Sunday, April 20, 2014

Happy Easter from Jesus In Love and Kittredge Cherry!

“Celtic Cross with Rainbow” by Andrew Craig Williams

Happy Easter! Christ is risen!  Rejoice!

A rainbow, symbol of the LGBTQ community, shines behind a Celtic cross of interlaced knots in this year’s Easter image.

May you be wrapped in God's infinite love as the never-ending paths of spirit and flesh weave together in your life!

The braided “never-ending path” of decorative Celtic design can represent the crossing of spiritual and physical paths in life. The ring that surrounds the intersection of the Celtic cross is said to symbolize God’s infinite love, Christ’s halo or the sun.

This glorious Easter image was created for Jesus in Love by Andrew Craig Williams, a queer artist, writer and music maker based in Wales. His Easter artwork has become a tradition at Jesus in Love, with previous images in 2012 and 2013. The title of his this year’s picture in Welsh is “Croes Geltaidd gyda Enfys.”

For the true meaning of Easter, check out The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision with art by Douglas Blanchard and expanded commentary by Kittredge Cherry.

You are invited to give to my Easter offering to support my work at Jesus in Love for LGBT spirituality and the arts. Give now by clicking by visiting my donate page.

Thank you to everyone for the many ways you show support.  Christ is risen indeed!  Happy Easter!
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Day 8: Jesus rises, appears to Mary and friends, and more (Gay Passion of Christ series)

18. Jesus Rises (from The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision) by Douglas Blanchard

“I am the resurrection and the life.” -- John 11:25 (RSV)

A handsome young Christ in blue jeans leads a joyous jailbreak in “Jesus Rises” from “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision,” a series of 24 paintings by Douglas Blanchard. He holds hands with a prisoner as he steps upward, leading the captives to freedom. Jesus still bears the wounds of his crucifixion, but he glows with life and health. For the first time in this series, Jesus also has a halo. Beams of light shoot from his head in four directions, forming a diagonal cross behind him. Jesus does not bask in his own glory, but is determined to use his new-found power to free others. Christ is even more powerful as a liberator because he is also one of the prisoners. His inner light illuminates the shadowy crowd behind him.

Blanchard dares to paint a communal resurrection. One prisoner raises a fist in victory, a broken chain dangling from his shackled wrist. Another waves his hat in celebration. The scene can be read as “gay” because Jesus appears to hold hands with another man. The arch motif recurs in the brick wall behind them, but this time Jesus rises above it. Even the picture frame cannot hold back the risen Christ. He heads directly for the viewer, making eye contact, ready to burst through the flat surface of the image and into our lives. The frame cracks open at the top as light breaks through in this naturalistic yet supernatural scene. The words painted on the inseparable faux frame inform the viewer that this is the moment of cosmic significance when “Jesus Rises.” He overcomes death itself in an updated vision of the first Easter.

The resurrection is one of the most difficult parts of the Passion story for modern people, who mistrust miracles and are suspicious of happy endings. Artists and theologians struggle to reconcile a realistic understanding of the human condition with hope for a tortured world. Skeptics question whether the resurrection really happened, but it is central to the faith of most Christians. Easter is when Jesus becomes more than a great teacher, when minds are challenged to stretch and take a leap of faith. By rising from the dead Jesus completes the mystery of saving a broken world and embodies a new truth: Love transcends history; love is stronger than death. Death ceases to be a prison and becomes a passage to new life.

Jesus was a unique historical person, but he also epitomizes the sacred archetype of the god-man hero who returns from the dead with new powers to help others. There are many ancient myths of gods who die and return, sometimes in harmony with the seasons. Cycles of death and rebirth repeat in nature and in the hearts of people who must let parts of themselves “die” in order to grow. Christ lives again the actions of countless martyrs, prophets, and humanitarians throughout history up to the present. Jesus triumphs not by denying death, but by moving through it. Ultimately he unites birth and death in himself.

Illustrating the resurrection has always been a challenge for artists. The Bible doesn’t describe the actual moment when Jesus rose from the dead, but instead conveys the good news with reports of the empty tomb and appearances of the risen Christ. For more than a thousand years artists followed suit and avoided depicting the resurrection itself. Even the traditional Stations of the Cross stops short of the resurrection. The subject became more common in art starting in the twelfth century. At first Christ was usually shown stepping out of a Roman-style sarcophagus. Then artists began to picture Jesus hovering in the air. The 16th-century Isenheim Alterpiece by Matthias Grünewald matches its horrific crucifixion with an equally extreme resurrection in which a radiantly robust Jesus floats above his tomb, serenely awake. But church authorities clamped down on the trend, insisting that Jesus’ feet remain firmly on the ground. Renaissance artist Leonardo Da Vinci pioneered a more natural approach with Jesus emerging from a rock-hewn cave.

