THE IMPORTANCE OF THE IMAGE
There’s little more vital for religion than the images we have of it and of God. Although it’s scarcely a Biblical image many people are half paralyzed in their spiritual development by the picture of God as an old man in the clouds with a beard which is really something to do with the Senex, Old Man archetype spontaneously generated by the unconscious rather than the Bible as such. In Judaism, which is nevertheless the pretext for this limiting and limited God imago, (the title, “The Ancient of Days”, in the book of Daniel is the nearest approximation to the idea)depiction of God is inappropriate and forbidden, God being Spirit and incomprehensible to (normal) mind.
In Christianity after a brief iconoclastic phase the portrait would be allowed because the divine was believed to have entered the material realm so as to be seen and hence legitimately copied. However the copies, or rather later imaginings, of Jesus have often been contradictory ones that have not always added to mystical and devotional perception. At the same time a not too remarkable piece of art like Holman Hunt’s rather Victorian Light of the World may have more impact upon people than more sophisticated offerings from greater artists due to some spiritual impression, some light or aura that gets conveyed. It’s hard to predict reactions to religious art because its depictions so often engage personal beliefs and feelings beyond the aesthetic. We nonetheless know that for especially people at the various social and sexual margins typical Jesus imagery has often been only further alienating, something that keys him into the establishment. Today when artists are no longer as in medieval and Renaissance times portraying a society Messiah worshipped by kings and rich donors, some artists are finally trying to realize a Jesus truly for everyone, a Jesus outside conventional imaging.
VARIETY IN EXPERIMENT
Kittredge Cherry is showing us the results of this new trend. Her controversial Jesus novel that I reviewed in May has been followed up with publication by Androgyne Press of Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ and More. This in its way complements and continues Cherry’s post modern pilgrimage and employs her talents as art critic – one of her three degrees is in art history. Her book concentrates on alternative yet inclusive artistic renderings of Jesus, either as a woman, the Christa, or the more biblical, mysterious figure of the divine Wisdom (Sophia) or as a gay male figure. Whether it will delight or infuriate you Cherry’s is a well written guide that is timely, an important resource that nicely represents main trends in this field also presented at a major exhibition in Taos, Arizona, in May that accompanied the book’s launch.
The eleven artists examined are Christian, agnostic and in one case a Buddhist who finds Christian images more challenging than the “too peaceful” Buddhist ones. They also span a wide range of styles: fantastic/mythic, modern poster and expressionist, iconic traditionalist etc. Two of the artists provide sculptures, one of the artists is a photographer, the Swedish Elizabeth Ohlson-Wallin who has produced some very striking work which it seems truly did dare since it provoked death threats against her in even liberal Sweden. Cherry’s book includes Ohlson’s Sermon on the Mount with Jesus surrounded by leathermen, a picture which despite everything appealed to someone I know of fundamentalist persuasion when I showed it to them.
Since similarly to Kittredge Cherry’s Jesus fiction so many issues are raised by Art That Dares I am only going to touch on a few main points that strike me as crucial to the whole field she is exploring. I shall also touch on the question of the future of Christian art which one can hardly avoid as one absorbs this work one of whose functions beyond any aesthetic pleasure will be quite simply to make the reader think.
IN PURSUIT OF THE WISDOM
Since perceiving Jesus as the Bible’s Wisdom figure, was a challenge always present if never taken up by whoever knew their theology, we should not have to have waited so long for what the artists in this book have attempted. And even if their work is daring we ought to be able to perceive it as a natural development for Christian art and ask if they have succeeded in this development. On this however the jury is still out and some of us are likely to remain undecided for some time.
Despite my strong belief in the need for Wisdom images of Jesus the given examples proved some of the hardest pictures in this book for me to relate to. I cannot warm to Janet McKenzie’s much praised (and criticized) Jesus of the People portrait of Jesus in the form of an androgynous, thick lipped black female, a picture which adorns the book’s cover. Initially aware of little more than that I was opening a book that would include some images influenced by modern queer theory and theology in my ignorance I imagined the cover must be showing me an unusual gay Jesus image especially as this person’s garb looked like a form of monk’s habit. Clearly I hadn’t got the message! Likewise, though it has mystery, I had problems with the Franciscan Robert Lentz’s icon of the divine Wisdom who, with the features and attire of an Indian woman, holds an ancient Venus figurine in her hand as though that was her true and original form. I feel the expansion of the Jesus image in this case has also dissolved a needed particularity through which the symbolism should shine.
