Flash Points

Sweet Jesus! Shock, awe, and the mundane


As readers’ comments suggest in the introductory post of Flash Points, contemporary art that engages religion is a hotbed for controversy. James Horn remarks, “I have seen pictures which have featured gratuitously abused religious imagery, which I am sure have been created purely for shock value.” James is right to identify this as an easy strategy to provoke a response, especially to get the attention of a broader audience, though I wonder if an artist’s intention is always that simplistic.

In 2007, a tempest erupted in New York City over the artwork pictured above, titled My Sweet Lord, by Cosimo Cavallaro. This artwork depicting Jesus Christ was sculpted from 200 pounds of chocolate. It was to be exhibited at a gallery in Midtown, looking out onto the street during Holy Week right before Easter. After an intense uproar, featuring the voices of Cardinal Edward Egan and Bill Donohue from the Catholic League, the exhibition was moved and postponed until November. In some ways this might be a prime example of what James mentions in his comment.

Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary (1999) and Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987)

As a teenager, I became aware of the term ‘contemporary art’ when Rudy Giuliani went on the radio, declaring that the Brooklyn Museum’s 1999 exhibit Sensation  was “disgusting,” “horrible,” and “blasphemous.” As many remember, the center of this controversy was Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary, which used elephant dung as one of many materials the artist worked with to visualize the mother of Jesus. What troubled me about this quick and “dirty” interpretation of Ofili’s work, even as a teenager, was that it erased any nuanced reading or sense of awe a viewer might experience when viewing the work.

In addition to Holy Virgin Mary, many other images have been at the center of their own controversies for showcasing religious iconography in secular way. Some of these works include Piss Christ by Andreas Serrano, Andy Warhol’s The Last Supper, and an artwork titled Desenhando em Terços by Marcia X—brought to my attention by one of our readers, Leonardo Ayres. In 2006, this work, rendering male genitals out of rosary beads, was removed from an exhibition in São Paolo because it was deemed too controversial.

Andy Warhol’s The Last Supper (1986) and Marcia X’s Desenhando em Terços (2006)

So what makes all of these images so inflammatory? Is it that religious iconography is gratuitously abused? Is it a question of the artist’s intent to offend those of faith? Is linking the sacred with the profane blasphemous? Or, is it just taking the stuff of miracles and making it mundane?

  1. Kimberly says:

    All of these examples are works of art that use Christian religious imagery. Are there any examples of contemporary or recent works that appropriate sacred imagery from other faiths in a similar way?

  2. Marc Mayer says:

    I focused this post on Christianity because it is the predominant religion in the United States is the “bedrock” of our society. Many times mainstream controversy erupts when a dominant or majority power is challenge, Christianity being the major religion in our country there are more examples in this context. I do find your question very interesting. Below I highlight two other examples, one that engages Islam and another that dealt with the holocaust.

    A series of photographs made by Iranian artist Sooreh Hera, entitled Adam and Ewald, shows two gay men wearing masks of the Muslim prophet Mohammed and his son-in-law Ali. Was censored three times from late 2007 through 2008.


    In 2002, the Jewish Museum in New York held an exhibition called Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art. The curator identified that contemporary artists were investigating the Third Reich, as opposed to victims of the Holocaust, as a new strategy that was supposed to help viewers not only reexamine the past, but consider present critical issues like consumerism and oppression.


  3. Kimberly says:

    I completely understand why the examples were all related to Christianity. I was just curious if there were there were other artists doing similar things with imagery of other religions as well. Thank you for the information and the quick response.

  4. Jennifer Doyle says:

    Personally, as an agnostic kid in a Catholic school for whom the rituals of Catholicism were objects of much fascinating, I was mesmerized – titillated, even – by the stations-of-the-cross paintings that lined the walls of my school’s church. And by the whole idea of crucifiction. It amazes me that people find any of these artworks more shocking than the fact that these very challenging images sit there above the altar and on church walls! The art-versions are, perhaps, somewhat tame by comparison.

  5. And while it’s not “fine” art, there’s also the recent Muhammed cartoon controversy in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jyllands-Posten-pg3-article-in-Sept-30-2005-edition-of-KulturWeekend-entitled-Muhammeds-ansigt.png.

  6. Marc Mayer says:

    Jennifer, I totally agree. For me, raised Jewish, I was also mesmerized by Catholicism, the power of ritual, fear of sin and hell, and the Pope himself. In 7th grade I went to Saint Patrick’s in New York City to attend the service with a Catholic friend of mine. I asked him to teach me how to receive the Eucharist. I followed behind him and received the wafer. I could only think of the transgression I had just committed in the midst of scenes of the crucifixions. I understood fear in a whole new way. I do agree that the mythology of Catholicism and its depictions are a lot more intense than many contemporary artists’ interpretations.

  7. Pingback: Reflection in the Porcelain Pond | Art21 Blog

  8. Pingback: Letter from London: Scrooged | Art21 Blog

  9. Pingback: “I am the Invisible Being” | My Work

Leave a Comment