Sure signs of spring: The groundhog not being frightened by his shadow. Baseball standings showing the Royals, Devil Rays, and Pirates tied for first place. Articles about income tax. Marshmallow Peeps and chocolate bunnies. And Bill Donohue, head of the Catholic League, denouncing another â€œattackâ€ on Christianity. This year â€“ and this is not an April Foolâ€™s joke! â€“ the last two are related, because Donohueâ€™s mad about a new chocolate Easter treat, which he claims is â€œone of the worst assaults on Christian sensibilities ever.â€ He must have very delicate sensibilities and no sense of proportion whatsoever.
What is this horrible assault? Artist Cosimo Cavallaroâ€™s â€œMy Sweet Lord,â€ a six-foot tall, 200-pound depiction of the crucified Christ made out of milk chocolate. Cavallaro specializes in art made from unusual materials, often food (cheese, candy, ham, etc.). It was supposed to be shown at the Lab Gallery, a street-level location in the Roger Smith Hotel in Manhattan starting Monday (4/2) and running through Easter Sunday, but after a firestorm of controversy spearheaded by Donohue, the show has been cancelled. Donohue blustered, â€œThe fact that they chose Holy Week shows this is calculated, and the timing is deliberate.â€ Well, isnâ€™t the week celebrating the Crucifixion exactly the perfect time to display a depiction of said event? (Despite which, the gallery and the artist claimed that the timing was coincidental.)
â€œWell itâ€™s got to be a chocolate Jesus / Make me feel good inside / Got to be a chocolate Jesus / Keep me satisfiedâ€ â€“ â€œChocolate Jesusâ€ by Tom Waits & Kathleen Brennan, from Mule Variations (Anti, 1999)
Yes, Chocolate Jesus is the latest threat to the fiber of civilization. Is it because heâ€™s edible? Seems like Catholics are used to eating the body of Christ. Anyway, I havenâ€™t noticed Donohue denouncing these chocolate Jesus and Mary candies. Maybe itâ€™s because Cavallaroâ€™s Jesus is made of milk chocolate rather than white chocolate, insinuating that Jesus was black, or at least fairly tan, which shouldnâ€™t be such a surprise given where J.C. was from and that he spent a lot of time outdoors. Is it because heâ€™s naked, with not even the flimsiest of loincloths hiding his willy wonka? Well, one would assume that the head of the Catholic League has some familiarity with, say, John 19:23: â€œThen the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took his garmentsâ€¦.â€ But yeah, Iâ€™m guessing itâ€™s the historically accurate nudity thatâ€™s got Donahueâ€™s knickers in a bunch. Apparently he thinks itâ€™s time for the return of the fig leaf.
Seriously, why is this a big deal? This is not the Virgin Mary constructed of elephant dung and pornographic cutouts (Chris Ofili) or a crucifix in a glass of urine (Andres Serranoâ€™s â€œPiss Christâ€). Witness this U.S. postage stamp not too many years ago that reproduced Italian artist Paolo de Matteisâ€™s 1712 painting â€œMadonna and Child,â€ which showed the baby Jesus' penis.
Leo Steinbergâ€™s 1983 book The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion documents hundreds of such paintings and sculptures, and even explains the important theological point they make: Christ was the incarnation of God as Man â€“flesh and blood, down to every anatomical detail. Famous artists created some of them, including DÃ¼rer, Rembrandt, Raphael, and Rubens. Steinberg includes 300 illustrations; presumably this book would give Donohue apoplexy.
The above-named artists all focused on the baby Jesus, but while less common, there are some nude Crucifixions. Thereâ€™s Josep Subirachs's Passion faÃ§ade that's part of the Gaudi-designed La Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona (left).
And Michelangeloâ€™s ca. 1494 Crucifixion woodcarving (right).
Speaking of Michelangelo, check out his sculpture Risen Christ in the Dominican church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. Note the ugly loincloth in the photo below! Art critic Waldemar Januszczak has written of this (London Sunday Times, 4/23/2000): "I know a fail-safe way of testing the health of Christianity. All it involves is noting whether Michelangelo's Christ is wearing a loincloth. If Christianity is healthy, there is no loincloth. If Christianity is experiencing one of its turns for the worse, there is.â€
For Donohue to consider Chocolate Jesusâ€™ nudity shameful suggests that he is sexualizing Christ, which is the last thing in the world he should do. Either that or Donohue is a shameless media whore who summons his outrage solely to get his name in the papers. Last April, he called some cartoons in a University of Oregon school newspaper â€œone of the most obscene assaults on Christianity I have ever seen.â€ He described the â€œtwo most offensive graphics: one was a depiction of a naked Jesus on the cross with an erection; the other, titled 'Resurrection,' showed a naked Jesus kissing another naked man, both sporting erections.â€ Okay, the latter really would offend the majority of Catholics due to the religionâ€™s hatred of homosexuality (which is not to say that that means the picture would deserve censorship!), but the historical accuracy argument supports the former again: after the heart ceases to pump, blood sinks from gravity, and after the veins in the legs fill up, the veins in the penis are next, resulting in an erection; there is also a common phenomenon during executions of erections due to involuntary physiological reaction to extreme trauma. Itâ€™s not a pleasant image to contemplate, but Mel Gibsonâ€™s movie The Passion of the Christ wasnâ€™t warm and fuzzy either. Donohue reacted quite favorably to that movie, by the way, telling Paula Zahn, â€œIt will bring people back to the church, and it will be a good thing for Catholics and Jews.â€ He apparently was not bothered by the nudity of the resurrected Christ in that movie, so Jesusâ€™ butt isnâ€™t a problem for him, just Jesusâ€™ penis.
Paradoxically â€“ or deceptively â€“ the full name of the group Donohue leads is Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. When heâ€™s not denouncing art, heâ€™s saying things such as â€œHollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particularâ€ and â€œHollywood likes anal sexâ€ on Scarborough Country (2004), where he also declared, in response to critics of The Passion of Christ, â€œThere are certain things that the left won't tolerate. They are censorial at heart,â€ which is pretty funny considering that most of the time Donohue is quoted heâ€™s trying to get art censored.
Other things Donohue has railed against: South Park, The Simpsons (for showing a crucifix-wearing woman dancing to a ZZ Top song), The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the Arnold Schwarzenegger film End of Days (because it shows a priest being crucified on a ceiling by Satan â€“ what, itâ€™s anti-Catholic to show Satan being evil?), some Bill Maher comments on Politically Incorrect, the Columbia University Marching Band, presidential candidate John Edwards (which breaks the law concerning tax-exempt religious organizations involving themselves in elections), and the Brooklyn Museum of Art and RenÃ©e Cox for her photograph "Yo Mama's Last Supper," in which she stood nude in Christâ€™s place, surrounded by a dozen black apostles.
Perhaps Donohueâ€™s even more uncomfortable with metaphors than he seems to be with Jesus' penis. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based critic, poet, and composer who loves just about anything chocolate.