In art history it is almost unprecedented to see others rising along with Jesus. Usually Jesus rises alone, perhaps accompanied by angels and bowling over or even trampling upon the Roman guards outside the door to his tomb. Blanchard’s group scene has a lot in common with another artistic tradition. Artists show Jesus rescuing the souls of the dead in a scene known as the Anastasis or Harrowing of Hell, but that is usually a separate event before the resurrection. The subject arose in Byzantine culture and then spread to the West around the eighth century. It continues to be more prominent in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Blanchard cites English Romantic artist William Blake as a visual source for some of his resurrection and post-resurrection imagery.

The original painting “Jesus Rises” hangs in my own home, a gift from the artist. Blanchard wanted me to have this particular painting because it brought us together. In 2005 was hunting for queer Christian images for my website, which was still in the design stage. It was hard to find any kind of LGBT-oriented Christ figures, but the rarest of all was the queer resurrection. I was delighted when an Internet search finally led me to Blanchard’s “Jesus Rises.” After emails, letters, and phone calls, he eventually agreed to let me use it on my website. Later I shared more of his Passion series in my book “Art That Dares” and a 2007 exhibit that I helped organize at JHS Gallery in Taos. “Jesus Rises” hangs in my living room, where it serves as a constant reminder to maintain hope no matter what happens.

Blanchard’s resurrection does not occur in a vacuum or even in a lonely cave. His Jesus is no isolated individual experiencing a one-of-a-kind miracle, but first in the diverse group that will become the body of Christ in the world. He leads an uprising, as much insurrection as resurrection. These particular “prisoners” are the dead, but the prison can stand for any kind of limitation, including the closets of shame where LGBT people hide. The struggle to reconcile the resurrection with harsh reality can be especially tough for LGBT people who have endured hate crimes, discrimination, and the ravages of the AIDS epidemic. The risen Christ leads the way to a state of being where hate does not always lead to more hate, and anger becomes a motivation for life, not destruction.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. -- -- Romans 6:5 (RSV)

Christ lives! Nobody knows exactly how it happened, but Jesus rose to new life on the third day after his crucifixion. The mystery of resurrection replaced the law of cause and effect with a new reality: the law of love. Jesus lives in our hearts now. Just as he promised, he freed people from all forms of bondage. Captives are released from every prison. LGBT people are free to leave every closet of shame. Christ glows with the colors of all beings. People of all kinds -- queer and straight, old and young, male and female and everything in between, of every race and age and ability -- together we are the body of Christ.

Jesus, welcome back! 

19. Jesus Appears to Mary (from The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision) by Douglas Blanchard

“Now when he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene.” -- Mark 16:9 (RSV)

Two friends meet at sunrise in “Jesus Appears to Mary.” They circle each other as Mary Magdalene gestures with happy surprise at finding Jesus alive in the graveyard. It almost looks like Jesus is dancing with his own shadow. A patch of sunlight catches the risen Christ, now restored to health and handsome in his blue jeans. Mary, a black woman, remains in darkness with her back to the viewer. The morning star shines in a gorgeous blue sky while the first rays of dawn awaken the spring-green grass. The frame itself is green -- even the faux wood has sprung to life!

On the distant horizon are excavating machines. A body of water separates Jesus and Mary from the faraway city skyline. They are surrounded by numbered gravestones. The one behind Jesus is marked “124” -- the same number on the mysterious tag around Jesus’ neck in the first painting of this series. The artist has stated that he chose “124” because it has no special meaning in Christianity. His Jesus died with a random number, a human castoff stripped of his name. The gravestones and setting look like Hart Island, a public cemetery for the unknown and indigent in New York City. Operated by prison labor, Hart Island is the world’s largest tax-funded cemetery with daily mass burials and almost a million people buried there.

First Mary was blinded by grief, and then she saw a deeper truth: The living Christ is here now. In such moments, supreme awareness breaks through ordinary perception, awakening awe for the ultimate mystery that transcends all names. The scene can symbolize any “aha moment” when sudden clarity leads to life-changing insight.

