Friday, April 18, 2014

Day 6: Jesus goes to his execution and is nailed to the cross (Gay Passion of Christ series)

13. Jesus Goes to His Execution (from The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision) by Douglas Blanchard

“He went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called the place of a skull, which is called in Hebrew Golgotha.” -- John 19:17 (RSV)

A bloody prisoner carries a crossbeam through the city in “Jesus Goes to His Execution.” Jesus is surrounded by guards with guns. News reporters aim multiple cameras at him in a peculiarly contemporary form of intrusion. They broadcast his private pain to the world. He is walking barefoot to the execution site, carrying the means of his own death, the cross on which he will be crucified. He seems to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. Nobody offers sympathy. A cheering spectator on the left looks out at the viewer, assuming that everyone shares his glee at seeing the blasphemer punished. A boy in a wheelchair watches with excitement, and perhaps relief that he is not being targeted this time. Jesus strides straight at the viewer with his face in shadow. His bare feet crunch on the broken shells of eggs that were thrown at him. He seems to be walking under scaffolding on a construction site. The low, overhanging roof adds to the tension, loading the scene with a heavy sense of impending doom. Soon the viewer must move out of the way or get trampled.

All four gospels report that Jesus was forced to walk through Jerusalem to the execution grounds outside the city walls. Crucifixions were done on a hill resembling a skull. Thus it was named Golgotha (Calvary in Latin), which means Place of the Skull. Two encounters occurred along the way: A passerby named Simon, from the Libyan town of Cyrene, was enlisted to carry the cross for him. And the women of Jerusalem followed, mourning and wailing. Knowing that the tragedy was much greater than his own personal suffering, Jesus turned to them and said, “Do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.” [Luke 23:28 (RSV)] In Blanchard’s version, Jesus is isolated in the center of the crowd. Nobody shares his burden or laments for him.

Early Christians did not depict Christ suffering on the cross, but they did show him carrying it. Jesus (or Simon of Cyrene) carrying the cross is one of the earliest and most enduring images in Christian art. The scene is sculpted in marble on a fourth-century sarcophagus from the Catacombs of Domitilla. In the early images the cross looks light and easy to carry, but over the centuries it seems to get heavier until Jesus can barely drag it. From the start Jesus was usually shown in profile, almost never coming right at the viewer as in Blanchard’s version.

Jesus carrying his cross is the heart of the traditional Stations of the Cross, which originated as stopping points for pilgrims along an actual road in Jerusalem. Known as the Via Dolorosa or Way of Sorrows, it is the route where the historical Jesus supposedly walked to his execution. Eight of the traditional fourteen stations occur as Jesus carries his cross, falling three times under its tremendous weight and encountering various people. Blanchard crystallizes the eventful walk to Calvary into a single image. Until about 1100 artists most often showed the cross being by Simon of Cyrene, but then the burden shifted to Jesus. Artists also gradually increased the number of characters in the scene. The trend culminated in 1564 when Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted an enormous crowd of more than a hundred people accompanying Jesus through a vast landscape in “Procession to Calvary.”

Art history includes many variations on Jesus carrying his cross, including Renaissance masterpieces by Hieronymus Bosch, who caricatured the mob with grotesque faces, and El Greco, whose haunting close-up showed an elongated Christ lifting his eyes to a stormy sky. Michelangelo bucked the trend by sculpting a muscular nude Jesus who practically swaggers with his cross. Modern mainstream artists have done surprisingly little with the motif of Jesus carrying his cross, preferring instead to draw inspiration from other scenes from Christ’s Passion.

The road to Calvary has inspired some powerful LGBT Christian art. Swedish photographer Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin included it in her controversial Ecce Homo series that recreates the life of Christ in a contemporary LGBT context. In “Weighed Down by the Cross,” she showed Jesus stumbling under his cross through a crowd with red ribbons and a Names Project memorial panel, symbolizing AIDS as a Way of Sorrows. Tennessee artist Mary Button matched each traditional station with a milestone from the past 100 years of LGBT history in “Stations of the Cross: The Struggle For LGBT Equality.” Jesus carries his cross against a backdrop of violence aimed at queers, including Nazi persecution, the Stonewall Rebellion, and the assassination of gay politician Harvey Milk.

