Mark 14:51. Several books have been written debating the authenticity and meaning of the Secret Gospel of Mark, which tells how the young man “learned the mysteries of God” by spending a night naked with Jesus.

“Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” -- Matthew 26:52 (RSV)

Jesus didn’t try to escape when the police came for him in the dead of night. He and his friends were used to police harassment and government persecution. Authorities tend to pick on the poorest, queerest, and most marginalized in any society. This time they came out in force, like a small army with bright lights and far more weapons than necessary. Some of them were security guards at the temple, so Jesus asked: Why didn’t you arrest me there, when I was with you teaching out in the open? They grabbed him. He didn’t resist arrest. His friends tried to fight for him, but he stopped them, saying that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. They ran away and abandoned him, leaving him alone with the police.

Jesus, why do bad things happen to good people?

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: 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 the Inclusive Language Lectionary (Year A), copyright © 1986 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.
Scripture quotation is from the Inclusive Language Lectionary (Year C), copyright © 1985-88 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.
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Monday, April 14, 2014

Day 2: Jesus drives out the money changers and preaches in the Temple (Gay Passion of Christ series)

3. Jesus Drives Out the Money Changers (from The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision) by Douglas Blanchard

“He poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.” -- John 2:13 (RSV)

An angry modern-day Christ figure disrupts business in “Jesus Drives Out the Money Changers.” Jesus, hair flying, overturns tables stacked with money. Coins scatter, bills flutter away, and the men in suits run. A crowd in the background yanks off the barred gate that separates them from the wealthy money managers. One security guard struggles to keep out the mob. Another officer reaches to grab Jesus by the shoulder. Jesus looks like a freedom fighter standing up against greed and income inequality. The setting appears to be a present-day church office or financial institution with statues, classic columns, and a hanging lamp.

All four gospels describe what is commonly called “the cleansing of the temple.” By some accounts Jesus kicked the money changers out of the Temple as soon as he arrived in Jerusalem. When he saw them taking advantage of people’s faith in God, he exploded. It was the only time that Jesus used physical violence in the Bible. Jesus poured out the coins of the money changers and turned over their tables. Then he made a whip of cords and used it to chase them out, along with the sacrificial animals that they were selling. Nothing made Jesus angrier than religious hypocrisy. He yelled, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you make it a den of robbers.” It was one of many occasions when he blasted religious leaders for exploiting the poor. He talked more about money than anything else except God.

Blanchard is right to paint this scene in a place that could be a bank or a church because the Temple in Jerusalem was not only a religious institution, but also functioned like a national bank. The Temple held private deposits of wealth in its treasury, made loans, and collected debts as well as selling animals for sacrifice. The money changers of first-century Jerusalem exchanged foreign currency for the temple coins that were required for paying the annual temple tax and making offerings. They made big profits by using unfair exchange rates and adding service charges. Priests also got a cut.

Jesus’ angry outburst has fascinated artists since the Middle Ages. Their paintings of the episode go by various names, such as the purification of the temple, the expulsion of the money changers, or driving the merchants from the temple. Renaissance master El Greco painted at least five versions. But overall the angry Jesus has been downplayed in favor of the other events from the life of Christ. Modern artists mostly ignore the subject. Blanchard is perhaps the only artist to paint a “gay vision” of the day that Jesus fought back against the merchants who turned the holy temple into a marketplace.

Perhaps other LGBT versions of Jesus expelling the money-changers come not from art, but from action. The protest looks like a scene from Occupy Wall Street, although it was painted a decade before that movement began. Blanchard’s Jesus could be angry about the growing gap between the wealthy one percent and the other 99 percent, or about fundraising tactics that demonize LGBT people, or about countless other forms of economic injustice.

