For These Artists, Christ Became a Gay Icon

F. Holland Day and the Invention of Hysteria

F. Holland Day, Crucifixion, 1898


Sometime in July 1898, Fred Holland Day — emaciated, profoundly unshaven, and practically nude save for a loin cloth and crown of thorns — strapped himself to one of three crosses he imported from Syria. Guised as Jesus Christ, he cautiously gripped the thin wire that bound him; in his left hand, a wooden nail appeared to crucify his body in place, as he softly pressed his finger onto a bulb connected to a cable release in his right.[1] Just as quickly as Christ was born, He died.

The popular interpretation of Day’s Christ pictures is well-known: from July to September 1898, the Boston publisher and photographer banded together a coterie of friends and professional models in Norwood, Massachusetts, with whom he produced over two-hundred-fifty photographs re-enacting the Baptism, Crucifixion, Entombment, and Resurrection of Christ as part of his “sacred objects” series (1895–98). A fierce advocate of bestowing onto photography the status of art, the pictorialist Day deviated from the medium’s “scientific” status of representing “reality,” by staging photographs of the most represented figure in Western art historical canon. As the story goes, the work sparked immediate controversy as an act of perceived sacrilege. Late-nineteenth century art criticism, which stressed the artist’s personality as the primary marker of meaning, faulted Day for his failure to romanticize the story of the Bible. Paradoxically, his excessive theatricality rendered Christ too real — a mere mortal among men, whose divinity seemed lost in the material qualities of light, film, and paper.[2] Criticism of the Christ pictures as camp continued to haunt Day well into the twentieth century, which until recent decades, still struggled to classify the medium as an art form.

It is unlikely that Day’s primary motivation was a photographic realization of Christ himself, all to claim photography was the “path leading to the highway” of free artistic expression.[3] I posit that as a homosexual man, Day’s performance as Christ primarily served to enable the expression and adoration of a sado-eroticized male body. Day’s social milieu of Victorian intellectuals conflated homosexual “Greek” love with ascetic Christian suffering, in which a Jungian model of Christ embodied both the literal love of fellow man, and the full realization of the whole self through fantasy projections.[4] Day’s motivations were perhaps closer to those of the contemporaneously emerging field of psychoanalysis: the desire to probe the interior, and arrive at the conscious expression of repressed desires and drives.

The Salpêtrière

The seeds for psychoanalysis were sown, of course, in Jean-Martin Charcot’s work on hysteria at the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, where he staged hysterical fits for the camera in Paul Régnard’s in-hospital studio between 1876–1880, published in the Iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière. Male hysterics did not figure into the album, as Charcot’s most serious work on the subject of male hysteria would begin the following decade. In comparing Day’s Christ photographs to those published in the Iconographie, I do not mean to suggest that Day suffered from any such thing that was “hysteria.” Then again, neither did many of the women Charcot had photographed. Nor do I mean to suggest that Day had any deep knowledge of psychoanalysis, although his correspondence with the American Society of Psychical Research earned him the pseudonym “Psychologist” in his camera club, whose first international exhibition so happened to be in Vienna.[5]

F. Holland Day, The Seven Last Words, 1898

Day and Charcot share a theatre of corporeal elements where bodies are carefully composed into tortured, twisted, ecstatic, crucified states. [6] For Day, as for Charcot, photographing the interior — visualizing it — necessitated a turn to the imaginary, to invention, to choreographing the body for the camera. This performance needed to be exaggerated in order for psychic suffering to be easily read (diagnosed) in the face according to established types. The nineteenth century belief that the human face revealed something of one’s character further explains why, from the outset, psychiatric photography took the form of l’art du portrait, and why the most celebrated of Day’s Christ pictures are seven strikingly intimate portraits of The Seven Last Words.[7] A blurring of traditional masculine and feminine gender roles informed and complicated the work of both Day and Charcot, onto whom it fell to invent new models of Christ and the male hysteric. In his Christ pictures, Day performed before a camera the very male hysteria that Charcot opted to omit.

