Looking at Mr. Godbar


chocolatejesusSure 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 “attack” on Christianity. This year – and this is not an April Fool’s joke! – the last two are related, because Donohue’s mad about a new chocolate Easter treat, which he claims is “one of the worst assaults on Christian sensibilities ever.” He must have very delicate sensibilities and no sense of proportion whatsoever.

What is this horrible assault? Artist Cosimo Cavallaro’s “My Sweet Lord,” 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, “The fact that they chose Holy Week shows this is calculated, and the timing is deliberate.” Well, isn’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.)

“Well it’s got to be a chocolate Jesus / Make me feel good inside / Got to be a chocolate Jesus / Keep me satisfied” – “Chocolate Jesus” 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 he’s edible? Seems like Catholics are used to eating the body of Christ. Anyway, I haven’t noticed Donohue denouncing these chocolate Jesus and Mary candies. Maybe it’s because Cavallaro’s Jesus is made of milk chocolate rather than white chocolate, insinuating that Jesus was black, or at least fairly tan, which shouldn’t be such a surprise given where J.C. was from and that he spent a lot of time outdoors. Is it because he’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: “Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took his garments….” But yeah, I’m guessing it’s the historically accurate nudity that’s got Donahue’s knickers in a bunch. Apparently he thinks it’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 Serrano’s “Piss Christ”). Witness this U.S. postage stamp not too many years ago that reproduced Italian artist Paolo de Matteis’s 1712 painting “Madonna and Child,” which showed the baby Jesus' penis.

Leo Steinberg’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 –flesh and blood, down to every anatomical detail. Famous artists created some of them, including Dürer, 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. There’s Josep Subirachs's Passion façade that's part of the Gaudi-designed La Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona (left).

And Michelangelo’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.”

For Donohue to consider Chocolate Jesus’ 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 “one of the most obscene assaults on Christianity I have ever seen.” He described the “two 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.” Okay, the latter really would offend the majority of Catholics due to the religion’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. It’s not a pleasant image to contemplate, but Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ wasn’t warm and fuzzy either. Donohue reacted quite favorably to that movie, by the way, telling Paula Zahn, “It will bring people back to the church, and it will be a good thing for Catholics and Jews.” He apparently was not bothered by the nudity of the resurrected Christ in that movie, so Jesus’ butt isn’t a problem for him, just Jesus’ penis.

Paradoxically – or deceptively – the full name of the group Donohue leads is Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. When he’s not denouncing art, he’s saying things such as “Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular” and “Hollywood likes anal sex” on Scarborough Country (2004), where he also declared, in response to critics of The Passion of Christ, “There are certain things that the left won't tolerate. They are censorial at heart,” which is pretty funny considering that most of the time Donohue is quoted he’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 – what, it’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 Renée Cox for her photograph "Yo Mama's Last Supper," in which she stood nude in Christ’s place, surrounded by a dozen black apostles.

Perhaps Donohue’s even more uncomfortable with metaphors than he seems to be with Jesus' penis. - Steve Holtje

Steve Holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based critic, poet, and composer who loves just about anything chocolate.