“It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” -- Matthew 21:13 (RSV)

Jesus acted up when he saw something wrong. Nothing made him angrier than religious hypocrisy blocking the way to God. He got mad when religious leaders made people pay to attend worship. He said, you can’t buy your way to heaven! Everyone gets God for free. Don’t trick a poor widow into giving her last penny! The sacrifice that pleases God is to do justice and love people. Oh sure, you can raise tons of money by claiming that some other group is an unholy threat: lepers, immigrants, queer. But remember, whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me! Stop demonizing people! You call gays an abomination, but your fundraising tactics are the real abomination! Hypocrites! You’re like fancy tombs, pretty on the outside, but full of death on the inside. Then he turned over the tables where the men in suits made their unholy profits. Coins went flying as he drove them out.

Jesus, thank you for your anger. Give me the courage to act up against injustice.


4. Jesus Preaches in the Temple (from The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision) by Douglas Blanchard

“The chief priests…feared him, because all the multitude was astonished at his teaching.” -- Mark 11:18 (RSV)

A popular teacher distracts church-goers from a worship service in “Jesus Preaches in the Temple.” Jesus, looking like an urban hipster, welcomes the people who crowd around and touch him. The title states that Jesus is preaching, but he stands quietly among them, mouth closed, communicating compassion with his presence. Blue tones conjure a peaceful mood, but there is tension between the upstart preacher and the religious establishment, between the individual and the institution.

This painting raises the question: What would happen if Jesus walked into a church of today? The general consensus is that he would disrupt the established order. Not many Christians would stay meekly in their pews and settle for stale sermons and wafers if they had the chance to see, hear, and touch the living Christ. Those who gain power by speaking for Jesus might prefer to keep him away.

The individualized faces and gestures of Jesus’ listeners invite speculation about their lives. Two gay couples wrap Jesus in a loving embrace: a white couple on the left and a black couple on the right. Jesus puts his arm around one of the blacks while shaking hands with -- and perhaps healing -- the bald man in the wheelchair. Even the cool guys are drawn to Jesus: one with a spiky mohawk and another smoking a cigarette. Others sit in front, just wanting to be near Jesus: A mother and daughter on the left, and on the right a downcast figure in red high heels. Her tall, awkward body suggests a drag queen or a transwoman.

Large pillars and arches hint that they are in the aisle of a modern cathedral. Far in the distance on the left, a row of priests carries candles or shiny processional crosses, as happens in a contemporary cathedral during worship. But many congregants are more interested in Jesus. A man peeks around the pillar on the back right to see who is causing all the excitement.

Not everyone is pleased to see the charismatic newcomer. Two bald men eavesdrop, arms crossed. Their suits suggest that they are businessmen, but they could easily be church bureaucrats. They look like the money changers who were attacked by Jesus in the previous painting. This pair might even be another gay couple, but a conservative and perhaps closeted duo with a stake in the status quo. Whatever their identity, they are the modern counterparts of the elders, scribes, lawyers, priests and Pharisees in the Bible who observed Jesus in the temple, looking for a way to destroy him.

It’s possible to guess what Jesus might be saying in this painting by reading the lengthy Biblical accounts of his preaching. The two-fold message that the Biblical Jesus taught was love and justice. Blanchard’s “Jesus Preaches in the Temple” balances the previous image of Jesus driving out the moneychangers. He stood for justice against the money changers before, and here he stands for love. The Bible records much of what Jesus taught, but he himself said the most important lesson was this: Love God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself.

One subject that Jesus never discussed directly was homosexuality. He certainly didn’t condemn it in the Bible. He may even have implied that LGBT people are born that way when he said, “There are eunuchs who have been so from birth.” (Matthew 19:12) Some progressive Bible scholars believe that Jesus used an ancient term for LGBT people when he talked about eunuchs. The term translated as “eunuch” probably included not just castrated men, but also a variety of sexual minorities that today would be called LGBT or queer.

Images of Jesus or teaching in the temple are relatively rare in art history. Even Renaissance master Albrecht Durer, whose Small Passion contains no less than 38 engravings, did not include such a scene. The drama of Jesus’ crucifixion tends to overshadow the content of his teachings, but Blanchard reminds viewers that Christ illumined the world not just by the way he died, but by how he lived and what he taught.

