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Beyond Belief

Holy Week in France

by JO GULDI

Parisian denim purveyor Marithe et François Girbaud staged Da Vinci’s Last Supper in drag last week to mass outrage in Europe. The corporatization of Jesus and the girl Christ was more than the faithful could take. Girbaud’s apostles in couture roused first the uproar of Italian bishops and then French judges, who banned the ad and levied a 100,000 fine a day until it disappears. The church’s lawyer drew a direct connection between sacrilegious images and violence in schools.

How could this be? Everyone knows that secular Europe is far less stirred by religious controversy than America, and that artists everywhere press buttons for ironic commentary. So why the Holy kafuffle?

In the picture was a glowing male torso that set the Church aflame with rage. Not even facing the viewer, the muscle ripped back punctuates the otherwise iconic tableau that for centuries has represented the mystical supper before Christ’s betrayal and execution. Church statements in court identified this lusty pose as the only visual sign they took issue with. But hold on. Is a man’s back actually lewd? Shirtless women in Western culture are read as sexual objects, and as such are banned on American television. A man without a shirt in the West rarely conveys the same sexual charge. The issue, of course, is that this shirtless man droops over a woman’s shoulder in a pose suggesting either death or sexual exhaustion, and that his limp undress comes surrounded by alert, clothed women. Drooped, shirtless, among women, the man must be not only an object of sexual desire, but also the subject of some perverted sexuality in which women gang up on men.

Even more scandalous, and perhaps the real reason for all the fuss, is that a female Christ would preside over such games, as if a band of mad women had dressed up to mock the Church. It is this figure ­ the girl-Christ — that has been treated to so many misreadings and misinterpretations in the European press, allowing the Girbaud Last Supper to act like a Rorschach inkblot that reveals the uneasy position of gender in the modern Church. Looking closely at the fallout is cause for worry ­ about judges, about journalists, about the particular Christians who damned the image in the first place.

The journalists who covered this story missed the real story of gender politics in the Church. They describe Mr. Magdalen as "shirtless," "bare-chested," "half-naked," but missed was the irony ­ that half-naked men aren’t rare in our culture, but sexually aggressive women are. Worse, in the professional misread of the year, the London Times reviewer mistook Mr. Magdalen for Christ himself: "a half-naked man as Jesus Christ," he wrote. Here is the true scandal. At a table of women where one man is present, Christ is still the central figure, and the revelation is that Christ is a women. Apologies to Mr. Adam Sage of the Times; I’m sure he looked quickly and wrote under a deadline; perhaps he missed that week in Art History. We ought to thank him, really; good journalism excavates our most basic social premises, and he has done just that: so trapped by sexual and patriarchal norms that he looked past God to a whore.

No one has mentioned the androgynous, barefoot Christ, who, surrounded by sexually tense bodies, remains so unattached, so contemplative. Like the Desperate Housewives of Wisteria lane, the apostles around her leer in the competitive quarrels of high fashion, expostulating with sophistication. One wears a tailored black suit; she surely had great SAT scores. In the midst of the modern fray Christ extends her hands in guileless compassion. The apostles wear high heels, flowers, prom dresses, business suits, sequins and camisoles winking. Christ alone wears true "hippie-chic" wear: clothing too generic to be identified with any particular label, clothing that all of Berkeley wears to WTO protests.

How astonishing that it takes a fashion magazine to produce the first believable image of Christ in my generation. Church art is so caked in centuries of authoritarian drama that one more often misses God’s love entirely. Girbaud’s Christ aches with compassion, patience, and humility, the ultimate outpost of clam in a world overrun by the crass materialism of Sex and the City.

Despite France’s theocratic reflex, certain Christian traditions highlight the body’s grace and rejoice in a spirit alive for women and men equally. Careering past the cultural strictures that proclaim the Church too scandalized by modern sexuality to even address it, Girbaud’s Christ produces an embodied healthy sexual alternative to the hedonism of corporate prostitution, suggesting that the wisdom of the Christian tradition speaks even to the embroiled urban world of boob jobs and high heels.

A devout Anglo-Catholic myself, I’ve uploaded Girbaud’s Tribute to Women to my desktop wallpaper, where amidst the supercharged courtship of the young and professional that I am now enduring it serves as an icon persistently drawing me back to prayer, of comfort for the hopeless, the humble exalted, the proud humbled. I stare at this idol-cum-icon from Europe and pray for the understanding and fellowship of all men (and women).

JO GULDI is a historian at Berkeley and can be reached at: guldi@berkeley.edu