INVENTION: “Into thy hands I commend my spirit”Hysteria and the choreographed body

Looking Inward

In the late-nineteenth century, looking inward became the ambition of psychoanalysis, but it also connoted the sentimentality associated with homosexuality and male hysteria.[8] In all cases, turning to the interior demanded an exterior representation of some sort. This became a modernist problem for two camps of the avant-garde: the artistic and the scientific.

In Day’s circles, the search for interiority was the search to find a language in which to convey the torments of sexual acquiescence, difference, and individuality by means of a creative resistance to ascetic Christian culture and its denial of the male body. It found its way into the literature of Carpenter, Wilde, Keats, and Swinburne, whose texts informed the publisher Day’s thinking on the metaphor of Christ (to which I will return.) “The influence of the repressed instinct is felt as a temptation,” wrote Freud in “Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices” — finding a visual language that permitted one to give into such temptation affords the ego a primary pleasure.[9] As the English poet Edward Carpenter surmised:

finding himself different from the great majority, sought after by some and despised by others, [the homosexual man] was forced to think. His mind turned inward on himself would be forced to tackle the problems of his own nature, and afterwards the problem of the world and of outer nature. He would become one of the first thinkers, dreamers, and discoverers.”[10]

Jean-Martin Charcot

For Charcot, the homosexual Day represented a model of male hysteria that needed to be renegotiated. It was believed that “the greatest susceptibility to nervous illnesses occurred in members of the affluent classes [whose] idle, self-indulgent style of living” triggered hysteria in “the effete aristocrat, morbidly preoccupied with the cultivation of his nervous eccentricities.”[11] Charcot belonged to an avant-garde of “latter-day medical philosophes determined to root out vestiges of past error and superstition wherever they persisted…with the methods and findings of modern empirical science.”[12]

He subscribed to the popular belief that photography was a scientific instrument with a greater, more objective “retina” that could validate his early model of the hysteric as inherently female. The camera could become the greatest authority over the “sick” body.[13] Charcot was a victim of photography’s “paradox of spectacular evidence”: despite its ability to “connote, doctor, pose, aestheticize, disconnect its referents, oversyntax the visible, invent new qualities…it is nonetheless always credited with the truth. Not the truth of meaning [but] the truth of existence.”[14] Since photography had to physically capture something that has been, the thing itself, then it must be photographing something inherently real.

Of course, photography’s power to serve as an authority was almost always achieved by theatrical means. In the early years of the medium, even a simple portrait session required makeup, headrests, knee-braces, curtains, and painted backdrops.[15]

Between Fantasy and Knowledge

Georges Didi-Huberman asserts that photography “was in the ideal position to crystallize the link between the fantasy of hysteria and the fantasy of knowledge.”[16] While the element of fiction might be more obvious in Day’s work as an artist, Freud himself famously wrote that his mentor Charcot “was not a reflective man, not a thinker”[17] but someone with an “artistically gifted temperament… a ‘visuel,’ a ‘seer.’”[18] The neurologist never produced a theoretical treatise on the hysterical mind, but relied on the observation of physical symptoms and (supposedly) hypnotically-induced fits produced for lectures, bedside demonstrations, and the camera. Charcot believed that although hysteria was hereditarily determined, it was triggered by the mental response to some physical trauma (the very subject of The Seven Last Words.) Charcot had to see hysteria to believe it.

Twice a week, he scripted, memorized, rehearsed and delivered lectures to the medical and artistic circles of Paris, where he rendered hysteria visible. It was a true production: his assistants functioned as effective stagehands, spotlights and footlights illuminated the drama, while art objects, props, and costumes served as visual aids. These spectacles of pain, no less so than Day’s auto-crucifixion, grew so popular that a 500-seat amphitheater had to be built.