The dynamic tension between the figures suggests that this is the moment known as “Noli me tangere,” the Latin phrase usually translated as “Don’t touch me.” Jesus spoke these words to Mary Magdalene in John 20:17 when they meet after his resurrection. In John’s gospel, Mary went to visit Jesus’ tomb before sunrise on Easter. She was distraught that his corpse was missing -- until the risen Christ called her name. Overcome with emotion, she started to hug him, but he stopped her with a request that has multiple translations. The original Greek is best translated as “Stop clinging to me.” But the Latin translation is embedded in cultural tradition: “Don’t touch me (noli me tangere) for I have not yet ascended.” The scene has been an iconographic standard for artists throughout the Christian world since late antiquity. Modern artists are still keen to portray the suffering and death of Jesus, but most won’t touch the subject of his resurrection appearances. Indirect references continue. For example Picasso’s mysterious 1903 allegorical painting “La Vie,” the masterpiece of his Blue Period, includes references to “Noli Me Tangere” by Renaissance painter Antonio da Correggio.

Jesus appearing to Mary is good news for all the disenfranchised, including today’s LGBT people. Like Jesus here, LGBT people cannot take touch for granted and become untouchable. The reason that Jesus rejects Mary’s touch is because he has “not yet ascended,” but in a gay vision it also suggests an aversion for heterosexual contact. Jesus made his first post-resurrection appearance to a woman in an era when women weren’t even allowed to testify at legal proceedings. And yet the risen Christ chose a woman as his first witness. Mary Magdalene has an undeserved reputation for sexual sins. The church mistakenly labeled her as a prostitute for centuries, but the Bible does not support this view. Progressive theologians are reclaiming her as a role model for church leaders. The Bible portrays Mary Magdalene as the most important woman follower of Jesus. She supported his ministry with her resources, traveled with him on his teaching tours, witnessed his crucifixion, and hurried to his tomb before sunrise. In Luke’s gospel angels ask a question to Mary Magdalene and the other women at the empty tomb: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” LGBT Christians and allies sometimes ask themselves the same question as they seek the living Christ in the rusty, deadening rituals and relics of the institutional church.

“Why do you seek the living among the dead?” -- Luke 24:5 (RSV)

Mary Magdalene went to the tomb of her friend Jesus early on Sunday morning. It was empty! She started crying and someone came up to her. Mary thought he was the gardener until he spoke her name. Her heart leaped as she recognized Jesus. Human beings often miss the presence of God right before our eyes. Like Mary, we get lost in our emotions. It feels like God is far away or even dead. Then something happens and suddenly we see: God was with us all along. Jesus chose an unlikely person as the first witness to his resurrection. Women were second-class citizen in the time of Jesus, not unlike LGBT people in some countries today. But Jesus, who loved outcasts, gladly revealed himself to the woman who came looking for him. Christ is ready to speak to each of us by name, even if we are looking in all the wrong places.

Jesus, where are you now? Will you speak to me?

The final five paintings in the gay Passion series are presented below with short meditations only.

20. Jesus Appears at Emmaus (from The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision) by Douglas Blanchard

“When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him.” -- Luke 24:30-31 (RSV)

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” -- Matthew 18:20 (RSV)

Two travelers met a stranger on the way to a village called Emmaus. While on the road they told the stranger about Jesus: the hopes he stirred in them, his horrific execution, and Mary’s unbelievable story that he was still alive. Their hearts burned as the stranger reframed it for them, putting it in a larger context. They convinced him to stay and join them for dinner in Emmaus. As the meal began, he blessed the bread and gave it to them. It was one of those moments when the presence of God breaks through ordinary life. Suddenly they saw: The stranger was Jesus! He had been with them all along. Sometimes even devout Christians are unable to see God’s image in people who are strangers to them, such as LGBT people or others who have less social status. People can also be blind to their own sacred worth. But at any moment, the grace of an unexpected encounter can open our eyes.

Come and travel with me, Jesus. Or are you already here?

21. Jesus Appears to His Friends (from The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision) by Douglas Blanchard

“See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see.” -- Luke 24:39 (RSV)

“The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” -- John 20:26 (RSV)

Jesus’ friends were hiding together, afraid of the authorities who killed their beloved teacher. The doors were shut, but somehow Jesus got inside and stood among them. They couldn’t believe it! He urged them to touch him, and even invited them to inspect the wounds from his crucifixion. As they felt his warm skin, their doubts and fears turned into joy. Jesus liked touch. He often touched people in order to heal them, and he let people touch him. He defied taboos and allowed himself to be touched by women and people with diseases. He understood human sexuality, befriending prostitutes and other sexual outcasts. LGBT sometimes hide themselves in closets of shame, but Jesus wasn’t like that. He was pleased with own human body, even after it was wounded.

