In “Christ the Chimera: The Riddle of the Monster Jesus” (Image 99), art historian Katie Kresser traces the tradition of the monstrous in Christian iconography to AD 200 and the Alexamenos Graffito, which depicts Jesus as a donkey-headed figure on a cross.
The Jesus of art history has been associated with the god Dionysos, the god Apollo, the god Ra. He has been presented as a warrior hero, an epicene virgin, a stern judge, a free-spirited hippie. He has been a man with an ass’s head.
Kresser speaks of the “challenging, adaptable, expectation-shattering chimericality of Jesus.” Jesus as shape-shifter. Jesus as monster.
If the idea of Jesus as monster puts you off, look again, at the images of Jesus you’ve seen all your life. Especially if you’re a Catholic, if you’ve knelt in church, decorously, with your family, beneath the oversized almost naked body of a tortured and executed dead man, bleeding, wounds gaping.
Maybe we’ve gotten jaded about the horror of Jesus on the cross. In my case, it wasn’t until I saw Matthias Grunewald’s Crucifixion that I really saw for the first time what crucifixion meant–that I became aware of the monstrosity of it.
There’s this trend among devout people to demand that art, especially religious art, be beautiful. But Grunewald’s Crucifixion is not beautiful, not a pretty picture for children, not an edifying image for a respectable congregation. When you look at the body you are seeing what never should have been. The limbs of the executed man are twisted and distorted, his head hanging as though by a broken cord, his fingers splayed and twitching like tortured spiders. The body is grotesque, disturbing, twisted out of the ordinary lineaments of the human.
Grunewald’s Crucifixion is “monstrous” in the sense of something inhuman, semi-human, anti-human, or just plain frightening. Or you could say that it is “monstrous” in the sense of its etymology: monstrare, to show. The painter is showing us what it was really like, this official execution at the hands of Empire.
Insofar as monstrosity has to do with actual beasts and monsters, Picasso captured this in his own “copy” painting, Grunewald’s Crucifixion, which I saw at the Tate last year. Picasso presents Jesus as a monster among monsters, a broken man among deformed and impossible women, revolting bodies, noses and breasts and feet protruding. Bodily being is represented as a series of protuberances, bulging things, physicality as intrusive.
“the real blasphemy just might be this: That we think urine is stronger than Christ. That we instinctively—and blasphemously—believe that the defilement of our lives is the strongest force in the universe. Stronger even than God.”
An imagination that is open to the redemptive should see, not Christ contaminated by piss, but piss redeemed by Christ.
But this tendency towards what Beck calls “negativity dominance” is nothing new. It has to do with our need to draw lines, to corral off the areas marked “pure.” Christians keep on doing this, perpetually scandalized by any proximity of the holy with the profane, unable or unwilling to see that Christianity is all about this kind of proximity – about the monstrosity of a redemption that plays out not in the terrain of the elevated, but the lowly, the bodily, the sexual, the grotesque. Even in the terrain of death.
Kresser’s “chimerical Jesus” I like to think of as “shape-shifting Jesus.” Like the ancient god Proteus, you can’t put your hands on him. Try to pin him with a definition and he eludes you, and here I imagine Jesus eluding us the way a fish flickers through the water–and Jesus has been a fish. Or writhing away, out of your reach, like some great powerful snake–and Jesus has been a snake.
The monstrosity of shape-shifting Jesus is not just a matter of the entry of the holy into the filthy; it also has to do with a certain quality of being best captured in Gothic horror, and designated by the German unheimlich. In the realm of the Gothic, terror is less to do with fear of bodily harm, and all about one’s dread that the boundaries between things are porous, the laws of metaphysics upended. Tropes such as the doppelganger, manifested in stories involving mirrors, twinning, and sinister alter egos, defy the principle of identity–“a thing is itself and can not be another”–on which our entire metaphysical credo depends.
