Friday, August 21, 2009

In their own image : Hetero-normative images of Jesus

One of the things which struck me most about Leo Steinberg's amazing book, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (University of Chicago Press, 1983,1996), is a throwaway statement he makes fairly late in the book, that naked pictures of Jesus are fairly rare in the Renaissance - and where they are found, he is uncircumcised. Isn't that astonishing?! This, despite the fact that the Feast of the Circumcision was observed in the church from the 6th Century onwards, and took root in the Roman Church from the 11th Century. That is a hell of a lot of cultural reinforcement on a yearly basis! Yet, the Renaissance artists could not envisage Jesus as being different from them, and circumcision was certainly nothing which they would have practised.

A long time ago, in my life, I taught in a rural Catholic School in Lesotho. On the walls of every class there was hanging a picture by Holman Hunt- “Light of the World”. It is a well known picture, with a thoroughly Euro-centric Jesus, with European features and blond hair. That is the picture a class full of black African children saw every day of their high school years. That is the picture they will have in their minds, for all their lives, of Jesus.

And is it any different, in relation to the hetero-normative aspect. Because children (and indeed adults) are never made to encounter Gay or Lesbian depictions of Jesus, it is not within their mental vocabulary. I found, to my interest, that when I showed a variety of images to groups of Gay or Lesbian Christians, that they actively expressed a preference for heterocentric depictions, rather than homocentric ones. Therein, surely, lies a tale!
The images above are: 1. Holman Hunt: Light of the World; 2. Becki Jayne Harrelson: The Crucifixion of Christ; 3. Michaelangelo Crucifixion; 4. Carl Bloch: Crucifixion; 5. Rubens: Crucifixion.
If any of the images above are owned by anyone, I am happy to acknowledge ownership or to remove them.

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