“All the people hung upon his words.” -- Luke 19:47-48 (RSV)

All kinds of people crowded around: male and female, young and old, rich and poor, healthy and sick, people from every race and nation -- and the queer ones: women who acted like men, men who acted like women, those who loved someone of the same sex, those with bodies somewhere between male and female. People lumped all of the queers together and called them “eunuchs.” Jesus said some of us were born eunuchs, some were made into eunuchs by others, and some made themselves into eunuchs. He never spoke a word against homosexuality. He just taught about love: Love God, love your neighbor as yourself, love your enemies. Religious leaders felt threatened by his absolute love, but his words and his touched and healed people. The religious leaders listened too -- hoping he would say something that they could use to silence him.

Christ, teach me, touch me!

More resources:
Homosexual Eunuchs - Did You Know That Some Eunuchs Were Gay Men Or Lesbians? (

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.

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: 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 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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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Day 1: Jesus Enters the City on Palm Sunday (Gay Passion of Christ series)

2 Jesus Enters the City(from The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision) by Douglas Blanchard

“And when he entered Jerusalem, all the city was stirred, saying, ‘Who is this?’ And the crowds said, ‘This is the prophet Jesus.’” --Matthew 21:10-11 (RSV)

A crowd marches under an arch with a charismatic young man on horseback in “Jesus Enters the City” from “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision,” a series of 24 paintings by Douglas Blanchard. Signs for “freedom” and “justice” make it a rally for almost any cause, from marriage equality and LGBT rights to the Occupy movement or the Tea Party. The masses adore Jesus as if he was a rock star or political leader. They stretch their hands up to him, grasping for the savior that they expect him to be. The group expresses 21st-century diversity: male and female, multi-racial, young and old, queer and straight, able-bodied and wheelchair-bound. A mother and daughter lead the way, along with a black man who holds the horse’s reins. In the middle of this “triumph,” Jesus bends down to be embraced by someone unnoticed and out of view. He is focused on something that others ignore. By passing through the arch, Jesus leaves his old life behind to meet the new challenges ahead.

Arms raised, the people rejoice, but the sky is grey and they are not united. Their signs droop or get blocked, making them hard to read. Each person looks in a different direction, never making eye contact. As the Passion story begins, Jesus seems disconnected from the passions he stirs in others. The seeds of conflict are already planted. The group marches forward, about to step right out of the picture frame. The viewer can’t see what Jesus sees, and the oncoming crowd will force viewers to make a decision: join in, back off, or get trampled underfoot. Light from the arch forms a lopsided halo behind his head.

There are no palms in Blanchard’s generic cityscape, but this is an updated vision of Palm Sunday, which commemorates Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. All four gospels describe how Jesus entered Roman-occupied Jerusalem at the height of his popularity. Enthusiastic fans greeted him by laying palm branches on the ground before him and shouting “Hosanna,” which translates as “Save us now!” Huge crowds were gathering in Jerusalem for the Jewish festival of Passover. They saw Jesus as a political deliverer who came to fulfill the ancient prophecies of a messiah: an earthly king anointed by God. His arrival on a donkey reminded them of the victory processions of ancestral kings descended from David. They mistakenly thought that Jesus was declaring himself king of Israel, ready to lead a rebellion against the Roman army. Palm Sunday hints at the trade-offs that people make in the pursuit of power. As the crowds marched into Jerusalem with Jesus, they were already on the path that would lead to his destruction. Their movement was gaining momentum on a trajectory that could not be altered or stopped. “If these were silent, the very stones would cry out,” (Luke 19:40 RSV) Jesus told the traditionalists who wanted him to quiet the crowd.

