“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.
“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.
“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.”
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
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.