“Soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him.” -- Luke 23:11 (RSV)
Marine look-alikes torment a naked prisoner in “Jesus Before the Soldiers” from “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision,” a series of 24 paintings by Douglas Blanchard. Jesus kneels, naked and vulnerable, as a knife-wielding soldier grabs him by the hair. War dogs bark at him like hounds of hell, baring their teeth. A leering soldier flips the finger at him while another brandishes an assault rifle. Behind them a skull stares out from a gaping black hole. A dark halo seems to arch over him. The soft, round curves of Jesus’ exposed buttocks make the blade of the knife look even sharper. Dust clings to the soles of Jesus’ bare feet.
The soldiers smirk, compelling viewers to laugh with them as they hurt and humiliate their victim. The viewer is pushed to become an accomplice, unable to change the course of events. Even the frame bears the scars of war: a bullet hole and a gash. The only choice is to turn the page, closing one’s eyes on human suffering, or to watch and perhaps pray. The reason to relive the horror of what happened to Jesus is to bear witness to the ongoing suffering that the Passion represents. Perhaps it can motivate compassionate action in the present.
This picture begins a section of four violent images leading to the crucifixion. When considering Blanchard’s paintings of violence and nudity, it is essential to keep them in the holy context of Christ’s life. Such explosive subjects must be handled with care. Otherwise they may serve to glorify violence or fuel sadomasochistic fantasies, adding to the exploitation pictured. This painting and the next one (“Jesus is Beaten”) may well be the most terrifying images in Blanchard’s Passion. They are the only paintings in the series to combine violence and nudity. It hurts to look at them. After these, death comes as a relief. Maybe that’s the point. In these two images the frames are especially important because they keep the naked torture in context. All 24 images in the series have inseparable frames specifying their title and their number in the series. Blanchard painted the frames directly on the same wooden panel with each image, ensuring that the suffering will be seen as part of a larger story. His Passion paintings report the truth about violence. At the same time he condenses the barrage of contemporary violence into a few images suitable for deeper reflection.
“Jesus Before the Soldiers” is a modern version of the mocking of Jesus by soldiers in gospel accounts. They dressed him up as a king with a crown of thorns and ridiculed him. As still happens today, verbal abuse was a warm-up for serious physical assault. Graphic violence was not depicted in Christianity’s first thousand years, but since the 10th century grisly depictions of the Passion have been used to condone war and other forms of violence. Evidence suggests that early Christian artists cared more about how Christ’s spirit lived in them than about how he died. Early Christianity was also relatively tolerant of homosexuality for a millennium. Then the 10th and 11th centuries brought the first Crusades, the first gruesome artistic depictions of Jesus suffering on the cross, and the first church council saying that homosexuals should be burned at the stake. Atonement theologies arose saying that God wanted Jesus to suffer on the cross to pay the price or “atone” for human sin. Church leaders started encouraging believers to meditate on how Jesus was punished for their own individual sins. Blanchard questions, dismantles, and frees people from that deadly mindset with his gay vision of God suffering with humanity in the Passion.
In art history the mocking of Christ is traditionally shown with Jesus blindfolded and facing the viewer. A popular version was painted by Fra Angelico, an early Italian Renaissance artist and friar. His idealized Christ remains at peace even as he is slapped and spit upon. Blanchard’s interpretation has more in common with the modern, humanistic view in “Jesus Mocked by the Soldiers” by avant-garde French painter Edouard Manet. When it was first exhibited in 1860, critics reviled Manet for vulgarity because he used lower-class models and pictured the near-naked Jesus as an ordinary man.
Blanchard has acknowledged that one of the artists who influenced his Passion is modern American painter Leon Golub. He was a figurative expressionist who painted scenes of military and paramilitary torture in his 1980s series “Mercenaries,” “Interrogations,” and “White Squads.” Blanchard echoes Golub’s compositions and moral tone, mixing political critique with artistic sensibility. Today’s artists almost never paint LGBT versions of Jesus being mocked. Instead they get accused of mocking Jesus whenever they portray him as queer.
