“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)
God’s solidarity with people amid human suffering is emphasized from the first painting in 24-panel series “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision” by Douglas Blanchard. Right away we see that Jesus is an attractive young man of today. This will be no ordinary Stations of the Cross, with a hopelessly distant Jesus moving predictably from trial to tomb. Blanchard’s vision starts at a different point and features an accessible Jesus that 21st-century readers can know and touch. As often happens with contemporary LGBT people, his gay identity is not obvious most of the time.
Jesus stands half-naked in blue jeans and handcuffs with a pair of Old Testament prophets in a dark prison cell. A barred window behind an arch gives him a crude halo. His warm, pink flesh is bleeding. In a contemporary form of dehumanization, Jesus is labeled with a number, “124,” hanging on a tag around his neck. Names painted on the sides of the frame identify the two men from the Hebrew scriptures: Job on the right and Isaiah on the left. Their presence signals that themes of suffering and justice will run through this series. The gay vision of Christ’s Passion promises to address the suffering of queer people today -- and thereby speak to the human condition.
This scene of Jesus in prison with Job and Isaiah does not occur in scripture. Maybe it represents Jesus’ own vision as he prayed in prison after his trial, listening to the crowds outside shouting for his death -- just a week after they roared their approval when he entered the city. Maybe is this a resurrection as Jesus seems to emerge from the arched door of a tomb? Or does it show how we lock away the prophets of today along with Jesus?
The opening image is also one of the most cryptic paintings in the series. It’s 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 looking at Jesus’ suffering, while Isaiah appears to be lost in thought. Jesus faces the viewer with a full frontal gaze, ready to engage in dialogue. Together the three men form a kind of Trinity. A closer look reveals a surprise: The lapel of a suit is visible under Job’s ancient robe, and the fringes of Isaiah’s robe dangle over modern shoes. The prophets are wearing modern business suits. For those who take time to decode its dense symbolism, this painting foreshadows and sums up the whole series.
Passion means suffering. It comes from the Greek and Latin words for suffering, and has become a theological term for the events and suffering that Jesus experienced in the week before his death. Both Job and Isaiah are associated with suffering. Job was a righteous man who experienced 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 the Suffering Servant, a “man of sorrows” who brings justice, but is rejected. Christians see this as a prophecy about Jesus, the compassionate servant of God.
Jesus did launch his public ministry by quoting Isaiah. 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)
The title of this painting is “Son of Man,” a multi-purpose phrase that Jesus, Job and Isaiah all used. Due to its male connotations, the expression “Son of Man” is translated as “Human One” in gender-inclusive language. It can mean a normal human being (male or female) or a divine ruler envisioned by the prophet Daniel. Jesus often referred to himself as “son of man,” emphasizing his own humanity while perhaps also invoking the ancient prophecy. By titling this first painting “Son of Man,” 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. This Jesus remains unapologetically male.
Blanchard’s references to Job, Isaiah and the Son of Man place this series squarely in Christian tradition. This first painting makes a theological statement in addition to telling a story. It hallows human suffering by invoking two major Biblical archetypes of Christ: the Suffering Servant and the Son of Man. Thus the series operates on two levels as a story framed within a story. The real-life adventures of Jesus’ last days and post-resurrection appearances (paintings #2 through #23) are set within a larger theological vision. Paintings #1 and 24 function like picture frames, putting the story into a context beyond time and space.
This series is based on a time-honored artistic heritage as well as religious tradition. Scenes from the Passion cycle were painted by virtually every great European artist in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, from Giotto to Michelangelo, Leonardo, Rubens and Rembrandt. Blanchard, who is an art history professor as well as artist, drew on a deep reservoir of great art to create this series. He has said that he was especially inspired by The Small Passion, a series of 36 woodcuts by German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer.
With this first painting in “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision,” the stage is set and we are invited to join Jesus on a journey.
“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 like today’s Occupy Movement marches under an arch with a charismatic young man on a donkey in “Jesus Enters the City.” This image show Palm Sunday, but there are no palms in the generic cityscape. Signs for “freedom” and “justice” make it a rally for any kind of cause, from LGBT Pride to the Tea Party. The crowd is full of familiar people from 21st-century America, a veritable model of diversity: male and female, black and white, young and old, able-bodied and wheelchair-bound. A mother and daughter are in the lead, while a black man holds the donkey’s reins. The crowd adores Jesus as if he was a rock star or political leader. They stretch their hands up to him, and he bends down to touch them. Jesus rides on a donkey -- as surprising now as it was in Biblical times. We might expect a limo, while the people of old Jerusalem expected a chariot or at least a horse. It’s a happy scene, but it foreshadows the emptiness and impermanence of earthly glory.
With this second painting his series “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision,” artist Douglas Blanchard begins to show events from the gospels in a contemporary urban setting. All four gospels describe Jesus’ entry into Roman-occupied Jerusalem at the height of his popularity. Adoring crowds greeted him by laying palms on the ground before him and shouting “Hosanna!”
Crowd scenes are one of Blanchard’s strengths as an artist. He captures the unruly movements of a large gathering of people almost like a stop-action photo. Indeed while working on this series, Blanchard studied Charles Moore’s photos of the American Civil Rights movement. He paints each face in the crowd as a unique individual. Check out the young man in a spiky mohawk carrying the “justice” sign on the right. He looks like somebody right out of a Pride march.
The arch is like 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. Triumphal arches were invented by the ancient Romans and remain one their most influential architectural forms.
All of these arches symbolize material power, and therefore end up hinting at its transience as times change. The Arc de Triomphe played a role in military victory rallies for everyone from Napoleon to Hitler, and in 1999 a new version aggrandizes a contemporary kind of empire: a Las Vegas casino. The Arch of Titus was built to celebrate the sack of Jerusalem, yet ironically in this painting it serves as the gateway to Jerusalem for the doomed Jesus. Light streaming through the arch forms a kind of halo behind Jesus’ head, like the barred window in the first painting.
This is part of a series based on “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision,” a set of 24 paintings by Douglas Blanchard, with text by Kittredge Cherry. For the whole series, click here.
Scripture quotations are from Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, and 1971 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations are from the Inclusive Language Lectionary (Year C), copyright © 1985-88 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.