Jesus, can I really touch you?

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)

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

Words and pictures cannot express all the bliss that Jesus felt when he returned to God. Some compare the joy of a soul’s union with the divine to sexual ecstasy in 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!”

23. The Holy Spirit Arrives (from The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision) by Douglas Blanchard

“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)

“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 promised his friends that the Holy Spirit would come to empower them. They were together in the city on Pentecost when suddenly they heard a strong windstorm blowing in the sky. Tongues of fire appeared and separated to land on each one of them. Jesus’ friends were flaming, on fire with the Holy Spirit! Soon the Spirit led them to speak in other languages. All the excitement drew a big crowd. Good people from every race and nation came from all over the city. They brought their beautiful selves like the colors of the rainbow. Each one was able to hear about God in his or her own language. The story of Jesus has been translated into many languages. Now the Gospel is also available with an LGBT accent. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, we too can hear God’s story. We are the flaming friends of Jesus!

Come, Holy Spirit, and kindle a flame of love in my heart.

24. The Trinity (from The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision) by Douglas Blanchard

“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”-- Luke 23:43 (RSV)

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the realm of heaven.” -- -- Matthew 5:10 (Inclusive Language Lectionary)

God promises to lead people out of injustice and into a good land flowing with milk and honey. We can travel the same journey that Christ traveled. His spirit and legacy live on in everyone who remembers his Passion. Opening to the joy and pain of the world, we can experience all of creation as our body -- the body of Christ. As queer as it sounds, we can create our own land of milk and honey. The Holy Spirit inspires each person to see heaven in his or her own way. Look, the Holy Spirit celebrates two men who love each other! She looks like an angel as She protects the same-sex couple. Are the men Jesus and God? No names can fully express the omnigendered Trinity of Love, Lover, and Beloved… or Mind, Body, and Spirit. God is madly in love with everybody. As Jesus often said, heaven is here among us and within us. Now that we have seen a gay vision of Christ’s Passion, we are free to move forward with love.

Jesus, thank you for giving me a new vision!


Click the titles below to view previous installments in the series:

1. Son of Man (Human One) with Job and Isaiah
2. Jesus Enters the City
3. Jesus Drives Out the Money Changers
4. Jesus Preaches in the Temple
5. The Last Supper
6. Jesus Prays Alone
7. Jesus Is Arrested
8. Jesus Before the Priests
9. Jesus Before the Magistrate
10. Jesus Before the People
11. Jesus Before the Soldiers
12. Jesus Is Beaten
13. Jesus Goes to His Execution
14. Jesus Is Nailed to the Cross
15. Jesus Dies
16. Jesus Is Buried
17. Jesus Among the Dead

This concludes the 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.

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.

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.

This post is part of the Queer Christ 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. More queer Christ images are compiled in my book Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More.
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Give now: Easter offering for Jesus In Love

Kittredge Cherry holding “Jesus Rises” by Douglas Blanchard (photo by Audrey)

I am collecting an Easter offering to support my work at Jesus in Love for LGBT spirituality and the arts.

Give now by clicking the “GoFundMe” button below or visiting my donate page.

Your gifts help provide resources such as the gay Passion of Christ series and the LGBT Stations of the Cross. Many thanks to the two people who already contributed.  I am grateful to EVERYONE who has given their time, talent and support. Happy Easter!

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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Day 7: Jesus is Buried; Jesus Among the Dead (Gay Passion of Christ series)

16. Jesus is Buried (from The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision) by Douglas Blanchard

“They took the body of Jesus, and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom.” -- John 19:40 (RSV)

A mother mourns her dead son in “Jesus is Buried” from “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision,” a series of 24 paintings by Douglas Blanchard. Mary leans over the body of Jesus, ready to kiss his ashen face goodbye. Crucifixion wounds are still visible on his wrists, feet, and side. An identification tag from a morgue is tied around his wrist. His corpse is bloodless and wrapped in a plain white shroud. The gravedigger shovels dirt from the grave where Jesus will be buried. A simple wooden coffin waits. The night is dark with city lights in the distance.