André Brouillet, A Clinical Lesson at the Salpêtrière, 1887

Like The Seven Last Words, these performances were essentially re-enactments “during which patients reenact[ed] in words and actions emotionally painful scenes from their past.”[19] The most popular “acts” were also the best documented in the Iconographie: these were the attitudes passionelles, in which Charcot’s obedient hysterics acted out fear ecstasy, surprise, pleasure, and religious enthusiasm, often ending in a final delirium “marked by sobs, tears, and laughter, heralding a return to the real world.”[20] Hysteria devolved into art on the basis that a symbolic re-enactment of unconscious fantasy would bring about an actual hysterical attack.[21]

The Art of Hysteria

Considering these lectures were attended by both the medical and artistic communities of Paris, it is unsurprising that hysterical gestures soon made their way onto the stage in the performances of actresses trying “to outdo the universally famous stars of the Salpêtrière.”[22] Nadar’s famous muse, Sarah Bernhardt, numbered among them.

Stage actress Sarah Bernhardt in a scene from an unnamed theatre production.

Charcot’s female hysterics became actresses who performed a variety of symptoms on the “stage of their visible flesh (which gives [him] the opportunity of photographing them), indifferent as they are, like the great artists, to whomever will be the addressee of these ecstatic snapshots…ignoring as simply mistakes the suspect of interest of [the] meticulous curiosity of the big boss, seeking to invent…”[23]

The photographic studio Charcot established to document these performances rivaled that of any artist:

It had its official equipment: platforms, beds, screens and backdrops in black, dark gray, and light gray, headrests, gallows. Its photographic technology grew more and more sophisticated [in terms of] lenses and cameras, the use of artificial lighting…and archiving…”[24]

The images quickly penetrated the literary and artistic Surrealist movement. In 1928, André Breton called for the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Charcot’s work on hysteria in an essay that not only reproduced photographs from the Iconographie, but called hysteria “the greatest poetic discovery of the nineteenth century.”[25]

(LEFT): Detail of The Seven Last Words: “Father Forgive Them; They Know Not What They Do.” (RIGHT): Augustine acting out Ecstasy in Charcot’s Iconographie, 1878

While it is uncertain whether Day ever came across these photographs, one cannot deny that The Seven Last Words shares a corporeal vocabulary with the female hysterics of the Iconographie : gestures of outcry, physical immobilization, ecstatic amorous longing, even poses of the crucifixion. Visually, they follow the script of the attitudes; narratively, the text inscribed into the frame housing the seven photographs suggests Christ’s seven last words are meant to be literally read or spoken aloud, mirroring delirium, “the painful phase during which hysterics ‘start talking,’ during which one tries to stop the attack, by every possible means.”[26]

(LEFT) F. Holland Day, [Study for the Crucifixion] c. 1896 / (RIGHT) Régnard, photograph of Augustine (“Attitudes passionnelles: Crucifixion”) Iconographie, vol. II.

The central problem we are dealing with here is resemblance. Despite their shared efforts to arrive at a certain interior, photography’s status as the recording device of the “real” validated the artifice of Charcot’s subjects, who resembled predefined notions of hysteria, but rejected Day’s semblance to Christ. Nowhere is this cruel irony clearer than in one critic’s assessment that as “representations [that] lack simplicity and naturalness,” Day’s pictures “are aglow in the darkest vistas.”[27]

Resemblance, of course, is at the crux of both photography and the theatre: as mediums that inherently represent, the subject’s body is always “chiseled [into] something else, perhaps an ideal, perhaps an enigma, perhaps both; the identity of the model [is] essentially dissociated, twisted, and therefore terribly troubling.”[28] Resembling the Other brings us to our next problem: the type and sexuality.

(LEFT). Holland Day [Christ’s resurrection from the tomb], 1896–98 / (RIGHT): Régnard, photograph of Augustine (“Attitudes passionnelles: Amorous Supplication”) Iconographie, vol. II.