It’s easy to criticize but what would I put in its place, how would I treat this most demanding of themes? Two things occur – but they didn’t occur at once! First I would try to anchor Wisdom in such themes and symbols as we are given for her because the Bible supplies us some and the Apocrypha quite a bit more. Sophia prepares a banquet, she serves her bread and wine. She is a workwoman who constructs her mysterious house of seven pillars. She gives increase, and kings rule through her. There are other things about her but this would do for a start. If she were the subject of Buddhist iconography she would be surrounded by, or simply be substituted by, a collection of specific symbols or the teaching themes connected with her. Neither are present in the mentioned pictures. Nor could they be said to be idealizing or beautiful in any conventional way and arguably that should be a consideration here. After all, not only is Wisdom like a divine consort, a companion of the Creator from the first, but the Song of Songs, though not strictly about Wisdom, features a Shulammite woman who is often identified with the Wisdom and this person famously declares: “I am black but I am beautiful”.
Another route to take would be a semi or wholly abstract one. The artist would suggest Wisdom through a symbol, like a Yantra in Tantric art or notably feminine signs but surrounded by colours and brilliance in line with notions of Jesus as the Light and Truth or enthroned surrounded by the rainbow as in Revelation. Thus the abstract would become visionary and suggest both the idea and person of Wisdom in one.
IMAGES GAY AND QUEER
The gay Jesus theme which is more represented in Art that Dares than the Wisdom/Sophia one presents problems of a rather different order. Whether or not you believe Jesus was an alternative figure in this way or would, for protest reasons, wish to be so portrayed, is something that presumably would always count in your assessment of the art. As opposed to the feminine/Sophia Jesus with its affinities for feminist theology (but with issues for traditional theology more generally) the gay themed Jesus is more obviously linked to current trends in gay/queer revisionist theologies and the rights movement. Nevertheless something of this theme was perhaps always implicit as a possibility if one gave enough thought to what Wisdom as an image for Jesus the man might signify. Could a female soul in a male body - an idea culled from Jewish kabbalistic mysticism by the earliest modern European Uranian theorists - apply?
In Art that Dares there is however very little connection between the art of the Jesus as Wisdom and the alternative Jesus. With the exception of Lentz’s interesting icon, Christ the Bridegroom, which shows Jesus with John (it was commissioned by the gay priest, Henri Nouwen for his meditations) the gay Jesus art tends to run along the rather political, protest type lines of modern gay theology which is predominantly rationalist in feeling, not notably mystical or visionary. Thus the Episcopalian, F. Douglas Blanchard’s Passion cycle (of 24 painting in total) is represented by several interesting and rather haunting pictures of Jesus attacked, on trial, resurrecting and ascending. I imagine the complete cycle could be quite impressive in its way. But each picture is a set protest piece in contemporary settings. A David Bowie-like Christ confronts hostile military or establishment or “God hates fags” people. When Jesus returns to God, it is more like two angels (or just two gays) greeting though in some mysterious turnaround it is God who now has the Bowie like features Jesus had had and the Father also has wings. No matter what one sees in all this it is not a meeting of father with son or divinity with divinity. An archetypal Senex/Puer theme that dominates in John’s gospel is not appropriated as it could well be for any specifically gay understandings.
Becki Jayne Harrelson who was raised Pentecostal and came out lesbian to the horror of her family is one of the most purely visionary/mystical in feeling of the artists but her Jesus is nonetheless gay for protest purposes not from any conviction that the historical Jesus was somehow gay/alternative. This permits her to present a crucifixion in which the headpiece on the cross is “Faggot” rather than “King of the Jews” because she believes that Jesus is re-crucified when queers are bashed or murdered. She also presents a vivid but peculiar Kiss of Judas picture meaning whatever about those involved and which occurs not as historically recorded in Gethsemane but a dark visionary somewhere that is also vaguely to be seen as a gay cruising ground according to Cherry. Here symbol well and truly floats free. In the art of a former AIDS hospice worker, Fr William Hart McNichols, his picture, St Francis Beneath the Bitter Tree goes if anything further into a postmodern blending of themes. A fairly traditional medieval image of crucifixion has the titulus above the cross carrying the titles "Aids leper, drug user, homosexual".
