The Ugliest Piece of Religious Art Ever

Here’s a sampling of Facebook comments on Pope Francis’ new ferula:

“Okay, I think I know what it looks like: Remember those old magnetic things where there were contained iron shavings, and there was a picture of a guy’s face and you used a magnet pen to move the shavings onto the guy’s face to make a mustache or a beard? So, this looks like the ferula version of that.”

“I am Jesus and I AM ON FIRE!!”

“Nooooo! Not a resurrexfix!”

I’d remind the first gentleman that the toy he’s describing is called a Wooly Willy. The others have it more or less right. The figure surmounting the staff is meant to represent Christ bearing the marks of His Passion, but covered in glory. Jesus is standing in front of the Cross, but He isn’t really on it. Sculptor Maurizio Lauri meant it to testify to “the life that overcomes death, the body that breaks the limit, the barrier fearful of the end.” Whatever that means.

Never mind your eyes — the thing’s so loud, it could hurt your ears. But travesties of sacred art have their own strange magic. Whether mass-produced schlock or the work of careless human hands, they can transcend their own crappiness and grow on you.

The first image of Jesus I saw after entering the church I would come to think of as mine was green. Not green with gangrene, like Holbein’s Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, but constructed from head to foot in a translucent celadon plastic. Actually, to speak of “head to foot” is misleading. This Christ-figure did have a head — a bald, beardless one, from which minimal outlines of a nose, eyes, and mouth had been molded — along with shoulders, arms, and a torso. But below the waist, the legs fused into something like a contrail. Behind the head was a square object, which I took for a halo, but which looked even more like a graduate’s mortarboard.

I hesitate to call the spectral-looking thing a corpus. With only its vaporous end touching the wooden cross that hung against the wall, it seemed to be floating blithely away. I’d entered the church (and planned to enter the Church) hoping for a representation of Jesus that was pained and grand, a little scary and a little stuffy — a trussed-up, prophesying Hannibal Lecter. Instead, behind the altar, I saw Mary Richards, with love all around her, about to cast her hat high above the Minneapolis crowds.

I complained as soon as I began meeting people to complain to. Reactions ranged from good-humored resignation to perverse affection. “We call it ‘Casper the Friendly Ghost,’” one lay Dominican said proudly. I gathered that Casper had been hanging there for so long that replacing him would have done violence to the chapel, compromised its feng shui. By virtue of his tenure, he’d become a landmark, even a mascot. If, one Thanksgiving weekend, U of A students had painted him red and blue, nobody would have been too enraged, especially since his new colors would have clashed less with the Advent candles than his old one.

To give Casper his due, there was something mesmerizing about him. Unlike most of the resurrected-Christ statues I’ve seen since, he made no claim to realism. Whoever had picked him had apparently done so without considering the chapel’s overall décor, which was all sobriety and restraint, whitewashed walls and hardwood floors, pews without kneelers, candles in dainty ceramic wind guards. In such circumstances, Casper was as incongruous as pyramids growing out of the Egyptian desert, and he filled me with something of the wonder that those monuments still inspire.

“What…how…why?” I’d ask myself, whenever the homily dragged and my attention refocused on Casper. “Oh, hell,” I’d tell myself. “It’s a mystery.” Very Catholic questions, very Catholic answers.

The catch, of course, is that Casper wasn’t Jesus. I never mistook one for the other, and I can’t think of a single person who did. Jesus and Casper resembled each other too little for that. And it wasn’t that Casper’s visibility made the Mass or the parish Casper-centric instead of Christocentric. Along the walls hung Stations of the Cross depicting the Passion of Jesus at His most recognizable. In another chapel hung a very somber, Germanic-looking crucifix made of dark wood. Even under Casper’s exalted gaze, priests planted a smaller, white crucifix on the altar when it came time for the liturgy of the Eucharist. But, again, Casper wasn’t Jesus. If that fact didn’t quite make him a usurper, it did make him a trespasser.

If this were a novel — or, better, a movie — we could all write the ending. Some fussy old monsignor would order Casper’s removal, but just as the movers took hold of him, some kid would cry, “LOOK!” — and sure enough, Casper would be spouting gore like Monty Python’s black knight. Or else Casper would start rasping, “Eloi, Eloi…” Well, for better or worse, this is real life, so none of that happened. At some point after I left the parish, Casper was removed, apparently without incident. I remember hearing that he has not been melted down or raffled off, but is safe in storage somewhere, like the Ark of the Covenant.

Early one Sunday morning I stopped en route to my first and only AA meeting to pray in the chapel where Casper once floated in lieu of Our Lord, and I can’t say in good conscience that the ambience suffers for his absence. But I have to add that no crucifix I’ve ever seen has held my attention like old Casper did. Granted, a really gruesome one might appeal to my looky-loo side. As it stands, seeing Christ in His agony makes me strain to summon all the prescribed reactions of awe and sorrow and gratitude. When I can’t quite manage, which is most of the time, I end up feeling guilty and furtive and depressed.

I’m not complaining. That state of furtive, guilty depression might be a good working definition of reverence. And I’m certainly not pleading on behalf of Maurizio Lauri’s ferula, which, quite apart from being an eyesore, evokes Dark Phoenix a little too strongly for comfort. But it sure does spur the imagination. All the comments I read were witty, all the commenters seemed, in spite of themselves, to be having a ball, and they were all doing it while facing ad orientam, as it were.

Whimsical or fantastical representations of Jesus might be a bad idea, but I’d say we do need whimsical and fantastical representations of something. If we’re due for another gothic revival, let’s not skimp on the gargoyles.

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