With this painting Blanchard employs an unusual composition in which Jesus is seen from behind. The viewer can’t see the face of Jesus. Blanchard’s version of soldiers mocking Christ owes its imagery not only to time-honored masterpieces, but also to shocking photos that dominated the news during his painting process. This panel and the next (“Jesus is Beaten”) were completed in 2004, the same year that the new media first revealed snapshots of American soldiers and military contractors torturing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. The abuse occurred during a war sparked by the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Blanchard is a New Yorker who painted the Passion while in turmoil over the attacks that led to the war. Here he addresses the potent connection between religion, terrorism, and torture.
Apart from the frame, there is no way to identify the prisoner in this painting as Jesus -- except by remembering his words, “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.” Whenever anyone commits violence against another, Christ is crucified again -- including when LGBT people are stripped of their rights, bullied, beaten, driven to suicide, or killed for loving someone of the same sex.
“Then Pilate took Jesus and scourged him.” -- John 19:1 (RSV)
A naked prisoner hangs helpless while a soldier bashes him with a club and chain in “Jesus is Beaten.” His precious blood drips into a drain in the floor. A man in a necktie supervises with grim determination. The torture occurs in a bleak, gray room. It is bare except for a sink and an empty chair. The anonymous victim is turned away from the viewer, so only his wounded backside is visible. He cannot be identified as Jesus except by reading his name in the title on the frame. A ceiling lamp forms a distant halo over the head of the battered Jesus, casting shadows in the starkly lit torture chamber.
“Jesus is Beaten” is perhaps the most disturbing of the 24 paintings in Blanchard’s Passion. Blood is shed here for the first time in the series. The nudity stirs up sexual tension and an unbearable sense of vulnerability. It is similar to the previous image (“Jesus Before the Soldiers”) as a scene of violence inflicted on a naked man. There is no other nudity in the rest of series. Despite the sadomasochistic undertones, Blanchard refused to allow the scene to be taken out of its holy context. He painted the frame and title directly on the wooden panel, redeeming the horror by establishing it as an integral event in the life of Jesus.
The scourging of Jesus is mentioned briefly in gospel accounts and was standard procedure before crucifixion under Roman law. “Jesus is Beaten” is a new interpretation of Jesus being scourged, a scene often called “The Flagellation” in art history. Crucifixion scenes dominate Christianity today, but early Christians emphasized the risen Christ, depicting his life instead of his suffering and death. Images of Jesus being whipped first began to appear in art around the 10th century, along with other increasingly gruesome scenes from the Passion. During this period the church also began to encourage self-flagellation as a way for believers to share in the suffering of Christ.
Artists usually depict the Flagellation by showing Jesus with two men who flog him. After the 12th century Jesus almost always faces the viewer while he is whipped, but Blanchard reverts to an earlier tradition by showing him from behind. A well known version was painted by Italian Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca, who places the scourging in a pristine tiled courtyard with perfect perspective. There is a homoerotic flavor to many of these historic paintings of the Flagellation, including the robust versions by Caravaggio and Rubens. The same-sex eroticism was made explicit in the 1990s by gay artist Delmas Howe. His “Stations: A Gay Passion” includes a flagellation scene at the gay sex piers of New York City in the 1970s.
Like the previous panel, “Jesus is Beaten” is reminiscent of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse photos released while Blanchard was painting these images. It delivers a shocking glimpse of the trauma that is inflicted behind closed doors. The painting makes a visual protest against all forms of human violence, including “ex-gay conversion therapy” that aims to change the sexual orientation of LGBT people. Thousands have been subjected to harmful techniques such as pairing homosexual imagery with electric shocks or nausea-inducing medication. The trauma endured by Blanchard’s contemporary Christ is not an isolated incident, but a theme that recurs in human history and perhaps the human heart. With this image, all victims become one with Christ and receive a chance for compassionate attention from the viewer.
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” will be published in 2014 by Apocryphile Press. Click here to get updates on the gay Passion book.
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Scripture quotation is 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.