Defending Christ the Wrong Way

Photo’s Destroyers Lose Sight of Jesus’ Example

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, APRIL 21, 2011 ( This week, as the Christian world prepares itself to commemorate the death and resurrection of Christ, Europe witnessed another battle, albeit bizarre, over the crucifix.

A work by New York photographer Andres Serrano titled “Piss Christ,” was irreparably damaged while on display in Avignon, France. It was part of the “I Believe in Miracles” exhibition, the personal collection of art dealer Yvon Lambert.
On Palm Sunday, four people participated in the destruction of the work, tearing the acrylic screen and slashing the photograph with an ice pick. Another photograph of a religious sister was also damaged. The photo appears to have been permanently disfigured.
The work, now infamous, was a photograph of a crucifix immersed in a jar of the artist’s urine. Various interpretations have been given to the work over the years.

Damien Casey, a systematic theology professor at Australian Catholic University, defended the work, speaking of Serrano’s exploration of “the relation between the abject and the sacred that makes ‘Piss Christ’ not only good art, but good religious art, bordering on the iconic.”

Even Sister Wendy Beckett declared that it had iconographical value as a simplistic message to superficial people. “It shows what we have done to Christ: that is, the way contemporary society has come to regard Christ and the values he represents.”

U.S. Senator Jesse Helms and Joe D’Amato declared before the Senate that “this so-called piece of art is a deplorable, despicable display of vulgarity” during a 1989 Senate hearing.

Others, such as Cardinal George Pell, while still archbishop of Melbourne, tried unsuccessfully to obtain an injunction from the Supreme Court of Victoria to restrain the National Gallery of Victoria from publicly displaying “Piss Christ.”

Even the artist has vacillated regarding the meaning of his work. At first Serrano claimed, “I started that work as an attempt to reduce and simplify a lot of the ideas and images that I had been doing up until that time. I didn’t do it to be provocative, I did it because damn, the colors would look good, you know.”


As the years wore on the interpretation became how “spiritual beliefs have been exploited and spiritual values debased.” Serrano would appear to have taken a page from Sister Wendy’s interpretative guide.

The work first appeared in 1989 at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art’s “Awards in the Visual Arts” competition, sponsored in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, and won $15,000. It reappeared in the 1997 “Sensations” exhibit, which featured the more unsettling works from the personal collection of British-Iraqi adman/collector Charles Saatchi.

Featured alongside images of child murderers, a shark in formaldehyde and an image of the Virgin Mary covered with elephant dung, Serrano’s work shared one common connection (besides questionable taste and minimal aesthetic value): It was meant to shock and upset “the masses,” as defined by the artists and organizers.
 [If I may permit myself a brief aside, it seems surprising that this “anything goes” exhibition seemed to be only capable of falling back on sexuality, child abuse and denigration of sacred images (although they opted out of Islamic or Judaic references) for artistic inspiration. In this sad, sterile, sorry state of artistic affairs, Damian Hirst’s pickled shark came out the winner as decidedly the most imaginative way of getting attention.] 
If the work had as its primary value shock and reaction, then certainly the controversies that surrounded it allowed it to blossom into fullness. Instead of slipping into oblivion, with other peculiar iconographical ideas like “Nude Napoleon as Mars” by Canova, or “Nero as a Sun God,” or the 1980s pop band Devo, the image continued to live through heated discussions and occasional attacks.
Indeed, with its titanic fame resting on its ability to provoke, could it not be said that its greatest hour was its destruction?

There may be many who breathe a sigh of relief with one less image denigrating Christ in the world, but then there are still television, pop music and plenty more “artists” to produce more. In fact, I suspect that Serrano may have kept a negative of his “money-shot.”
Perhaps there are those who feel that an important statement was made in defense of faith — an active defense of the sanctity of the Christian belief. The vehement defense of Mohammed after the Danish cartoon episode of 2006 certainly assured that everyone will think twice before publishing another disrespectful image of the prophet.
But Christ didn’t take an ice pick to those who spat on him, beat him and laughed at him, nor did he tell his followers to do so. His mother didn’t scratch and kick his jailers; during the most horrific, denigrating event in the history of humanity, she simply stayed by his side, a steadfast witness to her Son’s humiliation by those infinitely inferior.
The Church has fought long and hard for images, and is in fact the greatest patron of the arts in history. The images she has inspired are diverse and timeless: the Sistine Chapel, the cathedral at Chartres, or the exquisite illuminated manuscripts, to name but a few. She has faced iconoclasm and even commissioned a few problematic works herself, but the Church has never given up on art.

In the wake of the attack on Serrano’s work, Christians have been painted by the brush of secular media as iconoclasts and barbarians, and frankly there is little defense. François Mitterrand, last heard defending Roman Polański against charges of rape and boasting of sex tourism in Thailand, pounced on the Serrano affair as an “attack on the freedom of creation,” and deployed the ultimate missile of condemnation, “intolerance.”

Perhaps one might not consider it art, but the image was private property. The violation of the gallery, the threats to the security guards and the damage to another’s rightful possessions do little to exhibit Christianity in its best light.
Sadly, it is true. The culminating moment for Serrano and his crucifix in urine was the moment of its destruction, when Serrano succeeded in provoking followers of Christ to lose sight of his example and resort to violence.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She can be reached at

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