Monday, December 17, 2012

Seeking the "naked young man" of Mark’s gospel

Detail from “Stripped of Linen, Stripped of Lord” by Eric Martin, 2012

Gay artist Eric Martin spent a lifetime wondering about the “naked young man” who ran away when Jesus was arrested in Mark’s gospel. His search for the nameless nude is presented here in honor of Lazarus of Bethany, whose feast day is today (Dec. 17).

Some Bible scholars believe that Lazarus was the naked man in Mark 14:51-52. The mysterious man has inspired speculations that he was the “beloved disciple” of Jesus -- and maybe even his gay lover.

Eric Martin is a gay poet, artist, and church organist in Burlington NC. He has a Master of Divinity degree from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC, and a BA in Religion from Campbell University. Here is his story.

My Search for an Artistic Heritage

As a child I was intrigued by the painted portrait of John Mark in the book "Our Christian Heritage." That head-to-waist image was of a bare-chested youth furtively standing with his back to a dark wall and looking cautiously over his shoulder. The text explained that "ancient legend maintains that John Mark is referring to himself, when he writes in his Gospel about a young man whose robe was pulled off in the scuffle in Gethsemane when Jesus was arrested."

This year I remembered that erotic picture which had somehow been allowed to be embedded in a children's book. I began searching for the book in my attic, libraries, and thrift shops. An eBay purchase brought a copy of the book to me, but the portrait of John Mark therein was not the one I remembered. It was a 'new' John Mark.

Also this year I read theologian Patrick Cheng's Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology, which cites gay priest Robert Williams' hypothesis "that the mysterious nude young man in Mark 14:51-52 was in fact Jesus' lover." Not just John Mark; not just, as some have said, a symbol of Christ-less vulnerability; but Jesus' lover! This vibrant notion reinforced my fascination.

I recovered a computer-saved picture that spoke to me with the selfsame passion that the 'old' John Mark had spoken. So, I took it upon myself to do a watercolor of this image: a head-to-knees frontally-nude young man peering over his shoulder and seemingly grasping to find handhold in the wall behind him. THIS was MY John Mark. It was done with my memory-picture in mind, and with adjustments made for the puberty of the subject and for my "positive adulteration" [my term for "queering"] of him.

And so, I present "Stripped of Linen; Stripped of Lord." (pictured above)

Detail from
Betrayal of Christ
by Giuseppe Cesari, 1597
I found that even in the classical art depicting this young man, he was rarely shown actually naked. One notable exception is Giuseppe Cesari's "The Betrayal of Christ" painting, which shows a nude yet marginally faceless young man being stripped of his linen by the guard pursuing him in anger. (I am struck by the thematic similarity of this detail of Cesari's presentation with my own "Breakthrough" piece - a streaker confounding the security guards - which I had done before I had researched Cesari.)

“Breakthrough” by Eric Martin, 2012

Our Christian Heritage, 1964
But wait! Here is my success of November. While rummaging through my attic for items for a friend's book drive, I finally found my original version of "Our Christian Heritage: A Treasury of Inspiration for the Christian Family" (Good Will Publishers, Inc., Gastonia NC, 1964). The book indeed includes that provocative image of a young John Mark, hiding due to his nakedness, that so intrigued me as a child.

“John Mark, after Sune`”
by Eric Martin, 2012

The portrait is attributed to Alberta Rae ("Sune'") Richards. Ms. Richards (1912-1990) was a nationally known Wisconsin photographer, artist, and minister. (Note that she is not to be confused with artist June Egan who was better known by her Tongan name “Sune.”) Alberta believed that the physical appearances and personal characteristics of the disciples of Jesus could be found in modern people. She spent fourteen years searching for these counterparts, photographing them, and retouching their images with layers of paint. I have since replicated Ms. Richards’ John Mark in my work.

Our Christian Heritage, 1967
Later versions (e.g. 1967) of "Our Christian Heritage" replace Sune's portrait with that rendered by George Malick, a Pennsylvania artist whose work mirrors the style of Norman Rockwell. Malick’s presentation here is a remarkably homoerotic painting of a clothed yet enticing young John Mark with an older man's hand resting on the boy's shoulder.

Cheng's work led me to the Robert Williams book Just As I Am: A Practical Guide to Being Out, Proud, and Christian. Williams' inquiry into the lost Gospel of Mark identifies Lazarus as Jesus' lover; furthermore, Lazarus is described as "wearing a linen cloth over his naked body." Is Lazarus, then, by association, the one whose scriptural nakedness had been attributed to John Mark?

If so, then in honor of Lazarus, I can suggest an alternative title to my work: "Stripped of Linen; Stripped of Love."

Either way, I am encouraged that others are seeking the meaning I still seek almost fifty years after my family's Southern Baptist pastor gave us the simple little book "Our Christian Heritage."

May Lazarus continue to teach us to let go the linen stripped from us by those who think us unworthy, and the linen wrapped around us by those who think us dead.


Postscript: Eric Martin’s artistic quest was inspired in part by the loss of a friend. The October 2011 death of gay artist Shay Adams, Martin’s best friend of 16 years, rendered the loneliness that opened a gate for Martin seriously to pursue art, and provided, by way of inheritance, Shay’s art supplies to help make the endeavor possible. Shay’s mother, Libby Adams, having seen this December the scores of mixed media works that Martin has produced since February, said to a friend, “It’s as if all this was in Eric, just waiting to come out.” He concludes, “Thus be it, and thus may it continue. I miss you Shaybird.” He wishes to thank photographer Kadie Maness for her assistance.

2017 update: Eric Martin died on March 22, 2017 at age 56.  He was born Sept, 17, 1960, Alamance County NC.  He was an active member of City Lake Baptist Church, serving as deacon and the church musician for 16 years. May he rest in power, dwelling in eternity with the gospel characters he loved.  Click for full obituary

More work by Eric Martin on the Jesus in Love Blog:

The best-known story of Lazarus is how Jesus raised him from the dead. For more about Lazarus, see these related links:

Lazarus: Jesus’ beloved disciple? (Jesus in Love)

Jesus, John and Lazarus (Pharsea's World)
This post is part of the Artists series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. The series profiles artists who use lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) and queer spiritual and religious imagery.


Trudie said...

An intriguing series of images and speculations. Still, however, I have a strong feeling you may have gotten it right in "At the Cross". There is no reason NOT to hypothesize that the newly-resurrected Lazarus was in fact beloved of John bar Zebedee as well as of Jesus, and that John had hoped to have him given the special "naked baptism" after the Seder. The event of Jesus' arrest would certainly have negated that option. Obviously, one other disciple besides Simon Peter followed as Jesus was taken to the high priest's residence, and tradition makes that John. (John 18:15).

Kittredge Cherry said...

It was actually my idea to connect Eric’s quest with Lazarus, because of the coincidence of his feast day being somewhat close to the time when Eric submitted his story to me. John’s feast day is Dec. 27 and I feel that it gets lost in the post-Christmas blitz/exhaustion. I thought we could all use a story like this about now. Eric’s first draft didn’t connect the “naked young man” with either Lazarus or John, but left his identity unknown.