Another Christ is on the cross/ The nails are words, the nails are lies/ To make it crawl and make it scream/ And make it real and make it bleed/ And make it bleed and make it bleed/ And make it bleed and make it dream/ Imitation of Christ/ Imitation of Christ
-Imitation of Christ by The Psychedelic Furs, 1980
In the spring of 1974 in the blond wood paneled basement of my parent’s attached brick house in Flatbush, Brooklyn, I, a young Roman Catholic queer boy, attempted to reenact the resurrection of Jesus Christ with a small model tomb fashioned out of what I don’t remember and homemade vanilla wafers to serve as the host of the Mass and the bread of the Last Supper. Surprisingly, none of the other kids on my block were keen on the idea, but I was fascinated with Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection especially since that was also the year of my First Communion.
At that time, I had become obsessed with a book of saints which presented ersatz High Renaissance pictures of saints and martyrs along with the narrative of their grisly demise at the hands of non-believers. I was especially riveted by those saints who bore the wounds of Christ as a testament of their devotion. In my young queer mind, I longed for this miracle as proof of my own belief, but also as proof that God really did exist. (Even today, I long for miracles.)
The images in my book of saints more than the text kept me fixated which is no surprise because if nothing else Roman Catholicism is a pictorial religion, almost cinematic really in its spectacular display of torture, death and resurrection. The pictures in my book were like the images on the walls of the dark church in Brooklyn that I attended. These paintings were the last gasp of the High Renaissance ideals of Raphael in their seamless and easy style.
As I grew older, I moved from the ersatz to the authentic and began seeing religious paintings by accomplished artists from periods where religion was a central component of everyday life, of everyone’s weltanschauung. These works of art were more resonant than the pale imitators in that Brooklyn church and even their antecedent, the work of Raphael which became as I earned my art history degree in college, more tame, too perfect, too easy, Works by Raphael and his contemporaries no longer appealed to me in their perfect idealism.
In contrast, a work such as Christ Crucified by Velasquez is not easily digestible. It is visceral in its depiction of the taut, muscular, smooth and dying body of Christ and the draining and dripping blood from his wounds. This painting is not a shrill drama; there is a serenity here despite the painful death on display, a peacefulness heightened by the isolation of the figure against a stark black background. Nothing distracts us from the simple emotion of the act of Christ’s masochistic sacrifice. It is like a vision that materializes before the devoted viewer who is deep in prayer. For me, a Raphael simply does not possess this kind of profound emotion.
As works like the Velasquez stimulated me emotionally and intellectually I had become by that time at 17 or 18 angry and alienated from the Catholic Church because of its misogynistic and homophobic dogma and teachings. But while I stopped attending church and believing, religious works of art became in a sense my new religion- objects of faith and devotion. A work such as the Velasquez ( and even the work of Raphael and maybe even those illustrations in that dark Brooklyn church) have for years and centuries been objects of worship and faith. They are animated and inscribed with the religious emotion of all those people who have seen and felt them. They are invested with power; Christ Crucified by Velasquez emanates not only an artistic, creative energy, but the spirit of all who have ever viewed it, contemplated it and been touched by it. It resonates with a faith and desire whether you believe in God or not and one cannot deny its power when you stand before it.
Indeed, the key word here is “desire”, not only in a religious sense, a desire to be one with Christ, but also a sexual one in the spectacular display of Christ’s nearly naked body. This body in its youth and lithe muscularity appealed to my young queer self (and many others I am sure) twisted through the lens of masochism. Appealing not only visually as a desirable body, but also as an act of sacrifice, the crucifixion is ultimately a negation of traditional masculinity despite the formation from it of a patriarchal, misogynistic and homophobic Roman Catholic Church. Christ has always been more radical than the religion(s) that were constructed around his teachings.
Christ’s acceptance of death whether you believe he was divine or not is indeed a profound and radical act. God dies. He is not omnipotent, wrathful, vengeful, unapproachable or hierarchical like other gods. He is a frail human being. I am often reminded of this truth when looking at Manet’s The Dead Christ with Angels which I always contemplate when I go to the Met. In this painting, the reality of Christ’s physical death is unavoidable- the bloodless pallor of the skin,, the dead stare of the open eyes, one more open than the other, and the dried wounds of the crucifixion. The scant halo around the figure’s head seems like an afterthought, overshadowed by the visceral corporeality of the dead body. There seems to be no hope of resurrection or divinity.
The pair of angels in the work also seem out of place or at least they are not the typical angels of for example a High Renaissance painting. They are not idealized, but are facially distinct. Their wings appear ornithologically accurate as if to underline the reality of the dead body displayed. Or it suggests that they are costumed models with attached wings in an art studio scenario. The entire painting is a mockup, a fiction. It is a painting about religious painting, rather than a religious painting.
Moreover, the wound on Christ’s torso is located on the wrong side. Manet knew of this error, but did not change it as if to call into question the resurrection narrative of the painting: God is just dead, not divine and incapable of resurrection. Religion and representation are in question. As Nietzsche said, “God is dead, “ killed by the modernity that Manet sought to represent both in form and content in his paintings of Second Empire Paris and after.
In contrast to the 1864 Manet, God is certainly not dead in Gauguin’s The Yellow Christ, but mythology and ideology (as in all works of art) are still operating in this striking painting of Post-Impressionism. Three kneeling women in traditional Breton costume are on one level having a vision of the crucified Christ as they engage in prayer and contemplation. The brilliant color of the image- the vivid yellow of Christ’s body, the orange of the trees set off against the blues and whites of the female figures contributes to this sense of vision and the otherworldly.
On another level, Gauguin is looking to the countryside, in this case Pont-Aven, Brittany as a way to escape the modern city with all of its pleasures, but also problems. Tourism is a decidedly late 19th century phenomenon when with the advent of the railroad one could leave the city for a fictitious, bucolic countryside supposedly unaffected by industrialization and the rise of consumer culture. But this understanding is of course a myth of capitalism and the other.
There is evidence to suggest that the Bretons revived the wearing of their traditional costume as a way to make Brittany a more popular tourist destination. It added local color. The Bretons were selling the picturesque and the quaint. In this regard, both tourist/viewer and native participated knowingly and unknowingly in constructing the binaries of tourist/other, inside/outside, modern/rustic, city/country, masculine/feminine and so on. In The Yellow Christ Gauguin is presenting the viewer as tourist what they want to see: the simple religious devotion of the Breton peasant. This sense of religious feeling is heightened by the painting’s form- the areas of bright color and the overall flatness of the image. In the end, Pont-Aven was not far enough away from Paris, from modernity for Gauguin, so he travelled to Tahiti to find another Other, to find paradise, where he enthusiastically spread syphilis to the native population.
My devotion to religious painting continues to this day whether it is the visceral calm and emotional piety of the Velasquez, the paradigm shattering of the Manet or the myth building of the Gauguin. Each of these works of art to varying degrees are inscribed with the power of the faithful. They are embedded with devotion. As with all things that arouse my desire, when I stand or have stood before these paintings I experience a moment of bliss.