The simple dignity of the scene conveys the deepest sorrow and the finality of death. The burial of Jesus is described in all four gospels and discussed in the earliest summaries of the Christian message in the epistles. His burial has been important to Christians since Biblical times because it confirms that Jesus really died, thus laying the groundwork for the miracle of his resurrection. The Bible reports that Jesus was laid in a rock-hewn tomb with the help of his disciple Joseph of Arimathea, while Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” watched.

The subject is common in art history, where it is known as the Lamentation. A notable version was painted by Italian Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna, who showed Jesus’ foreshortened cadaver on a slab, wounded feet first. Like most scenes from the Passion, the Lamentation was not depicted at all until the 11th century, and then proliferated in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. The last two scenes in the traditional Stations of the Cross show Jesus being taken down from the cross and buried in his tomb. Nothing touched viewers more deeply than a mother’s grief, so artists gave an increasingly central role to Mary. They focused on the heart-rending moment when the bereaved mother cradles her son’s dead body in a specific type of Lamentation known as a Pieta (Italian for “pity”). The most famous Pieta is the sculpture by Michelangelo at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. It has become one of the Passion’s most iconic scenes, often copied or parodied to make a point.

Modern artists have used his Pieta composition to express other forms of grief. Some relocate it or switch the characters to make a political statement. Others, such as German Surrealist Max Ernst, use it to depict the unconscious mind. He replaced Jesus and Mary with a self-portrait of the artist held by his stern, staunchly Catholic father in “Pieta or Revolution by Night.”

Some versions address the impact of AIDS and homophobia on LGBT people. The magnitude of the AIDS death toll was made worse by Christians who saw the disease as God’s punishment for homosexuality. In her famous Ecce Homo series, Swedish artist Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin photographed an emaciated gay AIDS patient cradled by a leather bar employee in the AIDS ward of a Stockholm hospital. American painter Matthew Wettlaufer’s “Pieta” shows a gay man at the bedside of his dying lover while bombs drop and a blanket lists the names of war-torn countries and gay-bashing victims. “Stations of the Cross: The Struggle for LGBT Equality” by Mary Button weaves together past and present to make deadly comparisons: Jesus is taken down from his cross beside a map of states banning same-sex marriage, and LGBT youths driven to suicide watch as he is laid in his tomb.

Blanchard’s understated Lamentation is closely related to the next two paintings in his gay vision of the Passion. All three images use dark tones to convey Jesus’ experiences with death and the underworld. Life, not death, was Jesus’ focus, and he gave mixed messages about mourning the dead. He promised comfort for those who mourn. He was so concerned about the welfare of his mother and his beloved disciple after his death that from the cross he declared them to be family for each other. But he did not have an overly sentimental attachment to family or funeral customs. He even ordered a disciple to skip his father’ funeral, saying, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead.”

“You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” -- Genesis 3:19 (RSV)

After Jesus died, the authorities allowed one of his friends to take his body for burial. Almost all of his many supporters were gone. Jesus’ body was laid to rest in a fresh tomb at sundown, just before the sabbath began. When they buried him, they also buried a beautiful part of themselves. Sometimes the humiliations continue even after death… when homophobes picket the funerals of the LGBT people and other outcasts, when mortuaries refuse to handle the bodies of AIDS patients, when families exclude same-sex partners from memorial services, on and on. Jesus understood grief and didn’t try to suppress it. He said, blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Jesus, I wait in silence at your grave.

17. Jesus Among the Dead (from The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision) by Douglas Blanchard
Collection of Robert Wilder Nightingale

“Even the darkness is not dark to you.” -- Psalm 139:12 (Inclusive Language Lectionary)

Endless rows of corpses fill a vast black space in “Jesus Among the Dead.” Even in death, Jesus is not separate from humanity. He lays with the stink, the dead bodies, and the skeletons -- a common man in a common grave. Jesus can be identified by his crucifixion wounds. His corpse only stands out because it has not begun to decompose. He glows just slightly with a sick luminescence. Jesus just lies there, not judging, not fixing, not rescuing. He is simply present with people in the darkest state of being. This must be hell, or some human holocaust. Perhaps there is no difference.

At first glance Blanchard’s painting looks almost entirely black. The painting challenges viewers to keep looking until their eyes adjust to the lack of light. Then shapes and meanings emerge from the shadows to offer uncomfortable wisdom from the depths. Mystical traditions say there power to be gained by descent into the dark netherworld of dreams, intuition, death, and the unknown. In the mass grave Jesus is fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy that God’s suffering servant would be buried with “transgressors” and “the wicked.” The black void conveys utter despair over the meaninglessness of life.