THE NEED FOR MEDITATION
Although it's listed in the bibliography of Art that Dares I don’t want to push a barrow here for my own work which, as in Signs for a Messiah, considers the historical and spiritual case for an alternative Jesus. Still, I do feel that artists of religious themes, who anyway surely always need to practice a bit of the icon painter’s meditation to be well attuned, need to decide if their Jesus was in fact of gay orientation or not. Their decision must and will affect their approach and some form of queer spiritual belief in this area could inspire certain mystical realizations in the way I have described.
The alternative to a more theological based and meditated art is too often and easily a sensationalist one where Jesus is simply a generalized symbol or name upon which various ideas are imposed to the point we are in danger of losing sight of him. I feel this danger most strongly in the case of Lentz’s otherwise potentially very meaningful, Lord of the Dance. A Jesus of and in nature is an image, and one this picture invokes, which is much needed. Its idea is already potently present in Celtic and African Christianity in which latter Jesus is often referred to as “Lord of the Deep Forests”. Also we know from Justin Martyr that due to an version of the Psalms our Masoretic OT Hebrew texts have subsequently edited out early Christians saw Jesus prophetically as the Lord who reigns from the Tree. Lentz’s Lord of the Dance is horned and clearly linked to the Celtic god of the forests, flocks and the hunt, Cernunnos. But this Jesus of Nature has been transposed upon a male god image that just doesn’t look Jesus-like at all. Even if it did it would have made him more like a god of the hunt he wouldn’t be than a Green Man, a Lord of the trees, that would be more in line with biblical understanding and some medieval depictions - yes, some cathedrals do display Jesus as the Green man.
In effect this problem of imposition has been a feature of western Christian art for a long time and even when less controversial issues are at stake than those Ms. Cherry’s book engages. Western art inclines to the extraverted rather than the introverted and this makes vision harder to capture and process. Western art by and large does not, like Chinese art, seek the core energy, the “chi” of its subject and strive to absorb and identify with it. It is only the icon painter, (who in my view was always overly restricted), is encouraged to work from the inside out instead of vice-versa. And this I believe is why comparatively little western art has the visionary stamp of an El Greco, himself so influenced by the iconic tradition. I believe that Christian art has always needed to be more theological and meditative so that where the collection of this book hits limits, it is I believe only hitting limits already inherent in much western religious art.
AN EAST/WEST AND “TIBETAN” FUTURE FOR CHRISTIAN ART?
I recall that the late Catholic seeress, Jeane Dixon, wrote somewhere that she had seen future art and that it would combine styles of East and West, that it would become more symbolic/abstract and spiritual. I rather hope she was right.
The direction in which I strongly believe a specifically Christian art needs to go is towards the Tibetan. It needs something of its luminosity, its symbolism, its otherworlds but also its details, its schemata. Indeed if there were ever to be a church in Tibet beyond the isolated groups at present in existence it would anyway surely need its theology to be realized in mandala and fresco forms, and especially the Old Testament schematized in the way the lamas set out the Dharma and scriptures. The churches should be experimenting with this. There is a religious/mystical quality to much Far Eastern art but also, as in Zen, a nearly secular feeling too that I feel the Tibetan avoids for a more purely visionary, theological, and dramatic worldview. It also goes beyond the “peaceful” themes of conventional Buddhism (and Asian art generally) to include some “wrathful” and demonic ones which again any Christian art in Asia would need to do.
I have always been very interested in issues of the cultural indigenization of Christianity in especially Asia having spent a lot of my life in Asia and my first book of any note that was commercially published (The Expansion of God) dealt with that. So I remain keen to see a translation of Christian themes into Tibetan styles. But I also believe the trends struggling to be born in Art that Dares could also use some reflection upon the Tibetan example as that tradition is inclusive beyond other Asian forms, able to cope with the kind of complexities such as the Wisdom theme presents while it has even had room of sorts for the alternative. (The cult of Manjusri, who in Japan became Monju, god of gay Kabuki actors, was to some extent a gay one. While this is a whole subject in itself and one that Christians would obviously not be seeking to duplicate its mere existence is a reminder of the breadth and flexibility of the Tibetan tradition and its value as model).
Anyone interested to look into questions of a Christian Tibetan art is welcome to contact me at my yahoo address. Anyone who wants to examine or debate further the issues raised by Kittredge Cherry’s groundbreaking study can order her book or contact her through her Jesus in Love
address. A few images from Art that Dares are included there.