HYSTERIA: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”Typing the Face and the Sexual Difference of Hysteria

Collotypes by Oscar Gustave Rejlander illustrating Disdain, Disgust, Indignation, and Helplessness in Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, 1872


In the nineteenth century, it was believed that physical appearance could reveal something about the subject’s interior state. “The study of physiognomy of the insane is not an object of futile curiosity,” wrote psychiatrist Jean Esquirol, for “this thing helps untangle the nature of the ideas and affectations that sustain the delirium of these patients…”[29] Artists had long placed similar emphasis on the face as the site of meaning, knowledge of the interior, and expression of the body. The painter Charles le Brun described the face as “the part that marks the movements of the soul, that makes visible the effects of passion…everything that provokes passion in the soul causes some action in the body.”[30] Physiognomies could therefore be identified, codified, performed, and used as a type for classifying and predicting the behaviors of others. In short, ensuring a resemblance. Late-nineteenth century photographs of the face provided visible proof of what mental illness, criminality, racial difference, and particular emotions were supposed to look like.[31]

From Francis Galton’s Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development, 1883

This is what Didi-Huberman refers to as facies in Charcot’s album: the “air” of a particular face was subsumed under the type of hysterical behavior for which it stood. In other words, the individual could be scripted and shaped to perform as a Lacanian Other, recognizing him/herself in their own mirror image. And so, we must ask: if Day was not interested in a literal re-enactment of Christ, what archetype was he following and why? What did Christ come to represent in seven close-up photographs of Day’s face, which the artist produced while gazing at his own reflection in the mirror? [32] Where do sexuality and hysteria factor?

The Fantasy of Self-Realization

Thomas Eakins, The Crucifixion, 1880

Jung viewed religion as a realm not of facts, but of irrational psychic phenomena, and thus the grounds for the projection of fantasy and dreams. Christ’s de-historicization made him an archetype for whatever religious minds of the day needed him to be. The “real Christ” had long “vanished behind the emotions and projections that swarmed about him.”[33] Interest in the Crucifixion theme was resurrected in the popular imagination of the mid-late nineteenth century in the paintings of Delacroix, Gaugin and Eakins, American and European Passion Plays, and their Hollywood adaptations of the late 1890s. It is no coincidence that Day produced The Seven Last Words in the same year that Secondo Pia photographed the Shroud of Turin to the astonishing effect of revealing “Christ’s face.” [34] The origin of Pia’s project, it must be emphasized, was to use photography as way of literally bringing to light an invisible body.[35]

Secondo Pia, The Shroud of Turin, 1898

As the polymorphous all-encompassing “God-man,” Christ embodied the fully-realized self: “the psychic totality of the individual. Anything that a man postulates as being a greater totality than himself can become a symbol of the self.”[36] The Victorian circles to which Day belonged used the Christ figure to subvert Christian suppression of sexuality from within. Centuries of painting and sculpture established Christ as the archetype of an “unclothed or unclothable male body, often in extremis and or ecstasy, prescriptively meant to be gazed at and adored.”[37] The rediscovery of ancient Greece stimulated a conflation of Plato’s hierarchical placement of homosexual love over heterosexual love and Christ as the “lover of men.”[38] This model reconfigured Christ to symbolize, romanticize, and eroticize “the beauty of male youth and sexuality, albeit cloaked in aesthetic high-mindedness.”[39]

The body of Christ thus came to represent both the masculinity associated with physical suffering and the effeminacy of emotional struggle. This ambiguity between publicly heterosexual and privately homosexual, between the masculine and feminine, was at the heart of Charcot’s later work on hysteria. For Jung, of course, the “whole self” referred to the conscious and unconscious, an impossible unity that caused suffering in the ego. Finding a visible expression for this suffering “to put it in religious or metaphysical terms — amounts to God’s incarnation.”[40] In Day’s photographs, He is Risen.

