Pussy Riot and the Passion

by
09 March 2018

Continuing our Lent series, Martin Thomas considers taboo and gender in relation to images of the crucifixion

Photographs courtesy of the artist

Four Crucifixion images by Gyrid Gunnes

Four Crucifixion images by Gyrid Gunnes

WHEN the lepidopterist captures her butter­fly, she treats it with great care. Opening its delicate wings gently, she holds the tiny body in place and then spears it meticulously to the display board with a pin, its beauty intact and its life extinguished.

In the same way, art deprives its living subjects of animation. Art harvests living reality, and in that reaping we talk revealingly of the likeness of a person having been “captured”. Art encourages us to examine life in cold blood, and the profane voyeurism of the artist reaches a peak of intrusion in images of the crucifixion: a gazing on the glorious scars of the dying or dead God-man, pinned to the cross, in violent and violated beauty. Has God really no shame, that he allows us to watch him die — and should we not have the decency to look away?

Some cultures and religious traditions for­bid the creation of imagery, and, in particular, imagery of the divine. And there are numer­ous general taboos about imagery: rules for what should be seen and what should be hidden; rules about violence and sex; rules about privacy. There are also some things that we feel it would be shameful to watch: cruelty, torture and humiliation; rape. To watch such things is almost to partake in them.

ISIS and others exploit this revulsion we feel by carefully filming their horrific beheadings and immola­tions, their crucifixions. The American torturers of Abu Ghraib made visual trophies of their brutality. What of the violent beauty of the Passion? We see images of the torture and crucifixion of Jesus in our churches, in art galleries, in books, and on the internet. Why do we make an exception of looking at this one man being cruelly killed — and he, of all people? Images of the crucifixion raise profound questions about shame, bodies, and gender in relation to how we see God.

 

CHRISTIANITY is a catastrophically gendered religion. Gender stereotypes abound throughout our theology, our ecclesiology, our liturgy and ministry, and our sacred texts. God is the father, who begets a son to restore the possibility of redemption to a mankind fallen through the actions of a tempted woman. The Fall injects body-shaming into the human psyche; nakedness suddenly needs to be cloaked. St Paul calls the parts to be hidden “the shameful parts”, the pudenda.

There is also a visual inequality in male and female nakedness. The naked male reveals an assertion, a plus sign, a weaponised body. The female reveals a richer, more complex landscape, a further hiddenness, the promise of secondary disclosure. His body promises aggression; hers presents a wound.

The history of the Church is littered with the theology of the scandalous oppression of women. They have been seen as the primary cause of sin and sinning, and yet as vessels of no agency. We can thank Aristotle, via Aquinas, for this approach. And the only way to undo all this woe was for a virgin shrine to be consecrated, free of stain; a grown-up Eve, blushing at the felix culpa of her primordial ancestor, and uniquely capable of producing the second Adam, free from sin and Y chromosomes.

In many ways, a female saviour would have been more appropriate. What the world does to Jesus on the cross it does overwhelmingly more to women than it does to men. And the Church is often the world’s dark mirror. That other manmade divine example of womanhood, Marilyn Monroe, undercuts all this in her famous swipe: “Women who seek to be equal to men lack ambition.”

 

WHAT are we to make of images of the overtly male crucified body? Surprisingly, perhaps, images of the crucifixion often wrestle with a nexus of ideas about the merging or fluidity of gender, and this relates directly to how we approach shamefulness about bodies in general.

As naturalism developed in Western art from the 13th century onwards, the question how to depict the crucified Christ became overt. The images of this period are not just descriptive naturalism, but theological works of profundity. They often focus right in on the wounds of Christ, and the wound in his side in particular.

Fourteenth-century Dutch paintings of this wound are very clearly vulval. They are shapes immediately familiar to every midwife. The wounds of Christ are examined in gruesome detail, not to glory in his suffering but to teach that from these wounds he gives birth to the Church.

In these images, the wounds of Christ remain open, tangible, issu­ing. The male incarnate in his death becomes the female who gives birth to his female body, the Church. A 13th-century French example has the Church, in the form of a crowned young woman, emerging uncomfortably from his side.

Another way in which the gender of the dying Christ has been obscured or blurred is through prudery. From the period of roughly 1260 to the latter part of the 16th century, many crucifixion images showed him naked, importantly emphasising his real humanity and visible male­ness. But, from the late 16th century onwards, the theological emphasis changed, and his shameful parts were covered up, painted over, and (in some cases, literally) draped with cloth.

Similarly, the Michelangelo sculpture of 1492, though naked, is slinkily feminine, the genitals almost non-existent, and the slender body curving gracefully up the cross. But Jesus is the one man born without sin: he has no pudenda in the sense that he cannot feel ashamed; he has nothing to be ashamed of. The happy nakedness of Adam and Eve is restored in him.

Much theology of the pre-modern period also glories in the circumcision, the first wound of the Passion. It is from there that Christ’s blood begins to flow; it is from there that redemption trickles into the world. There are numerous images of the blood from the wound at his side being directed back to the mark of circumcision — the first and last wounds joined to such an extent that Aquinas can see his whole life, from infancy to cross, as the Passion; the final feminine wound connecting directly to the proclamation of masculinity in the first.

 

SEVERAL artists get around the problem of the crucified male from a different angle, by replacing it entirely.

There has for many years been a history of female crucifixion images, and Margaret Argylle’s Bosnia Christa of 1993 — created in response to the mass rape of Bosnian women during the war there — explicitly combines the imagery of wounds, the place of giving birth, and the cross. It locates a crucified female body within a wound that is also a vulva. Here, the suffering is placed almost within the womb; we peer in to the mystery of the Word made flesh, destined, even there, to be crucified.

This image also refuses to allow that women should be ashamed in their sexuality and bodies; it says that the aggressor is nearly always male, that the bodies of women have routinely been abused — even erased — by men. It is an image that is both tender and challenging; an image at one with those who take part in “slut walks” to expose the disgrace­ful lie that the raped woman is the one who is to blame.

The Russian feminist punk-rock group Pussy Riot declared the same message in their demonstration at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow in 2012 (Comment, 3 August 2012). They were demon­strating against the Orthodox Church’s support for Vladimir Putin during the election campaigns. The head of that Church has said that feminism could destroy Russia; and President Putin, once re-elected, downgraded domestic abuse from crime to misdemeanour.

The Pussy Riot demonstration led to a series of crucifixion images by the Swedish artist Gyrid Gunnes which combine traditional imagery with Pussy Riot’s characteristic masks. Here, the maleness of the crucified is attacked and rendered insufficient. Here, the head is covered, showing the restraining of women’s identity mapped on to the body nailed to the cross.

 

IMAGES of the crucifixion, then, have often been places where gender has become a little blurred; there is a movement from the particular to the universal, from gender to humanity. When religious art is doing its job properly, it does not leave us with simple, gender-based stereotypes about God, the Church and humanity: rather, it speaks to us of an eternal calling, beyond our imagin­ing, beyond gender, beyond language — and, ultimately, beyond image.

 

This series originated in a series of talks given in Lent 2017 at St John’s, Catford.

www.stjohnscatford.co.uk

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