Posted on January 3rd, 2011 | Filed under Academic, Featured, News, Social Issues
Tagged with 2009, Behold the Man, celebrity, Crucifix, Ecce Homo, fame, Good Friday, Jesus, Lady Gaga, MTV, Palm Sunday, Paparazzi, Pieta, Pontius Pilate, The Fame Moster, Video Music Awards, VMAs
Lady Gaga's performance at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards began with her sprawled out center-stage singing a line from "Poker Face," followed by the ominous line, "Amidst all of these flashing lights I pray the fame won't take my life." Then she launching into "Paparazzi." The tall white columns and chandeliers onstage gave the impression of a Gilded Age mansion, but soon one noticed the dancers' lace face masks. When a dancer came onstage in a wheelchair and Lady Gaga continued dancing leaned against a crutch, it became obvious that one was watching not a gilded mansion, but a gilded sanatorium.
The song's dramatic climax came when, at the beginning of the final chorus, blood began dripping from beneath her white, rhinestone-encrusted halter top and covered her bare midriff. After the chorus she collapsed into the arms of one of her dancers, who laid her back where she began center-stage. Dancers surrounded the screaming Lady Gaga for a few moments before the performance's final scene: Lady Gaga hanging in midair by one of her arms with a blank expression on her blood-smeared face while a chorus of cameras clicked and flashed behind her.
Unfortunately, this performance was so provocative that its deeply religious imagery—much of which draws on common themes in Western art—has been almost completely overlooked. The image of Lady Gaga's limp, bloodied body draped in the arms of a weeping dancer recalls the pieta, a depiction of Jesus' lifeless body draped in the arms of his mother after the crucifixion. Gaga's bloodied body spinning in the air limply with an almost heavenly glow behind it is a clear—if not purposeful—illusion to the crucifix itself. Here I want to focus on a third image of Jesus' passion—the ecce homo (behold the man), a portrayal of Jesus scourged, crowned with thorns, and standing before the crowds in Jerusalem to be judged by Pontius Pilate.
John 12:12-13 tells of Jesus' triumphant entrance intro Jerusalem on Palm Sunday:
12 On the next day much people that were come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, 13 Took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him, and cried, "Hosanna: Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord" (KJV).
The crowd's adoration did not last long, however; just five days later, on Good Friday, they stood before Pontius Pilate calling for Jesus' execution. Pilate had Jesus scourged, but the people were unsatisfied. The ecce homo takes its name from Pilate's words when he re-presented Jesus to the bloodthirsty crowd, as recorded in Latin Vulgate translation of John 19:5:
19 Ut cognoscatis quia in eo nullam causam invenio et purpureum vestimentum et dicit eis, "Ecce homo" (Vulgate, emphasis mine).
19 Then came Jesus forth, wearing the crown of thorns, and the purple robe. And Pilate saith unto them, "Behold the man" (KJV, emphasis mine).
In turn, Pilate's words echo the words of John the Baptist when he and Jesus met at the river Jordan—the event that began Jesus' ministry—in John 1:29:
29Altera die videt Iohannes Iesum venientem ad se et ait, "Ecce agnus Dei qui tollit peccatum mundi" (Vulgate, emphasis mine).
29 The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world" (KJV, emphasis mine).
There is another connection between Pilate's words when he presented Jesus to the bloodthirsty crowds at Jerusalem and John the Baptist's words on the banks of the Jordan River; The text of John 1:29 is still quoted almost word-for-word when the priest displays the bread and wine—transubstantiated into the body and blood of Jesus—to the people in the Roman Rite of the Mass:
Ecce Agnus Dei, ecce qui tollit peccata mundi. Beati qui ad cenam Agni vocati sunt (emphasis mine).
Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to His supper (emphasis mine).
"Behold the man" and "behold the Lamb of God"—these are the words that Christian liturgy, scripture, and art use when the man whom Christians believe, in the words of the Nicene Creed, to be "God from God, light from light, true God from true God," is being presented to the people in the course of being sacrificed. But what does any of this have to do with Lady Gaga?
In her 2009 VMA performance, Gaga acted out her own sort of ecce homo. She was presented to the adoring audience scourged with celebrity, crowned by fame—an often thorny crown, no doubt. As she hung, bloodied and lifeless, in mid-air, a chorus of cameras flashed and popped in the background. "Paparazzi" was not an accidental choice for this performance:
I'm your biggest fan;
I'll follow you until you love me . . . .
Promise I'll be kind,
But I won't stop until that boy is mine.
Baby you'll be famous;
Chase you down until you love me . . . .
The album she released right after her performance makes the case even more strongly; she called it The Fame Monster.
Lady Gaga's subsequent admission of cocaine use, accusations of anorexia against her, and her other antics have been a much more tragic demonstration of the pitfalls of fame. Her crucifixion was not just theatrical; it was literal. She has been wounded by the fame monster, if not yet consumed. Those who once greeted her with palm fronds now lick their lips at every lurid detail of her potential fall and call out for execution.
The difference between Lady Gaga and Jesus lies, of course, in the meaning behind the sacrifice. For Christians, Jesus' execution "takes away the sins of the world." His sacrificed body and blood are "the bread of heaven" and "the cup of salvation." "He died," as the old saying goes, "so that we might live." Jesus' sacrifice has a divine, transcendent, even cosmic purpose.
To behold Jesus is to be redeemed. To behold Lady Gaga is to be entertained.