The Seven Last Words was thus a transgressive breach of sexual norms more than it was an act of religious or artistic blasphemy. The rejection of these photographs and their maker suggests as much: terms like “decadent,” “decorative,” “sentimental,” “eccentric,” and “pagan,” signified homosexuality and moral degeneracy at the end of the nineteenth century.[41]

On Obsession and Religion

Day’s meticulous attention to detail in resurrecting Christ has often been read as a plain desire to achieve historical accuracy. Yet the sado-eroticized body that he photographed was the result of months of starvation, abstention from shaving, and the sparing of no expense to secure props and costumes for the hyperbolic metaphor of his own bodily suffering. Greater motivations are surely at play. Freud draws a critical connection between religious observers and patients exhibiting obsessive behaviors: the repression of sexual instincts. In “the qualms of conscience brought on by their neglect, in their complete isolation from all other actions (shown in the prohibition against interruption) and in the conscientiousness with which they are carried out in every detail…what is being represented [is] derived from the most intimate, and for the most part from the sexual, experiences of the patient.”[42] Day’s performance as Christ can thus be read as an “action for defense or insurance, a protective measure” that permits one to act against the repression of an unending psychosexual conflict enforced by religion’s denial of the homosexual male body.[43] To the obsessive man, as to his pious brother, “obsessive actions are perfectly significant in every detail,” writes Freud, “they serve important interests of the personality and [give] expression to experiences that are still operative and to thoughts that are cathected with affect…either by direct or symbolic representation.”[44]

The Truth of Masks

Recall that Day embodied the model of male hysteria that Charcot worked to disprove in his post-Iconographie years. Although he conceded in 1885 that “an effeminate young man, after certain excesses, disappointments, deep emotions, may present various phenomena of a hysterical nature,” he rejected the notion that male hysterics were inherently feminine.[45] Charcot tried to establish the heterosexual credentials of his majority working-class male patients, as masons, bakers, and carpenters (Christ’s profession) who inherited hysterical traits from their mothers, and failed to perform their masculine labor due to physical injury. In his writings, women:

fall ill as a result of their vulnerable emotional natures and inability to control their feelings, whereas men get sick from working, drinking, or excessive fornication. Hysterical women suffer from an excess of ‘feminine’ behaviors, hysterical men from an excess of ‘masculine behaviors.’[46]

For Charcot to modernize hysteria, he had to desensationalize it by disassociating it from sexuality and effeminacy.[47] This sort of cleavage would prove impossible: although the neurologist rejected sexuality as a cause of hysteria, it reappeared in his clinical descriptions of male hysterics. His patients exhibited “hysterogenic zones”: small, hypersensitive parts of the body on which pressure or rubbing would induce hysteria. Routine inspections of their genitals revealed the pelvis as one of the most common zones, while cross-dressing patients complained of pain where their ovaries would be in what came to be known as zones psudo-ovariennes.[48] Juliet Mitchell points out that when psychoanalysis emerged in the 1880s and 1890s, it thought about sexuality in two ways: perversion (which at the time included homosexuality) and hysteria.[49] The blurring of masculine and feminine was inevitable considering that while “it is only women who are described and analyzed in [Freud’s] Studies on Hysteria [what] comes out of it as a theory is based on a male model.”[50]

Mitchell’s notion that the female hysteric produced a male model of regression can help us think about Day’s Christ. The female hysteric returns to a very early state in which she “could not have the incestuous relationship she desired, and so she was moving her identifications first to identify with her father wanting her mother, or with her mother wanting her father…The hysteric will always remain in the middle, moving constantly between one and the other, without getting close to either one.”[51] This regression returns the subject to a state of helplessness, where she is immobile and lacking vital needs from the mother. The homosexual man does not long for the incestuous relationship with his mother either, while Christ falls somewhere between his human mother and divine Father. He finds himself helplessly bound, physically immobile, as Mary sits at the foot of the cross, unable to satisfy his thirst, until a bystander brings Christ a sponge soaked in sour wine. The shell-shocked post-WWI male hysteric would soon come to exhibit the “conflict of a death drive and a life drive [that] relates to the compulsion to repeat a trauma.”[52] Where could this be clearer than in Day’s self-portraits as the crucified Christ?

At an 1899 exhibition of The Seven Last Words, Day included an inscription to accompany the work: “Is it nothing to you all ye who pass by?” it read, “Come and behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto My sorrow?”[53] Perhaps Charcot did not acknowledge the sexual question of male hysteria in order to safeguard his professional reputation and masculinity. It was a truth that dared not be staged for the camera. Instead, he mobilized photography to choreograph performances of female hysteria, based on an archetype that he himself concocted. While his photographs were thought of as the scientific antithesis to Day’s art, both men invented hysteria with equal vigor. While there is a striking absence of male hysterics in the photographic record of Charcot’s Iconographie, in Day’s performance as Christ, perhaps we arrive somewhere close.