The Bible doesn’t tell what Jesus experienced in the interlude between crucifixion and resurrection, but artists and theologians of the past were quick to fill the void. The Apostle’s Creed clearly states, “He descended into hell,” or in another translation, “He descended to the dead.” Artists traditionally show Jesus leading an uprising in hell. The subject is traditionally known as the Harrowing of Hell, when Christ descends to hell or limbo to rescue the souls held captive there since the beginning of time. Some churches mark the event on Holy Saturday by stripping their altars bare or covering them with black cloth.

Blanchard takes the dead Jesus to a whole new level. His Jesus is not triumphantly waking the deceased, at least not yet. He stays dead in the afterlife, sharing the reality of human powerlessness. A few artists, notably German Renaissance painter Hans Holbein, depicted the corpse of Jesus with gruesome realism. But Blanchard’s monolithically black visual vocabulary in “Jesus Among the Dead” has more in common with modern art, photography, and philosophy. He based the composition on documentary photographs of the Holocaust, especially photos of bodies laid out in long rows after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp at Nordhausen in 1945. New Mexico gallery owner Robert Wilder Nightingale singled out “Jesus Among the Dead” to purchase for his private collection when it was exhibited in Taos in 2007. “To me the work is haunting. A nightmare I wish never to see happen in reality,” he explained.

This is one of the most difficult paintings in Blanchard’s Passion series because it’s hard to see anything at all in the gloom. It resembles the all-black abstract paintings done by American artist Ad Reinhardt in the 1960s. Reinhardt claimed that these were the “last paintings that anyone can paint” -- a fitting concept for Jesus among the dead. Reinhardt painted them in the era when the “God is dead” theological movement announced that there was no longer any cultural relevance for the idea of transcendent God acting in human history. Another precedent for Blanchard’s black image is the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington DC. Inscribed with a seemingly endless list of war casualties, the memorial stretches like a long, black gash in the earth.

The most significant memorial for many in the LGBT community is the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. More than 48,000 handmade panels commemorate those who died of AIDS, including thousands of gay men. Before effective treatments were developed in the 1990s, AIDS was stigmatized as the “gay plague” and the LGBT community felt like a war zone as thousands died. Fundamentalists preached that AIDS was God’s punishment for homosexuality and President Reagan kept silent. Lovers, friends, and family learned to show they cared by staying present with the dying. Meanwhile they advocated change through groups such as ACT UP, whose motto was “Silence = Death.”

The AIDS pandemic is part of a larger queer holocaust. Many LGBT people experience a kind of living death, trapped in the private hell of the closet. Some have wished themselves dead and even taken their own lives. Those who wore the pink triangle were exterminated in Nazi death camps. The tragic history of church-approved persecution for homosexuality stretches back to the 13th century, when the first “sodomites” were burned at the stake. In Blanchard’s vision, Jesus rests with them in the ashes.

There are many hells and many types of limbo in which people are trapped neither fully alive nor dead. For example, the US Supreme Court overturned state sodomy laws in 2003, but same-sex marriage is still illegal in almost every state, leaving most LGBT people to exist in a non-quite-legal limbo.

“He poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors.” -- Isaiah 53:12 (RSV)

Like all human beings, Jesus eventually had to experience death. In effect, it was like he was buried in a mass grave with all humankind -- saints and sinners, queer and straight, male and female, all of us without exception, even the worst of us. His body rested in peace with the other corpses. Jesus lay buried like a seed waiting in the wintry earth. He didn’t believe death was the end. During his lifetime, he often talked about the afterlife. He said he would always be with us, connected like a vine to a branch. But when his body lay cold in the tomb, his friends and family simply missed him.

O God, can these bones live?

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.

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.

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.

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Friday, April 18, 2014

Day 6: Jesus dies (Gay Passion of Christ series)

15. Jesus Dies (from The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision) by Douglas Blanchard

“While the sun’s light failed… he breathed his last.” -- Luke 23:44-46

“Jesus Dies” places Christ’s crucifixion against a 21st-century city skyline in “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision,” a series of 24 paintings by Douglas Blanchard. Jesus hangs on modern scaffolding that forms a cross behind him. He dies an outcast’s death in pain and humiliation. Jesus stayed true to his vision, even when it brought him into conflict with authorities, even to the point of death. Head bowed, Jesus looks like a corpse. Storm clouds blot out the sun in the sky above. The body of Christ dwarfs the crowd in the background. Some jeer at the dead martyr while others pray. Many, including a few priests, watch grimly. Once again Jesus has brought together an unlikely group. These spectators look like ordinary people today, becoming a visual counterpart to the African American spiritual that asks, “Were you there?”

