Monday, June 15, 2009

The Passion of Christ: a Gay Subject?

Dichotomy reversal, to stand an idea on its head, is done so often today that we don’t notice it being performed. We all do it in the name of whatever cause we personally espouse. Gay Jesus is just such a flip, and it has angered many a heterosexist Christian. In fact, the Website Jesus in Love specifically addresses the reversal of the normally understood straight Jesus. While my personal Jesus is neither straight nor gay, he is simply the Son of God. And, though I see Jesus’ gender as totally unimportant, the exploration of gender and sexual assignation as these relate to the Son of God is inevitable in this time of conflict concerning the secondary position of LGBT people in our democratic society. So, the straight versus gay conceptualization of Jesus fascinates me as much as it rankles others, and I was titillated last week when I encountered a set of aesthetically masterful photographs that address the idea. They are the Passion of Christ by German photographer Robert Recker. The handsome young models in religious tableau elicit a plethora of responses including the erotic, and I found myself wondering if the handsome blond Jesus of heterosexual protestant religious art elicits such an ignominious response in straight women. And, worse, what of the images of Christ's torture and flagellation, for instance, William Bouguereau's The Flagellation of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
I couldn’t help but answer my inquiry with a resounding, OF COURSE they do! I’m sure such a response is totally taboo in polite heterosexual religious conversation, and is never discussed. However, the taboo is handled obliquely in the Arts, as in “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar.

Additionally, I felt guilty that I had an erotic response to Becker’s images of Christ and his disciples. I couldn’t help myself, and I’m sure that Becker would be pleased with my response since the beautiful rendition of light and shadow in these images is testimony to the photographer’s pleasured glance. I’m also sure that if the images were shown to a random sample of people, including gay men and straight women sensitive instrumentation would record appropriate biological responses. Additionally, some of those persons, straight or gay, would also cover their response with fear and anger. Thus, by expanding and projecting my reaction to others I play with the idea that the subject is taboo in a completely circular flow of logic. In any event, Becker’s work created my erotic response and this brief discussion about it. And, yes - on a purely psychological level, I like the photographs tremendously.

* The image, William Bouguereau - The Flagellation of Our Lord Jesus Christ (1880) was obtained from Wikimedia Commons. It appears with the following notation. “Public domain. This image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.”


KittKatt said...

Thanks for your thoughtful response and analysis to Recker’s gay Jesus photos and the whole concept of a gay Jesus.

Since you enjoyed Recker’s work, I believe that you would also be moved and amazed by the art in my book “Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More.” Here’s a link to a gallery page with photos and links to the 11 artists in the book:

Most similar to Recker is Swedish photographer Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin’s series “Ecce Homo.” In her controversial photos, today GLBT people re-enact the life of Christ in contemporary settings. Here’s a direct link:

Gay Jesus images fascinate and inspire me, and I’m glad to find another person who connects with them.

Will said...

John, I was raised in a very repressive (especially sexually) family and in the Catholic schools to which they sent me. However I was able to stand aside from a lot of that while retaining the demeanor needed to survive in the environment--a perfect preparation for entering American society as a gay man in the late 60s and 70s.

One of the earliest discoveries I made was the recognition of the seriously erotic--particularly homoerotic--nature of a great deal of religious art, beginning in the late Medieval and progressing with ever more sensuousness into the Renaissance and Baroque. The classic example is the representation of St. Sebastian-- originally a grizzled old Roman officer, eventually a beautiful naked young man pierced by arrows sometimes but in other paintings by perfectly penis-length darts.

There are many martyrdoms and deaths portrayed with facial expressions and body attitudes somewhere between pain and orgasmic ecstasy (eg. Bernini's iconic Death of St. Teresa) and, of course, Sebastian himself.

The Passion of Christ was often eroticized. Often the loose end of his breechcloth hangs like a fulsome cock. The details of his various torments and pain often look and read like S&M depictions, which one of the teaching brothers in my school picked up on one day when he went into an amazing riff on Jesus being stripped of his garments--one of the Stations of the Cross in Catholic Churches. I think he went on about it for a good ten minutes, urging us to contemplate what it meant to have your clothing removed while surrounded by people gawking and "thinking impure thoughts" about your nakedness. And he was careful to note at some length that Roman crucifixion victims were stripped completely naked, breechcloths being in the paintings only for the modesty of the audience. From scanning the classroom, I could tell I was not the only boy tenting his pants over this extraordinary monolog.

There was a lot of sado-masochism in our religious training--contemplating the torture of martyrs, contemplating the deaths of our parents when the time came, and eventually of ourselves. It was always a mix in some ways of religion and sex, mainly sex in its fringe manifestations of pain and suffering.

Dr. John Bittinger Klomp said...

Thank you for your extremely thorough and thought provoking comments about this post, Will. I have often wondered what it must be like to have been raised Catholic during my youth 1950’s to 70’s. Interestingly enough, I am currently working on a post for June 25, 2009 about the martyr Saint Sebastian.