[1] Darwin Marable, “The crucifixion in photography,” History of Photography 18, no. 3 (1994): 257.

[2] Kristin Schwain, “F. Holland Day’s Seven Last Words and the Religious Roots of American Modernism,” American Art 19, no. 1 (Spring 2005): 49.

[3] F. Holland Day, “Sacred Art and the Camera,” The Photogram 6 (1899): 38.

[4] C.G. Jung, Psychology and Religion: West and East, trans. R.F.C. Hull (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 233.

[5] Jane Van Nimmen, “F. Holland Day and the display of a new art: Behold, it is I,” History of Photography 18, no. 4 (1994): 373.

[6] Jean-François Lyotard, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), 132.

[7] Georges Didi-Huberman, Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière, trans. Alisa Hartz (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003), 49.

[8] Hysteria and homosexuality, once considered a sign of perversion, are the pillars of psychoanalytic thought on sexuality.

[9] Sigmund Freud, “Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume IX (1906–1908), trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth, 1981), 126.

[10] James Crump, “Suffering the ideal: F. Holland Day, British decadence and American philhellenism” (PhD diss., The University of New Mexico, 1996), 112.

[11] Micale, Hysterical Man, 129.

[12] Mark S. Micale, Hysterical Men: The Hidden History of Male Nervous Illness, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 126.

[13] Schwain, “F. Holland Day,” 40.

[14] Didi-Huberman, Invention, 60.

[15] Ibid 62.

[16] Ibid xi.

[17] Rhona Justice-Malloy, “Charcot and the theatre of hysteria,” Journal of Popular Culture 28, no. 4 (Spring 1995): 137.

[18] Petra Kuppers, “Bodies, Hysteria, Pain: Staging the Invisible” in Bodies in Commotion, ed. Carrie Sandahl and Philip Auslander. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), 151.

[19] Micale, Hysterical Men, 158.

[20] Ibid 134.

[21] Didi-Huberman, Invention, 159.

[22] Justice-Malloy, “Charcot,” 135.

[23] Ibid 131–132.

[24] Didi-Huberman, Invention, 45.

[25] Justice-Malloy, “Charcot,” 137.

[26] Didi-Huberman, Invention, 115.

[27] Crump, “Suffering,” 113.

[28] Didi-Huberman, Invention, 65.

[29] Ibid 37–38.

[30] Ibid 37.

[31] Schwain, “F. Holland Day,” 40.

[32] Marable, “The crucifixion,” 259.

[33] Jung, Psychology and Religion, 228.

[34] Schwain, “F. Holland Day,” 43.

[35] Peter Geimer and Gerrit Jackson, “A Self-Portrait of Christ or the White Noise of Photography? Paul Vignon and the Earliest Photograph of the Shroud of Turin,” Grey Room 59 (April 2015): 10.

[36] Jung, Psychology and Religion, 232.

[37] James Crump, “F. Holland Day: ‘Sacred’ subjects and ‘Greek love,’” History of Photography 18, mo. 4 (1994): 330.

[38] Crump, “Greek love,” 326.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid 233.

[41] Crump, “Suffering the ideal,” 60–61.

[42] Freud, “Obsessive Actions,” 118–119.

[43] Ibid 122.

[44] Ibid 119.

[45] Micale, Hysterical Man, 133.

[46] Ibid 157.

[47] 147.

[48] 155.

[49] Juliet Mitchell, “Sexuality and Psychoanalysis: Hysteria.” British Journal of Psychotherapy 12, no. 4 (1996): 473.

[50] Ibid 474

[51] 475.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Van Nimmen, “F. Holland Day,” 372.

Art, Humor, Online Dating, and the Humorous Art of Online Dating.

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