“And when the hour came, he sat at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, ‘I have earnestly desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer.’” -- Luke 22:14-15
A contemporary Jesus shares an intimate dinner with friends in “The Last Supper” from “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision,” a series of 24 paintings by Douglas Blanchard. Twelve people are with him, the classic dozen disciples, but these are a multi-racial set of many races, ages and gender identities. They are seated in a way that invites the viewer to join them at the table. Plates hold food for a Passover seder meal, including matzos, a hard-boiled egg, and roast lamb. The room is simple, lit only by a bare light bulb.
Jesus places his hands on the shoulders of the men beside him. The man resting his head on Jesus and embracing him must be the beloved disciple. The love between them is obvious. The homoerotic nature of their relationship has been highlighted by today’s LGBT-affirming Bible scholars, but here their relationship blends naturally into the group. The whole group is joined by touch, and yet they are not completely united. Each individual is gazing in a different direction.
Knowing that this is the Last Supper gives a hint about what is happening. Christians remember this meal every time they celebrate communion or the Eucharist. One glass is still full of red wine, meaning that Jesus hasn’t yet passed it to his friends, saying, “Drink, all of you. This is the cup of my blood.”
This could be the moment when Jesus tells them, “One of you will betray me.” But who?! Which one is Judas, the traitor? Maybe the man in shadow in the right foreground?
At this same meal the Biblical Jesus summarized his teachings on love. He gave his followers a new commandment: Love each other as I have loved you. He tells them that the greatest love is to lay down your life for your friends. Soon his own love will be tested.
“He fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him.” -- Mark 14:34
A man claws the ground in gut-wrenching spiritual agony in “Jesus Prays Alone.” His face is hidden by darkness -- he could be anyone -- but his tortured hand is spotlighted front and center in stark relief. Jesus kneels, utterly alone, on an urban rooftop with trash cans and brick walls. This is the modern Gethsemane -- not a garden, but an urban jungle. City lights glimmer against the night sky.
The simplicity of the image makes an immediate impact. It is the only painting in Blanchard’s Passion series where Jesus is alone. Even in death Jesus is shown with other corpses, but here the people have deserted him, and God is not visible. The loneliness is absolute. This painting stuns many viewers more than the explicitly violent scenes ahead. People get used to violence in the news and have grown overly familiar with the crucifixion, but this image captures Christ’s emotional distress and makes it up close and personal. The viewer is alone with Jesus.
In the Bible, Jesus asks his friends to stay awake and pray with him in the garden after the Last Supper, but they fall asleep. He is left alone to repeat his prayer over and over: “If possible, please remove this cup from me: yet, not what I want, but what you want.”
Jesus is in agony because his ministry has brought him into conflict with authorities who will arrest and kill him. But this scene, often called “the agony in the garden,” can symbolize any spiritual anguish, including the struggles of LGBT people to reconcile their sexuality and their spirituality. In a world that often denies the existence of queer lives, many LGBT people have felt utterly alone.
“Jesus Prays Alone” marks a turning point in the artist’s own relationship to this project. Blanchard began painting the series in summer 2001. He had finished four panels on Sept. 11 when hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center near his studio on New York’s Lower East Side. He watched the attacks in shock from the roof of his apartment building in the East Village. “I understand that a lot of people rediscovered religious faith after September 11th. I had the opposite reaction,” he said. “The first effect of September 11th on me was to alienate me from religion. I was horrified by the religious motivation of those attacks. The knowledge that history is full of sectarian massacres did nothing to mitigate my horror and disgust. This created a serious conflict in my mind that perhaps I used these paintings to try to resolve…” Jesus takes on his inner turmoil in “Jesus Prays Alone.”
Viewed separately, this could be a painting of anyone. Blanchard painted the frames, numbers and titles onto each image so that they could not be taken out of context.
“Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him.” -- Matthew 26:50
A young man stops his friends from fighting back when police grab him in “Jesus is Arrested.” One hand points an accusing finger at Jesus from the left. Another hand aims a gun at him. Peter on the right wields a knife against the police, but Jesus stops him. Flashlight beams and searchlights pierce the night, forming a partial halo behind Jesus’ head. An officer seizes Jesus. Standing behind him is a bald man in a suit, probably one of the creeps who was watching Jesus at the temple. Dark silhouettes on the horizon show that many more policemen are on the way.
The stark black-and-white lighting gives the painting a film-noir vibe. The high contrast and theatrical lighting of Orson Welles movies influenced Blanchard in painting this series, and it is especially evident here. Jesus is caught in the cross of an X-shaped composition, adding to the dramatic tension.
What’s notable about this painting as a “gay vision” is what is missing: history’s most famous same-sex kiss, the kiss of betrayal between Judas and Jesus. That man-on-man kiss has been used as a vehicle to instill homophobia over the centuries. Blanchard must have figured that we’ve seen it too often… although the Judas kiss remains a popular subject among LGBT artists and viewers.
Blanchard is also not interested in the naked young man who ran away when Jesus was arrested in Mark 14:51 -- a favorite theme of queer scholars. They have written several books debating the authenticity of the so-called Secret Gospel of Mark, which tells how the young man “learned the mysteries of God” by spending the night naked with 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.
Scripture quotation is from the Inclusive Language Lectionary (Year A), copyright © 1986 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.
Scripture quotation is from the Inclusive Language Lectionary (Year C), copyright © 1985-88 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.