For LGBT people, their God-given sexuality may feel like a burden in a world that disapproves of being queer. Earlier in his life Jesus spoke of carrying the cross as a metaphor for the spiritual journey with its inevitable costs. “If any would come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” [Matthew 16:24] he told his friends. Sometimes queer people learn to collaborate in their own oppression by carrying the “cross” of internalized homophobia and self-hatred. Whether they deny or embrace their identity, oppression of LGBT people is usually part of the load that queer people carry on their particular path to wholeness.

“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” -- -- Isaiah 53:4 (RSV)

The soldiers made Jesus walk to the execution grounds. They forced him to carry the cross on which he would be crucified. It was big news and crowds gathered along the road. They had watched Jesus rise to mass popularity, and now they wanted to see him fall. Many jeered at him. Some of the hecklers were once among his followers. Maybe they shouted louder than the rest to prove that they were not associated with Jesus -- like closeted lawmakers who loudly oppose LGBT rights. For those whom God created queer, the struggle to be fully human in a homophobic world is a heavy cross to bear.

Jesus, I will pull my own weight and walk with you.

14. Jesus is Nailed to the Cross (from The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision) by Douglas Blanchard

“There they crucified him.” -- Luke 23:33 (RSV)

Bruised and bleeding, a condemned man cries out in agony as a spike is hammered through his wrist in “Jesus is Nailed to the Cross.” The guard shows no emotion as he pounds a cruel spike through human flesh and bone. A shadowy guard in sunglasses wields a rifle to keep spectators away. Paparazzi with cameras jockey for position, prying into his pain and making it a commodity for public consumption. A rope is ready to hoist Jesus up to the cross that looms the background. Even the frame is splashed with blood.

Jesus grimaces. The pain is excruciating, a word that comes from the Latin cruciare, “to crucify.” The viewer is right there, closer than the news cameras, close enough to get spattered with blood, to hear Jesus’ cries and the metallic clank with every hammer blow. Of all 24 paintings in the series, this is the only one where the viewer can see agony on Jesus’ face. Previously his face was turned away or hidden in shadow when he felt pain. Now the viewer must look directly into his suffering face. This is also the bloodiest picture in the series. The painting forces the viewer to witness everything, to be an accomplice, voyeur, or victim. One of the beauties of this series is how even the men who torture and execute Jesus are still presented real people. They are cruel or oblivious or blinded by the drive for power at any cost, but ultimately they remain human.

When the gospels were written, there was no need to explain what was meant by “they crucified him.” The Bible doesn’t describe it in detail. The terrors of the cross were all too familiar to first-century readers. Blanchard actually spares the viewer some of the horror by skipping over other scenes reported in the gospels, such as Jesus being stripped, raised on the cross, and refusing the “benumbing drink” of wine mixed with gall.

At this point it may feel like overkill to show a blow-by-blow account of Jesus being crucified. But past artists, goaded by the Stations of the Cross format, often divided the crucifixion process into multiple steps. Compared to many historic paintings of this scene, Blanchard’s Jesus looks active, like he might still be able to escape from the cross. Another painter who brings the horror of the crucifixion into a modern LGBT context is Mary Button. In Station 11 of her series “Stations of the Cross: The Struggle for LGBT Equality,” Jesus is nailed to the cross while queer people are hooked to electrodes for electroshock therapy meant to “cure” homosexuality. In Blanchard’s version a 21st-century gay man stands for all those who have been victimized. The crucifixion of Jesus comes to symbolize all human violence.

“They have pierced my hands and feet--I can count all my bones --they stare and gloat over me.” -- -- Psalm 22:16-17

The soldiers nailed Jesus to the cross. It was high noon on Friday. The pounding of the hammer left no room for neutrality. People were forced to choose sides, us versus them. If you didn’t want to be a victim, you had to join the perpetrators. The psychic terror extended to those who watched. By abusing one person, the authorities intimidated everyone like him, everyone who was different in any way… religion, race, gender, sexual orientation, whatever. And what about the men who nailed him to the cross? Their actions were monstrous, but Jesus still saw their humanity. He prayed for the men who crucified him: God, forgive them because they don’t know what they’re doing.

God, help me find meaning in the brutal death of Jesus.

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” was published in 2014 by Apocryphile Press.

Holy Week offering: Give now to support LGBT spirituality and art at the Jesus in Love Blog

Reproductions of the Passion paintings are available as greeting cards and prints in a variety of sizes and formats online at Fine Art America.

This post is part of the Queer Christ series series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. The series gathers together visions of the queer Christ as presented by artists, writers, theologians and others.

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.

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