Imagine this: a portrait of Jesus, his long hair flowing freely, with his arms open wide, surrounded by queer people clad in leather, sporting chains and hands folded as if in prayer. Fortunately, you don’t need to imagine too hard, because Swedish photographer Elisabeth Ohlson (not to be confused with Scarlet Witch Elizabeth Olsen) has answered your prayers.
Bigots are up in arms because of an art installation that appeared at the European Parliament in Brussels earlier this month featuring the photograph in question. It was one of many featured in the exhibition, which ran from May 2nd to May 5th and was hosted by Malin Björk, a member of the Swedish Left Party. The exhibition, “Ecce Homo,” first debuted in Stockholm in July 1998 and toured continental Europe in the late 1990s and early aughts.
WELCOME TO THE OPENING TODAY AT 18h-20h! ️— Malin Björk (@MalinBjork_EU) May 2, 2023
I am happy that mentalities have evolved and that we can finally show the works of @ElisabethOhlson in the European Parliament. #ArtintheEP pic.twitter.com/ISqJ4bACNn
Despite the fact that the exhibition only ran for three days and was only accessible to members of Parliament or those with special accreditation, some people still managed to find the time to be performatively outraged about the “blasphemous” image, which the artist says depicts Jesus “loving LGBTQ+ rights.” Far-right MEPs, including members of Italy’s Lega Nord party, were particularly offended, including the country’s deputy prime minister, who took to Facebook to decry the image as vulgar and disrespectful. Another Lega Nord member, Maria Veronica Rossi, told the Times of London, “It represents Jesus surrounded by apostles dressed as sadomasochistic slaves.” In another interview with Italy24, she elaborated, “This appears as a gratuitous provocation: Why offend and lack respect?”
Polémica exposición de la fotógrafa sueca, Elisabeth Ohlson, en el Parlamento Europeo que representa a Jesús rodeado de apóstoles con trajes sadomasoquistas. pic.twitter.com/32cuPIpxXD— Wall Street Wolverine (@wallstwolverine) May 6, 2023
Setting aside a vocal minority of far-right figures, most people merely saw the image as a good opportunity to get off a few jokes. Case in point: One Redditor remarked, “That’s just a picture of Jesus before he was betrayed by Judas Priest,” referring to the English heavy metal band known for wearing leather whose lead singer Rob Halford came out as gay in 1998.
Ecce Homo originally made waves in 1998 because of its depictions of Jesus associating with LGBTQ+ people. And when it appeared at the Belgrade Pride Festival in 2012, it needed to be guarded by riot police, and according to the Serbian prime minister, who also described the exhibit as a “provocation,” it contributed to the ban on the city’s pride parade.
It makes total sense that an exhibit from almost 30 years ago would send these conservative politicians into a tailspin — in their minds, it’s still the 20th century.