Jesus’ triumphant entry foreshadows the emptiness and impermanence of earthly glory. Luke’s gospel says that Jesus wept over the city when his procession got close to Jerusalem, the center of Jewish religious and national life. More than once in the Bible he lamented over Jerusalem’s inability to recognize God’s prophets. He longed to gather its people together “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings,” but they refused. Jesus signaled a power not of this world, while they sought worldly power. He was surrounded by adoring crowds on the way to Jerusalem, but they were not the true community that would be forged by the hardships ahead. Every hero’s journey begins with entry into a new place. On Palm Sunday Jesus leaves behind his old life as an itinerant teacher and healer, crossing through a gateway to face death itself for the good of all.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is one of the oldest Christian images. It can be found among the earliest Christian artworks in the catacombs of Rome, where the fourth-century sarcophagus of Junius Bassus shows Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. The image follows a tradition in Roman Imperial art of depicting the formal arrival (adventus) of the emperor into a city during or after a military campaign. Christ entering Jerusalem has been portrayed by many great artists from the Middle Ages to the Baroque era. One of the oldest and best known versions is a fresco painted by Giotto in 1305 at the Arena Chapel in Padua. German Renaissance artist Albrect Durer engraved it in his Small Passion series, which Blanchard acknowledges as a source for his gay vision of the Passion. But the scene is omitted from the traditional Stations of the Cross, which instead starts days later when Jesus is condemned to death. Modern artists have mostly ignored Palm Sunday in favor of other episodes from the life of Christ. An exception is Swedish photographer Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin. She re-envisioned Jesus’ life in a contemporary LGBT setting with notorious series named “Ecce Homo.” Her version of “Arrival in Jerusalem” shows Jesus riding a bicycle in Stockholm’s festive LGBT Pride Parade.

Crowd scenes are one of Blanchard’s strengths as an artist. He makes fine use of that talent in “Jesus Enters the City,” which is of the most popular images in his whole Passion series. He can capture a crowd’s unruly movements almost like a stop-action camera. Indeed while working on this series, the artist studied Charles Moore’s photos of the American civil rights movement. Blanchard paints each face in the crowd as a unique individual. For example the young man in a spiky mohawk carrying the “justice” sign on the right looks like he just stepped out of a LGBT Pride march. Most artists from history have shown Jesus marching through the gate in profile or three-quarter view, but Blanchard takes the unusual step of making Jesus head straight at the viewer.

Triumphal arches were invented by the ancient Romans and remain one their most influential architectural forms. The arch in this painting is a simplified version of the Washington Square Arch in New York City, where Blanchard has lived since 1991. It is a landmark in Greenwich Village, an artsy neighborhood with a nonconformist tradition. That arch was in turn based on the first-century Arch of Titus in Rome, which also inspired the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The Arch of Titus was built to commemorate the seige of Jerusalem, yet ironically in this painting it serves as the gateway to Jerusalem for the doomed Jesus. The Arc de Triomphe played a role in military victory rallies for rulers from Napoleon to Hitler. In 1999 a new version aggrandized a contemporary kind of empire: a Las Vegas casino. All of these arches stand for material power, and thereby hint at its transience as times change.

Arriving in a city is often an LGBT rite of passage. Many queer people leave their homes to find freedom in an urban mecca where they congregate and form their own communities. Marching in an LGBT Pride parade for the first time is an experience not unlike Jesus’ triumphal entry. Pride marches celebrate LGBT culture and serve as demonstrations for equal rights. Like Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem, Pride parades are raucous, wildly joyful celebrations -- and they mask internal divisions. There can be tension between outlandish drags queens and those who want to look respectable and assimilate into the mainstream. The LGBT community is not immune from the dangers that have plagued underprivileged groups since before Jesus’ time: In the quest to gain political power, communities can lose touch with the true power that they already have through their unique culture, shared history, and connection with each other.

In Christian tradition, Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week, a period of reflection on Christ’s Passion leading up to Easter. With this second painting in the series, Blanchard dives into the ambitious project of retelling the Passion story in a contemporary urban setting, and the action will not stop until the final painting. Let the adventure begin!

“Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to God.” -- Psalm 118:19 (Inclusive Language Lectionary)

Everyone cheered when Jesus called for justice and freedom. Crowds followed him into the city, shouting and waving palm leaves. Their chants were not so different from ours: “Yes we can! Out of the closet and into the streets! We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” Jesus was a superstar making a grand entrance. But he did it in his own modest, gentle style. He surprised people by riding on a donkey. Some of his supporters, those who had mainstream success, urged him to quiet the others -- assimilate, don’t alienate. Tone it down. Act respectable, don’t demand respect. Stop flaunting it. His answer: I’m here to liberate people! If the crowds were silent, the stones would cry out! It was that kind of day, a Palm Sunday sort of day, when everyone shouted for equality and freedom. But was anybody still listening?