The crucifixion could be taking place on top of a building, or on some kind of terrace. The silhouette of a skyscraper like the Empire State Building stands tall in the distance. Its presence hints at a subtext of Blanchard’s Passion: the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened near Blanchard’s art studio while he was working on the series. The World Trade Center is missing from the skyline in this painting. It has gone up in smoke like the dark clouds gathering above Jesus.

Here the cross regains its uncomfortable power to disrupt lives. The crucifixion of Jesus is so important and widespread in Western culture that it is in danger of losing its impact from deadening over-repetition. Blanchard brings it back to life by updating the image, defying attempts to downplay the significance of the cross or turn it into an oversimplified test of faith. Even non-believers are moved by the story of the martyr who poured out his life for others. For Christians it proves that the Immortal loved people to the point of becoming mortal. Some see the crucifixion as an atonement required by God to redeem the world from human sins. Others view it as God suffering with humanity, longing to stop the cycle of violence. The mystery of the cross is remembered by the faithful through the bread and cup of the Eucharist, the central sacrament of church life.

All four gospels describe the events of the crucifixion in detail. Darkness fell over the land for three hours as the crowds mocked Jesus. One might hope that a gay vision of the Passion would show Jesus speaking from the cross to the man he loved, but the viewer is denied such comfort here. The unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved” is referenced five times in the gospel of John (John 13:23, 19:26, 20:22, 21:7, 20). He reclined next to Jesus at the Last Supper, resting his head on Jesus’ chest. He was the only male disciple present at the crucifixion. Speaking from the cross, Jesus entrusted his mother and his Beloved Disciple into each other’s care. Christ created an unconventional family by telling them, “Woman, here is your son” and “Here is your mother.” The scene was even included in the new Scriptural Stations of the Cross instituted by the Pope in 1991. The Scriptural Stations also flesh out the crucifixion by adding the conversation between Jesus and the two thieves crucified beside him. But in Blanchard’s vision, there are neither thieves nor family to talk with Jesus. He hangs alone.

The very name of Blanchard’s crucifixion -- “Jesus Dies” -- expresses the modern spirit of the image. The dying Jesus was not depicted at all in Christianity’s millennium. The cross is one of the world’s most common symbols now, but crucifixion images are not the only or even the original way to worship Jesus. Christians drew strength from the crucifixion story in the era of early Christian martyrs, but back then artists had to disguise crosses as anchors or tridents to avoid Roman persecution. After Christianity gained legal status in 313, a few images began to appear with the Christ on the cross, but he was vibrantly alive, head held high in victory over death. The Passion was always depicted with the resurrection as one unified triumph. But mostly the cross was absent until the 10th century. The way Jesus died was not very important to his followers. For a thousand years Christian art usually celebrated Jesus as the Good Shepherd or the ruler of God’s bountiful creation. The risen Christ brought life and abundance. The church was also relatively tolerant of homosexuality in this period.

A shift began when the church joined forces with political and military powers near the end of Christianity’s first millennium. (An especially enlightening and helpful book on the evolution of Christian imagery is “Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire” by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker.) The Pope crowned Charlemagne in 800 as Holy Roman Emperor. He began forcing Christianity upon the native cultures of Europe. In present-day Germany Charlemagne’s armies killed or deported thousands of Saxons and chopped down the sacred tree of their religion. Descendants of the surviving Saxons carved the Gero Cross from wood around 970. It is the oldest surviving depiction of a dead Jesus on the cross. As the centuries passed, Jesus’ death on the cross was portrayed with increasing intensity and realism. Crucifixion scenes spread across Europe, along with a new theology of atonement. Christians were urged to imagine themselves at the foot of the cross and contemplate Christ’s agony as he was killed to atone for their particular sins. People who felt guilty for killing Jesus were less likely to resist domination. The Gero Cross expressed the anguish of a conquered people, but it also served to normalize violence. Christian leaders began using religion to justify bloodshed with the first Crusade in 1095. Eventually the death scene was enshrined as the 12th Station on the Way of the Cross.

