The ancient, volatile Christian ideas behind Trump’s obsession with blood

LOS ANGELES — In March 2021, the art collective MSCHF and rapper Lil Nas X dropped a limited-edition set of sneakers called Satan Shoes. The modified Nike Air Max 97s included a bronze pentagram and were produced to coincide with the release of “Montero (Call Me by Your Name),” which included a video in which the singer gave the Devil a lap dance before usurping his crown.

End of carousel

The ensuing controversy was probably amplified by a curious addition to the shoes, the soles of which included a single drop of human blood, according to the artists. One of the 666 pairs of diabolical footware is now on view, along with its Satanic-themed presentation box, in a J. Paul Getty Museum exhibition called “Blood: Medieval/Modern,” which documents the symbolic power and meaning of blood from the Middle Ages to the current moment.

The Satan Shoes are not the oddest thing on view in this fascinating show, not even close. But they speak to the persistence of blood as a multipurpose and explosive symbol. The exhibition, which opened in late February, doesn’t take up the proliferating use of blood as political metaphor in the rhetoric of Donald Trump, but it explores the deep historical reservoirs of meaning that make the former president’s invocation of blood so disturbing.

Inspiration for the exhibition, curator Larisa Grollemond says, came in part from the response to an online article she wrote about menstruation in the Middle Ages. But ideas about blood were fundamental to almost every aspect of medieval life, from the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist, in which wine was transformed into the blood of Jesus, to medicine, in which blood (along with black and yellow bile and phlegm) was one of the four fundamental humors of the body. Political power was based on bloodlines, or consanguinity, and the definition of power was essentially the right to spill blood, or enlist others to spill it for you.

Christianity was a particularly blood-obsessed religion, with the Nile transformed to a river of blood in the Old Testament plagues of Egypt, and blood flowing freely from Jesus’ body during the flagellation and crucifixion of the New Testament. By the late Middle Ages, the wounds of Jesus took on an iconic power that floated free of the crucifixion narrative and became detached from his body. And so we see his body soaked in blood in an image from a 16th-century prayer book by the Flemish artist Simon Bening, and an even more disturbing image of the side wound of Jesus, from the late 15th century, in which the wound is presented disembodied, a kite- or vulvic-shaped object presented as if on a platter, with a text that confirms it is life-size: “This is the measure of the wound of our Lord, Jesus Christ.”

Throughout the exhibition, blood is a marker of authenticity and something that is both life affirming and disgusting. The corpse of someone who died by violence was thought to bleed in the presence of his or her killer, a kind of supernatural proof of crime. Saint Catherine, who fasted almost unto death, was said to be revived after drinking blood from the side wound of Jesus. “And there she slaked her thirst,” according to an early biography.

Yet women, because they bled during menstruation, were also thought to be fundamentally flawed, with an excess of blood that needed purging. “If they are constantly expelling blood,” Grollemond says, “then there must be something fundamentally wrong with them.” Moral stigma was attached to women’s blood, which was rarely represented. Images of childbirth, especially those associated with the fundamental figures of Christianity, including the Virgin Mary, were generally sanitized.

So, Christianity was a blood-soaked, even blood-obsessed, religion and may have become even more so during the late Middle Ages because of crises across Europe that made death terribly familiar, including plagues, religious and political strife, and even changes to the climate.

The resurgence of blood as political metaphor in the United States draws upon these deep wells of symbolic power, copiously though not consistently. When Trump in interviews and rallies last fall began saying that immigrants were “poisoning the blood” of the country, his remarks were compared to the frequent use of blood as a metaphor for race, nationality and disease in Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” But Trump, like Hitler before him, was animating toxic ideas far older than 20th-century fascism.

And this wasn’t his first foray into blood discourse. During his 2015 run for president, he seemed to reference menstruation after being pointedly questioned by Megyn Kelly during the first debate of the Republican primaries: She had “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” In a 2017 tweet, he suggested that he was disgusted by Mika Brzezinski because “she was bleeding badly from a face-lift.” Women and blood were a recurring theme to his speeches during the 2020 campaign, when he mocked Sen. Elizabeth Warren for claiming Native American ancestry — or blood — an idea he returned to obsessively, and usually without segue or logical connection to anything else in his speech.

Trump is a rhetorical opportunist who uses imagery reflexively (patriots are always “red-blooded” and sacrifice “blood, sweat and tears”) and for its pure volatility rather than its cultural nuance or historic pedigree. And blood, as demonstrated by the explosive reaction to Lil Nas X’s Satan Shoes, remains one of the most potent ideas in the Western arsenal of meaning.

In a paper discussed at a symposium held at the Getty in early March, Heather Blurton, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, asked: “How did [blood] come to be … a metaphor for familiar, ethnic and racial affiliation?” And she turned to an idea by French historian Michel Foucault, who argued that the fundamental social organizing idea of the medieval period covered in this exhibition was “a symbolics of blood.”

Whether or not Trump intended to suggest a literal “bloodbath” when he threatened economic chaos if he isn’t reelected, the reference to blood was part of a more thoroughgoing effort to tap into the violent energies of the pre-scientific and pre-modern symbolics of blood that is evident throughout this show. He is disgusted by women’s blood; he has good genes or blood running through his veins; he is defending the “blood” of pure Americans against infection and immigration; and the power he seeks is deeply connected to blood and violence. His inaugural address is remembered for a particularly blood-soaked image, American carnage, which is etymologically derived from butchery, flesh and slaughter. All of this gives some of his Christian supporters permission to reembrace the darkest aspects of the symbolics of blood that saturated their religion for centuries.

These are old ideas. They are deeply and historically Christian ideas. And they are terrifying. To see them coursing again is even more surreal and bizarre than a pair of sneakers with a drop of blood in them.

Blood: Medieval/Modern is on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles through May 19. www.getty.edu.

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