|With his hand nailed to the cross and a halo surrounding his thorn-crowned head, the man Saint Francis embraces in Father William Hart McNichol’s St. Francis ‘Neath the Bitter Tree, is surely Jesus. Yet Kaposi’s sarcoma spots, indicating AIDS, cover this crucified man, and a plaque nailed to the cross identifies him not as Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, but as “AIDS; Leper; Drug user; Homosexual.”|
Art that Dares – Menachem Wecker
With his hand nailed to the cross and a halo surrounding his thorn-crowned head, the man Saint Francis embraces in Father William Hart McNichol’s St. Francis ‘Neath the Bitter Tree, is surely Jesus. Yet Kaposi’s sarcoma spots, indicating AIDS, cover this crucified man, and a plaque nailed to the cross identifies him not as Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, but as “AIDS; Leper; Drug user; Homosexual.”
McNichol, whose painting is included in Kittredge Cherry’s book, “Art that Dares: Gay Jesus, Women Christ and More,” does not suggest Jesus was a gay man. Instead, McNichol, himself a gay priest, sees his role as dialogue-generator rather than historian. “We need to gaze at truly controversial, truly loving images,” he told Cherry, “images that will return our love.”
Controversial is the new black in religious art, as evidenced by the recent attention to Cosimo Cavallaro’s Chocolate Jesus, David Cordero’s Obama-Jesus and Maqbool Fida Husain’s depictions of Krishna and Bharat Mata, which the Indian government is calling obscene. But, what can a painting of a gay Jesus mean in light of Leviticus’ declarations that homosexuality is an abomination?
According to Cherry, artists can bring history alive in the present, even if they are not strictly enslaved to history. “Countless versions of Jesus Christ have been created, each adapted for a particular audience and era. There’s a black Jesus, an Asian Jesus and even the classic European-looking Jesus, all of which are not historically accurate, because Jesus was really a Middle Eastern Jew.”
Cherry compares the Bible’s translation from original Greek to the contemporary artistic “translations” of Jesus. “Those images are much needed now because Christian rhetoric is used to justify discrimination against women and queers,” she said. “Many LGBT people feel that God hates them, and many women feel that God requires them to suppress their gifts. Some would say that is blasphemy!”
Becki Jayne Harrelson’s The Crucifixion of Christ shows Jesus—à la Dalí’s God’s eye view—upon the cross with a marker declaring, “Faggot” in red capital letters. Harrelson’s Judas’ Kiss depicts Judas caressing a near-naked Jesus.
“I probably won’t paint another crucifixion. It’s too painful. I cried my eyes out as I painted The Crucifixion of Christ, the reality of what a horrid evil crucifixion is,” said Harrelson. “Plus, the symbol is counter-productive in a spiritual sense. It emphasizes death, pain, suffering, sacrifice and guilt. Not very uplifting for what, to me, is a core philosophy about egalitarianism and loving one another. We have to create better symbols.”
Janet McKenzie’s Jesus of the People depicts a dark-skinned woman flanked by a yin-yang and a reference to the Native American and the Great Spirit, though Sister Wendy Beckett—who judged the piece a winner of the National Catholic Reporter’s competition seeking a new Jesus image—referred to the figure as masculine.
“Anyone who strives to visualize Christ winds up closer to God for the attempt,” said McKenzie. “Jesus of the People does not replace previous images of Jesus, and I make a point of saying this because the level of paranoid hate I received, in part, revealed attachment to other interpretations.
“People of color and women have been expected to remain outside the physicality of Jesus,” she said, “and yet to somehow make great leaps of faith without the benefit of seeing oneself reflected back, a little or at all.”
But Doug Blanchard perhaps summed up the works of “Art that Dares” best. “I do think many people would be much more comfortable with a Christ that acted more like we imagine God to be, remote and mysterious,” said Blanchard, whose Jesus Before the Soldiers portrays a naked Jesus being abused by armed soldiers and dogs.
“However, there is always the implication in that desired remoteness that God needs to be protected somehow in a kind of sterile, dust-free environment,” he added. “I’ve always understood that one of the basic messages of Christ’s presence in history is that God is not just in the mountaintop experiences, but in the here and now, down among us in dirt and chaos of day-to-day living, in the mess, confusion, drudgery and even in the boredom of mundane life.”