Ecce homo redux


Piss Christ (1987) by Andres Serrano.

If the news of the past few weeks has felt like a re-run of the 1980s—ongoing recession, government cuts, riots in London, Tories casting aspersions on the undeserving poor, the threat of another royal wedding—then add to the list of déjà vu moments a flurry of outrage concerning art and religion in America that’s like a recapitulation of the Helms vs. NEA spats of 1989. On that occasion Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ was in the firing line, accused of being a blasphemous portrayal. This week it’s been the turn of a video installation of a short film made the same year, A Fire in My Belly, by David Wojnarowicz, a work featured in an exhibition I linked to a couple of weeks ago, Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC. A Los Angeles Times piece previewing the exhibition also connected Hide/Seek and the earlier attacks by the right against the NEA, ending by saying “Times and attitudes change”. Well, not always…


A Fire in My Belly (1987) by David Wojnarowicz.

Piss Christ notoriously shows a plastic crucifix immersed in urine; A Fire in My Belly is a 30-minute film which features among its blizzard of images a crucifix besieged by marauding ants. Wojnarowicz’s work wasn’t even mentioned in the LA Times piece but this week’s furore has made it the focus of the entire show after the gallery withdrew the video following protests from the usual suspects, the Catholic League and a right-wing politician, Rep. John Boehner. The complaints are the standard bluster about blasphemy (again) and taxpayers funding “filth”. None of the complainants appear to care that Wojnarowicz’s film is a tribute made by a gay artist to his friends as they were dying from AIDS during the 1980s, a disease which also killed him in 1992, they see the work only as an offensive act. It’s too much to expect anyone reacting with such fervour to consider that the artist may have been comparing the suffering and treatment of people with Aids in that decade with Christ’s suffering on the cross, to do so would be to admit that the artist might have a point. In response to the work’s withdrawal the Transformer Gallery in Washington DC has been screening the film and organised a protest at the National Portrait Gallery. (Update: They also issued an open letter urging the reinstatement of the work.)

Continue reading “Ecce homo redux”

Behold the (naked) man


Two Studies for the Risen Christ by Michelangelo (both 1533).

Following the predictable outrage over Cosimo Cavallaro’s My Sweet Lord, aka the Chocolate Jesus, it’s worth remembering that the depiction of Jesus sans clothing is nothing new. Aside from all the paintings of Jesus as a naked infant, a quick search turns up these two examples by Michelangelo. The drawing on the right is owned by the Head of the Church of England (ie: Queen Elizabeth II) who—so far as we know—seems to have no trouble contemplating a naked Christ. Puritan factions among Christians baulk at nudity of any sort but it was Catholics who seemed to voice the strongest objection to Cavallaro’s work despite Pope John Paul II writing in Love and Responsibility in 1981:

“Nakedness itself is not immodest… Immodesty is present only when nakedness plays a negative role with regard to the value of the person, when its aim is to arouse concupiscence, as a result of which the person is put in the position of an object for enjoyment.”

The early Christian church seemed to have a different attitude to nude depictions, many scenes of Jesus’s baptism show a naked Christ. Censorship came in later, as with the painting over of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel and the painting of leaves over Masaccio’s Expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

The fig leaves were added three centuries after the original fresco was painted, probably at the request of Cosimo III de’ Medici in the late 17th century, who saw nudity as disgusting. During restoration in the 1980s the fig leaves were removed along with centuries of grime to restore the fresco to its original condition.

Michelangelo’s work was assaulted again during this period when an unlikely bronze wrap was attached to his statue of Christ in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome.


Christ Carrying the Cross by Michelangelo (1521).

These censorious attitudes are a world away from TV presenter and art critic Sister Wendy Beckett (a Carmelite nun, no less) enthusing in Sister Wendy’s Odyssey about the “wonderfully fluffy” pubic hair in Stanley Spencer’s Self Portrait with Patricia Preece (1937). Not all Christians find nudity a problem but then people who regularly complain about art rarely look at it or even seem to like it. As George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Previously on { feuilleton }
Giant Skeleton and the Chocolate Jesus
The Poet and the Pope
Angels 1: The Angel of History and sensual metaphysics
Gay for God
Michelangelo revisited