As crucifixion art proliferated, hostility began to be directed specifically at same-sex erotic behavior. In 1120 the Council of Nablus established punishments for sodomy, setting a new precedent in medieval church law. Then came campaigns against heresy, which often used the terms “heresy” and “sodomy” interchangeably. The church directly or indirectly caused the execution of thousands for homosexuality over the next 700 years. Witch burning occurred in the same period and claimed the lives of countless lesbian women whose non-conformity was condemned as witchcraft. Blanchard says that their modern counterparts -- LGBT people murdered in gay bashings, driven to suicide, or killed by AIDS -- were on his mind as he painted “Jesus Dies.”

The crucifixion of Christ became so crucial that it was portrayed by virtually every artist in the Renaissance and Baroque eras, including Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and Rembrandt. One of the most influential versions may also be the most horrific: the Isenheim Altarpiece. German artist Matthias Grünewald created it around 1505. He portrays a ghastly, emaciated Jesus writhing in pain, his body covered with oozing sores. Like it or not, such graphic crucifixions still fascinate 21st-centuries sensibilities, as shown by the popularity of director Mel Gibson’s brutally violent 2004 film “The Passion of the Christ.”

Christian art has been largely eclipsed by secular imagery in the modern era, with important exceptions. Some famous 20th-century artists still used the crucifixion motif to symbolize cruelty and sacrifice, convey emotion, and critique society. Russian avant-garde painter Marc Chagall emphasized Jesus’ Jewish identity to call attention to Nazi persecution in his expressionist “White Crucifixion.” Picasso painted a cubist crucifixion and surrealist Salvador Dali hung Jesus on a multi-dimensional cross in “Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus).” Others made political statements by changing the setting or substituting the standard Jesus with a variety of different figures. For example, German artist George Grosz was tried for blasphemy in the 1920s over his anti-military drawing of the crucified Christ in a gas mask, captioned, “Shut up and obey!” British artist Edwina Sandys caused an international uproar by sculpting a female “Christa” in 1975. Blanchard’s gay Passion series has also been attacked by conservatives as “perverted” and “blasphemous.”

The horrors of the cross resonate with LGBT experience. The crucifixion naturally became the most common subject in contemporary queer Christian art because queer people have been scapegoated, abused, and killed, often in the name of God. Some contemporary artists have made the crucified Christ explicitly gay, confirming that God identifies totally with queer suffering. They have photographed the crucifixion with contemporary LGBT models. They have changed the location to gay cruising areas or AIDS wards, showing how the marginalization of gay men led them to literally die for their sexuality. Atlanta painter Becki Jayne Harrelson and New Mexico iconographer William Hart McNichols placed a “faggot” sign on the cross over his head. Brazilian cartoonist Carlos Latuff wrapped him in a rainbow loincloth. Photographers Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin of Sweden and Fernando Bayona Gonzalez of Spain, working separately, each did a Life of Christ series where the crucifixion scene shows Jesus lying spread-eagle on the ground after a gay bashing. Mary Button of Tennessee pairs the crucifixion of Christ with the murder of a transgender woman. Blanchard takes a more subtle approach. There are no overt gay references in his crucifixion. The viewer needs to look at the subtitle and other paintings in the series to know that this is a “gay vision.”

Blanchard shows the crucifixion for what it was -- one man’s violent death. Like prophets and freedom fighters of every age, Jesus was killed for challenging the status quo. The man who loves too much must die. By witnessing the crucifixion with compassion, viewers can stand symbolically beside all who suffer. They can face their own suffering without losing hope by seeing it in a larger context. The body of Christ represents the Oneness that goes by many names. The god-man dies and God’s identification with humanity, and in this case gay humanity, is complete.

“He said, ‘It is finished’; and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” -- John 19:30 (RSV)

Jesus knows the worst human suffering from his own personal experience. As Jesus hung dying on the cross, a few of his supporters watched. Among them were his mother and the man he loved. One of Jesus’ last wishes was to make them into a new kind of family. He called to his mother, Woman, behold your son! And to his beloved, he said, Behold your mother! After about three hours on the cross, Jesus shouted, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? All the misery of a broken world seemed to come together at the crossroads of that awful moment. Nothing left, he emptied himself completely. The death of Jesus was unique, and yet it was also terribly common. His execution was one link in a long chain of human violence. Whenever anyone commits violence against another, Christ is crucified.

My God, don’t you care?! Why have you forsaken us?

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.

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.

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.

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