“There appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.” -- Acts 2:3-4 (RSV)
A winged woman literally lights up a crowd in “The Holy Spirit Arrives” from “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision,” a series of 24 paintings by Douglas Blanchard. This is a modern version of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came like tongues of fire to the disciples of Jesus and inspired them to speak in other languages. Pentecost is a major church holiday celebrated today (May 19, 2013) this year. It is also known as Whitsunday.
In Blanchard’s painting the Holy Spirit floats like an angel above the people at an intersection where darkened city streets meet at odd angles. Carrying flares in both hands, she looks like a flame in her golden gown. The dusky sky and unlit buildings strike a mysterious mood, making miracles possible. Tongues of fire literally flame up from the heads of the people on the streets. Many are arm in arm, forming a circle. Filled with the spirit, they make strange alliances. A soldier, a gangbanger, and a businessman wrap their arms around each other. An older woman and a younger woman embrace. The person in the wheelchair appears to be the same hothead who demanded the death of Christ in 10. Jesus Before the People. Looming behind them is a large building under construction.
The painting gives visual form to a moment of spiritual transcendence. “The Holy Spirit Arrives” is the only painting in Blanchard’s Passion series that does not show Jesus. And yet Jesus IS present within the people. They have been transformed by the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ. Everyone is enflamed -- not just the twelve apostles. Christ has multiple manifestations both inside and outside the church in today’s pluralistic society. The painting also hints that Jesus is present in the form of the Holy Spirit. They both have the same face. This, Blanchard says, is deliberate. By making Jesus and the Holy Spirit look alike, he emphasizes that they are one being. Christ, who is both male and female, can easily change genders.
The story of Pentecost is told in Acts 2 of the Bible. The apostles were sitting together indoors early one morning when they heard wind rushing. Tongues of fire landed on each of them. Inspired by the Spirit, they spoke in other tongues and a crowd gathered. Devout people from all over the world were amazed to hear the mighty works of God in their own languages. But some scoffed, so Peter explained by quoting a prophecy from the Book of Joel: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and the young shall see visions, and the old shall dream dreams.” -- Acts 2:17 (Inclusive Language Lectionary) Jesus himself predicted that the Holy Spirit would come after him to empower his disciples to do “even greater things” than he did. He referred to the Holy Spirit with the Greek term paraclete, which means advocate, comforter, or teacher. The word rendered as “Spirit” also denotes wind or breath. The early church taught that the arrival of the Holy Spirit reopened paradise, which had been closed by human sin. Christians believe that the Holy Spirit continues to inspire believers in the present, especially in times of trouble or celebration.
Blanchard takes Pentecost out into the streets and humanizes it by presenting the Holy Spirit as a woman. In church texts the Holy Spirit is sometimes described as the female person of the Trinity. She is known as Sophia, the embodiment of Wisdom. But at other times She is referred to as “He,” a rather queer blurring of gender duality. Blanchard’s bold female Holy Spirit is one of the most unusual features of this painting from an art historical perspective. Artists generally depict the Holy Spirit at Pentecost as a descending dove, not as a woman. Blanchard gives her the wings of a dove. The shape of the building behind the Holy Spirit also looks like a dove, mirroring the shape in the background of “21. Jesus Appears to His Friends.” Paintings of Pentecost are often called “The Descent of the Holy Spirit,” but Blanchard removes the top-down implications by titling it “The Holy Spirit Arrives.”
Earlier in the Passion series the crowd strained to touch Christ or follow his lead, but now they have absorbed his teachings and indeed his spirit. The transformation of the crowd on Pentecost becomes more visible when contrasted with the masses who marched with Jesus on Palm Sunday. Blanchard’s second painting and the second-to-last paintings are paired, just like the first and last. In the past the crowd marched into the city carrying signs, but they didn’t look at each other. Now they have no need for placards or slogans. Turning to each other, they find among themselves the freedom and justice that they had sought to gain. They have been tested in ways that were unimaginable on Palm Sunday and forged into true community. They experience God effortlessly, involuntarily. Despite their otherworldly flames, they are more present in the world than they were before. The Palm Sunday setting was sterile and empty except for the triumphal arch, but this crowd gathers on a realistic city street where people actually live.
The Biblical idea of a fire burning on one’s head is scary as well as implausible, but the flames brought by Blanchard’s Holy Spirit look friendly and tame, like birthday candles. Sometimes Pentecost is called the birthday of the church. Like the burning bush of Moses, the holy fire doesn’t consume. The building under construction in the background can be interpreted as the foundation of the Christian church. The artist himself offered an alternative view: “I prefer to think of it as a reference to the story of the Tower of Babel.” The Holy Spirit turns her back on the half-built structure that symbolizes ungodly human arrogance, destined to be toppled by God.
Many of the previous paintings have a tight, sometimes claustrophobic focus. Blanchard’s Pentecost comes like a breath of fresh air that shows the big picture at last. The past comes into perspective and the viewer can see the neighborhood where Jesus lived and died. Blanchard says that he did not intend any particular location. Intersections like this are common in New York City. One of the many places it resembles is the site of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire where 146 garment workers died, the deadliest industrial disaster in New York history. That destructive fire contrasts with the transformative flames of the Spirit.
Viewers may be surprised to find Pentecost in a series on the Passion of Christ. Artists do not always conclude the Passion narrative with Jesus’ death, resurrection, or even his ascension. Blanchard acknowledges that one of the inspirations for this series is Albrecht Durer’s Albrecht Durer’s Small Passion. He follows the Durer’s example by continuing the Passion for two more panels after the Ascension. Both artists portray Pentecost as the next-to-last image. In Blanchard’s gay Passion, Pentecost is a stopping point near the end of the road from prison to paradise
Progressive Christians recognize the work of the Spirit when churches begin to embrace LGBT members, bless same-sex marriages, ordain openly LGBT clergy, and teach queer theology. In light of Pentecost, it may be significant that the most outrageously effeminate gay men have been disparaged as “flaming.” The bundles of sticks used to burn heretics were called “faggots,” now an insult for gay men.
The Pentecost story is good news for LGBT people because the Holy Spirit comes to ALL people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. The Spirit ignites the desire to be true to oneself, even when that means being fully, flagrantly queer. LGBT people can identify with the Holy Spirit’s combustible mix of male and female. The Holy Spirit, whose own gender is ambiguous, welcomes those who are called bulldykes or fairies, amazons or eunuchs, transfolk or genderqueer, two-spirit or third-gender. Every language has words for queer people, and the story of Jesus has been translated into many languages. Thanks to the multi-lingual marvels of Pentecost, the gospel is now available with a gay accent.
The Pentecost Celebration of Diversity, and the Holy Spirit (Queering the Church)
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, copyright © 1985-88 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.