Christ, set me free!

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 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, copyright © 1985-88 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.
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Day 1: Jesus with the prophets (Gay Passion of Christ series)

1. The Son of Man with Job and Isaiah (from The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision) by Douglas Blanchard

“God has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” -- Isaiah 61:1 (Inclusive Language Lectionary)

A contemporary Jesus arrives as a prisoner in the painting that launches the series “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision” by Douglas Blanchard. Jesus stands half-naked in blue jeans and handcuffs, attractive even in adversity. Blanchard paints an accessible Jesus that 21st-century readers can know and touch in his Passion series. The 24 paintings portray Jesus as a gay man of today in a modern city, experiencing the events of Palm Sunday, the Last Supper, and his arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection. The beardless young Christ is unfamiliar to modern eyes, but Blanchard harkens back to the most ancient images of Jesus. The gay vision of Christ’s Passion promises to address the suffering of queer people today -- and thereby speak to the human condition. Christ the liberator comes as a prisoner. With this first painting, the stage is set and the viewer is invited to join Jesus on a journey that leads from prison to paradise.

God’s solidarity with people amid human suffering is emphasized from the first image in Blanchard’s Passion series. The pathway from bondage to freedom leads through the Passion, moving from death to new life. The word “passion” comes from the Latin word for suffering, and has become a theological term for the hardships that Jesus experienced in the week before his death.

Jesus shares his dark prison cell with a pair of older men in “The Son of Man (Human One) with Job and Isaiah.” His warm, pink flesh is bleeding. In a modern form of dehumanization, Jesus is labeled with a number, “124,” hanging on a tag around his neck. A barred window behind an arch gives him a crude halo. His queer identity is not apparent, as often happens with contemporary lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) people. The title of this painting refers to Jesus as “Son of Man,” a mysterious, multi-purpose phrase that is translated as “Human One” in gender-inclusive language. Names painted on the sides of the frame identify his two companions as Job and Isaiah, prophets from the Hebrew scriptures. Their presence signals that themes of suffering and redemption will run through this series.

Blanchard, a gay artist based in New York, painted this scene at the dawn of the new millennium in summer 2001. His Lower East Side studio was only a couple of miles away from the World Trade Center. Little did he know that a few months later, on September 11, a terrorist attack there would make him confront suffering and death in a 21st-century Passion. Blanchard used the series to wrestle with his faith in the aftermath of 9/11.

The opening image is also one of the most cryptic paintings in the series. It may be tempting to skip over it and jump ahead to the next scene, where Jesus enters the city. Even the prophets turn their faces away. Job seems unable to bear seeing the bloody martyr in chains, while Isaiah appears to be lost in thought. Together the three men form a kind of Trinity. A close look reveals a surprise: The ancient prophets are wearing modern suits under their robes. The lapel of a business suit is visible beneath Job’s ancient garment, and the fringes of Isaiah’s robe dangle over modern shoes. They present a message for today clothed in an archetypal story from long ago. Jesus faces the viewer with a full frontal gaze, ready to engage in dialogue. But he doesn’t say a word. He carries nothing, no stone tablets -- not even a tablet computer. Jesus himself is the message. Just by being here, he proclaims freedom.

Both Job and Isaiah are associated with suffering. Job was a righteous man who kept his faith despite horrible calamities. Throughout the whole Book of Job he wrestles with the question: Why do bad things happen to good people? A major theme in the Book of Isaiah is God’s Suffering Servant or “Man of Sorrows” who brings justice, but is abused and rejected.

