Thursday, May 17, 2012

Ascension Day: Jesus Returns to God (Gay Passion of Christ series)

22. Jesus Returns to God (from The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision) by Douglas Blanchard

“As they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” -- Acts 1:9 (RSV)

A winged man carries Jesus skyward in “Jesus Returns to God” from “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision,” a series of 24 paintings by Douglas Blanchard. The loving couple seems to dance in a mystical homoerotic union. Jesus, shirtless and wearing blue jeans, swoons in the arms of someone who appears to be an angel. But a close look reveals that they both have crucifixion wounds on their wrists. Jesus is embraced directly by God!

Detail from "Jesus Returns to God"
“Jesus Returns to God” is Blanchard’s vision of the Ascension, the transitional moment when the resurrected Jesus left earth and was taken up into heaven. Churches commemorate the event with the Feast of the Ascension, a major holiday that comes 40 days after Easter (May 17 this year). Christian tradition emphasizes that the resurrected Jesus ascends bodily -- in the flesh -- up into the clouds of heaven. Therefore it is appropriate for this image to have a physical, erotic component, even though many viewers find it disturbing.

Beams of white light stream from God’s head in a sunburst so bright that it almost obliterates the blue sky. His wings look muscular, like God has to work hard to lift the dead weight of Jesus up from the earth. The wounds in Jesus’ wrists and feet were dark before, but now they glow like hot-pink jewels. This is the lightest painting in Blanchard’s series, dissolving into white at the top in stark contrast to the pitch-black panel of “Jesus Among the Dead.” Now the misty clouds even spill over the frame on the lower left. The position of their arms suggests a ballroom dance, perhaps a waltz, with God’s hand planted firmly on Jesus’ buttocks.

People tend to react strongly to this image. Some find it too sexual and are horrified by the thought of “God’s hand on my butt.” (At least God has no body below the waist here!) Others love the painting because it removes the shame of sexuality, showing same-sex love as holy. From this point on, Jesus is more visibly gay. He is also less natural and more supernatural.  With this image Blanchard’s series truly becomes a “gay vision” as the title proclaims. There is no longer any doubt about whether Jesus was simply a tolerant ally of queer people. The full revelation of his gay sexual orientation does not happen in his lifetime, but is disclosed in the afterlife by Blanchard. Some people wish the series stopped right before this image. Others would prefer it started here.

In Christian theology the Ascension serves to emphasize the reality of Jesus as both human and divine. It is seen as the consummation of God’s union with humanity. “Mystical marriage” is a separate Christian concept in which the love between God and people is compared to a human marriage, including the sexual ecstasy between bride and groom. Erotic union becomes a metaphor for union with God. Blanchard breaks new ground by combining the Ascension with the mystical marriage and a gay viewpoint, making this one of the most original paintings in the series.

God appears here for the first time in Blanchard’s series. He gives God some extraordinary attributes: He has wounds, wings, and the same face as Jesus. God with wounds is virtually unprecedented. It is rare to see a painting of God with wings, even though there are many Biblical references to humanity being protected or carried by God’s wings. Usually God and Jesus are shown as Father and Son, but Blanchard makes them look like gay lovers or the same person in two places, further emphasizing his theme of God in solidarity with humanity.

The mystical marriage and “Christ the Bridegroom” are rare subjects in art history, but the Ascension has been painted many times over the centuries.  Ascension images usually have two zones: a crowd of apostles watching from earth below and Jesus rising up into heaven above. Jesus is frequently shown with his right hand raised in a gesture of blessing. Sometimes just the feet of Jesus are shown as he disappears into the clouds. It is almost unprecedented to show only Jesus and God without the people below, as Blanchard does. A notable exception is “Ascension” by 20th-century surrealist Salvador Dali, which is dominated by the soles of Jesus’ feet as he flies upward.

“Jesus Returns to God” can stand alone as a gay-affirming vision of ecstatic union with God. The mixed response to this painting raises the issue of how artists can visually code Jesus as queer without being too literal. For some viewers, anything more than a subtle hint is too sexually explicit or reduces the mystery of Christ to a billboard. Others need a flagrantly out-and-proud Jesus to clearly say that God loves LGBT folk. Conservative Christians have made many LGBT people think of Jesus as their enemy. How far should an artist go to counteract the that? Blanchard strikes a balance here by showing Jesus as an ordinary man swept up in a homoerotic dance with God.

“As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” -- Isaiah 62:5 (RSV)

We can only imagine the bliss that Jesus felt when he returned to God. No words or pictures can express all the joy of a soul’s union with the divine, but some have compared it to sexual ecstasy or marriage. Perhaps for Jesus, it was a same-sex marriage. Jesus drank in the nectar of God’s breath and surrendered to the divine embrace. They mixed male and female in ineffable ways. Jesus became both Lover and Beloved as everything in him found in God its complement, its reflection, its twin. When they kissed, Jesus let holy love flow through him to bless all beings throughout timeless time. Love and faith touched, justice and peace kissed. The boundaries between Jesus and God disappeared and they became whole: one Heart, one Breath, One. We are all part of Christ’s body in a wedding that welcomes everyone.

Jesus, congratulations on your wedding day! Thank you for inviting me!

Bible background
Song of Songs: “O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth!”

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.


Trudie said...

Absolutely wonderful! I can hardly wait until the book comes out!!

Ann said...

Ecstatic union is the goal of most mystics -- so of course it could be between any two. Thanks to Doug for the expansion of vision. I wonder if the wings are not a reminder of the Holy Spirit's presence -- if so it is very trinitarian. The wounded God is exactly what the crucifixion is all about for me -- that the all powerful creator - chooses death, disgrace and powerlessness to show us the way to life.
btw - Catherine of Sienna is sometimes portrayed as marrying Christ - with her wedding ring being Jesus foreskin (from her visions).

Counterlight said...

Love the commentary. Wonderful writing! Thanks.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Thanks for all the enthusiastic comments. I feel this is one of my best essays in the Gay Passion series, and this is one of my personal favorites of the 24 paintings.

I hadn’t thought of the wings as an indication of the Holy Spirit’s presence -- nice call, Ann. An even more overtly Trinitarian painting is coming up as the last image in the series. It’s called, appropriately enough, “The Trinity.”

I saw some of those paintings of Catherine of Sienna’s mystical marriage while researching this piece, but I didn’t think to mention it. What an amazing vision about the composition of the wedding ring!

Recently I blogged about a new icon by Willliam McNichols showing the mystical same-sex marriage of Blessed Bernardo de Hoyos, an 18th-century Spanish priest beatified in 2010.