This kind of terror has to do with thresholds, thin places in the universe where other realities break in, portals in space and time that we can not control. It has to do with the lines between entities becoming blurred. Classical chimeras involved the blending of species–inviting speculation about sexual taboos, as with the Minotaur–but there’s also a kind of chimera or monster which is terrifying because of the element of the unknown. It’s one thing to say “Pasiphae mated with a bull and bore a child who was half-man, half cow.” It’s another to say of a being, “I don’t know where it came from.” And “it seems to be human, but also something else.” The something else is what terrifies us. Something right past the edge of being human.
Which, if we’re honest, is what we’re wading into when we talk about Jesus’ divinity: we don’t have much of a clue about the infinite, after all, even if it’s what most attracts our desire. Divinity lurks out there, elusive, beyond being.
But also lurks here, in the mud with us.
Kresser focuses on visual art, but I am a verbal artist myself, and my own search for monstrous images of Jesus takes me into literary history, and what comes immediately to mind is probably the most famous monster in western literature: the “Creature” in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The Creature is fully human, made entirely of human parts, but also “something else.” He is the ultimate outcast, cut off from all human society and affection, and in this he resembles the “least of these” where Jesus said we would find him. Whatever you do to Frankenstein’s Creature–who never even gets a name–you have done to Jesus. Like Jesus, he cries out to his father, who has abandoned him.
The other literary image that comes to mind is the “Freak” in Flannery O’Connor’s story, “The Temple of the Holy Ghost.” Displayed in a circus, the Freak is in fact a hermaphrodite–and a preacher:
“God made me thisaway and I don’t dispute hit,” and the people saying, “Amen. Amen.”
“God done this to me and I praise Him.”
“He could strike you thisaway.”
“But he has not.”
“Raise yourself up. A temple of the Holy Ghost. You! You are God’s temple, don’t you know? Don’t you know? God’s Spirit has a dwelling in you, don’t you know?”
“If anybody desecrates the temple of God, God will bring him to ruin and if you laugh, He may strike you thisaway. A temple of God is a holy thing. Amen. Amen.”
“I am a temple of the Holy Ghost.”
The hermaphrodite is the ultimate outcast, excluded and dehumanized, utilized only as a circus freak. It is shocking to a respectable audience that the hermaphrodite would claim to be a temple of the holy ghost. Shocking especially because who they are is explicit: they have just shown their private parts to the audience. A “monstrare” moment. But reminiscent also of Jesus showing his wounds to his terrified disciples.
One of which, the wound in his side, is often depicted in art with the semblance of a vulva. The wound from which blood and water flowed, giving life to the earth. This is Jesus the Mother, of whom Julian of Norwich spoke, but still, also, Jesus the Son.
Is this idea shocking?
We’ve forgotten, perhaps, that being shocked can have spiritual value. The Gospel is full of moments of shock, when preconceptions get disrupted. We suddenly know that we do not know–or, at best, see through a glass darkly.
People are shocked by Piss Christ, but once they were shocked by Gruesomely Executed Christ. Once they were shocked by Jesus who said “you must eat my body.” Christ is shocking simply by being God in a body. Probably the people who are horrified by Piss Christ today are the same as those who turned away when Jesus started getting weird.
And maybe they’re the sane ones, because crucifixion is shocking, and so is the idea that one’s body could become bread. Our God becomes our Bread. Our God passing through our digestive tract, our inner organs. If God entering humanity and taking the form of one of us was not enough, Jesus up and does it a second time. And again and again, traveling through our guts, our piss, our shit.
What Jesus says in the Gospels is shocking. Lose your life to save it. It’s better to be weak than to be powerful. This is as unnerving as a doppelganger, defying all our common sense and basic instincts for survival.
It’s easy to scold those who turned away when Jesus said shocking things, but honestly, theirs is the sensible reaction.
Maybe the people who were drawn to him, and still are, are the crazy ones, the sick ones–monsters in our own right. Maybe we’re chasing after Monster Jesus in order to find Jesus, and the divine, in ourselves.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Rebecca Bratten Weiss
Rebecca Bratten Weiss is a writer, lecturer, editor, and activist. She speaks and writes on topics ranging from Nietzsche's aesthetics to Bronte's feminism, on vulgarity and religion, and on women's issues. Read one of her poems, "Never Could Walk the Line," at The Seawall: https://www.ronslate.com/never-could-walk-the-line/