Jesus chose to quote Isaiah when he launched his public ministry. He told the people at the synagogue in Nazareth that he was fulfilling this prophecy: “The Spirit of God is upon me, because God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, and has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” (Luke 4:18; Isaiah 61:1) Isaiah also is known for his prophecy about a savior named Immanuel, which is Hebrew for “God with Us.” Christians believe these prophecies pointed to Jesus, the compassionate follower of God who was crucified. The New Testament describes how Christ emptied himself and took human form, living among us as the Word made flesh.

Jesus, Job, and Isaiah all used the phrase translated as “Son of Man” or “Human One.” It can mean a generic human being (male or female) or a divine ruler envisioned by the prophet Daniel. Jesus often referred to himself as “son of man,” thereby emphasizing his own humanity and perhaps also invoking ancient prophecies of a messiah. By using “Son of Man” in the title, Blanchard underscores the humanity of Jesus while honoring his divinity. Blanchard’s choice of words reveals that this vision is progressive but not necessarily politically correct. His Jesus remains unapologetically male.

The scene of Jesus in jail with Job and Isaiah does not occur in scripture, leaving room for the viewer to speculate. Is Jesus arriving in prison or leaving? Maybe the painting represents Jesus’ own vision while he prayed in prison before he was sentenced to death. He may have remembered the ancient prophets as the crowds outside shouted for his death -- just a week after they roared their approval when he entered the city. Or does it show how society locks away today’s prophets along with those of the past?

The prison scene is an enigmatic prelude for the “gay vision” proclaimed in the subtitle of the series. Americans have been imprisoned for homosexual acts within living memory. The last sodomy laws in the United States were not overturned until 2003. Consensual homosexual acts remain a crime in many countries and a few still impose the death penalty. Many queers still imprison themselves in self-imposed mental closets.

Early Christian artists commonly pictured Jesus as a youthful Good Shepherd without a beard. The bearded Christ motif developed around the sixth century. The crucifixion images that dominate current Christian thought didn’t arise until a thousand years after he died. A Jesus in modern dress may come as a surprise, but he promised his disciples, “Lo, I am with you always.” [Matthew 28:20 RSV]

Artists almost never portray Jesus in prison. A rare exception is 19th-century French painter James Tissot. He painted Jesus with hands lifted in prayer, chained to a stone between two sleeping guards in “Good Friday Morning: Jesus in Prison.” Likewise Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte is one of the few artists in history who ever attempted to give visual form to the phrase “Son of Man.” His famous “Son of Man” is a self portrait of the artist in a suit with an oversized apple covering his face.

The gay Passion series operates on two levels as a story within a story. The first and last paintings function like bookends, putting the gospel narrative into a larger context not limited by time and space. For those who take time to decode the rich symbolism of this painting, it foreshadows and sums up the whole series. This will be no ordinary Stations of the Cross, with a hopelessly distant Jesus moving predictably from trial to tomb. Blanchard’s vision is broader. With this first painting, Blanchard honors human suffering by invoking major Biblical models of Christ: the Son of Man / Human One, the Suffering Servant, and Immanuel. As the averted eyes of Job and Isaiah indicate, many prophets desired to see the freedom embodied by Christ, but did not. Viewers are blessed with the chance to see it played out as the gay vision of the Passion unfolds.

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” -- John 1:14 (RSV)

Jesus was one of us, a real human being. He loved everybody, including his enemies. And yet some say that LGBT people don’t belong in the story of Jesus Christ. There’s black Jesus, Asian Jesus -- and now gay Jesus to heal the hate and discrimination done in Christ’s name. This is the story of a Jesus who emphasized his humanity by calling himself the Human One.* He doesn’t look very gay. Young and attractive, he can pass for straight. He is fully in the present, yet feels kinship with the ancient prophets Job and Isaiah who understood suffering. He wanted to serve God by healing people and setting them free. Here we remember his last days, his death and his resurrection. Jesus was a child of God who embodied love so completely that he transcended death. But while it was all happening, people didn’t understand. Society rejected him. They locked the liberator in prison.

Jesus, show me how you lived and loved.

*Son of Man can be translated as Human One.

New book
"The Passion of Christ:
A Gay Vision
Get info
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

Prints and cards
of Blanchard's Passion
are available
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 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.
Bookmark and Share