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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  • Diane Kamer

    Oh my gosh, I have tried for years to remember the name of that Wooly Willy thing. Thanks for the memory jog (and the great post).

  • Heather

    Your Casper story reminds me of a liturgical decoration they had at the University of Toronto’s Newman Centre chapel one year at Advent/Christmas, maybe eight or nine years ago. I think what they were going for was “Christ diving into the incarnational world” or something like that.

    This was illustrated by a life-sized human figure mannequin or theatre prop of some kind, naked (with Ken doll anatomy), spray painted gold, dangling more or less upside down from the ceiling over the heads of the assembly.

    It sounds absurd and kind of creepy, but there is no way I can do justice to the sheer levels of absurdity and creepiness.

  • Anna

    You’d think all the popes would get enough penitential hideousness in that audience hall with the windblown Jesus sculpture, but I guess the pope has the advantage over the audience attendees since he gets to have his back to the thing. But his ferula he actually has to see. Is it a reminder that not all the people of the Church get to be surrounded by the beauty of Rome churches and lots of us are stuck with auditoriums? There’s one parish nearby which has a ghost Jesus rather than either a crucified or resurrected Jesus (pale white face; no feet, just a trailing off of robes), but it’s not quite as bad as what you describe. Less a Casper and more a “here’s the kerygma of belief arising in the hearts of the disciples” depiction.

    Have you read Graham Greene’s “The End of the Affair”? There’s a scene where the woman is sitting in a church hating the ugly “art” and doing her best to hate a religion that thinks resurrecting such gruesome physicality is some kind of good thing.

  • AnneG

    Pope Francis’ look is sorta, “¡Cómo sea,” the Spanish equivalent of “whatever”.
    And I always thought this was the ugliest piece of “religious art in the world:

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    I’m sorry, Max, but I was one of those wincing when I saw the different ferula for the All Saints’ Day Mass; I know it is meant to represent Christ in glory, but it looks like the corpus is wreathed in silver tinsel.
    However, I was able to give myself a slap round the head to remind myself (1) the merit of the thing does not consist in its artistic excellence but in the symbolism it conveys and (2) we’re Catholics; we’re supposed to be kitschy.
    Thanks for this piece reminding me to stop being so precious :-)

  • lindenman

    His Holiness does have that thanks-for-the-sweater-Aunt-Ellen look, it’s true.

  • Robster

    Re the new ferule: ‘cubic zirconium,’ Here are a couple of church crucifixes that I find …..odd. Muscle beach Savior, or the Brawny paper towel guy?

  • Dan

    How about this one?

  • Henry Law

    Hopefully it will get stolen.

  • JohnE_o

    Is that Darth Vader?

  • Fr. Erik J. Richtsteig

    At my second assignment after ordination, the celebrant’s chair was under “Big Foot”. It was a huge plaster Risen Christ that looked like he was shrugging and yes had really big feet. I had nightmares of it falling on me.

  • Rae Marie

    The cross itself is beautiful but the corpus is all distorted and not even on the cross.

  • ahermit
  • AnneG

    Haha, lots of people thought that. I thought it looked like a sea turtle carapace. You should see the Christus. It matches.

  • AnneG

    Martha, isn’t religious art supposed to be beautiful while teaching the truths of the Faith?

  • AnneG

    Max, I really love icons and now I can see why the Eastern Churches have such strict rubrics for icons. Maybe they have the right idea. Enough creativity!

  • Sagrav
  • Y. A. Warren

    How about “Christians” stop focusing on the last three days of the life of Jesus and focus on how much fun he had hanging with family and friends while living a responsibly compassionate life on the same earth that we all inhabit?

    I want to see “Jesus, building with his dad, both all covered in sawdust, Jesus”
    How about “Jesus, arguing with his mother”, as all teenagers do/
    And another that i’d like to see, “Jesus being born in the bloody, painful mess that is human birth, as his poor daddy is the only one in attendance” Then the relief and joy that both wife and boy lived through the ordeal.

  • kmk1916

    ” Is it a reminder that not all the people of the Church get to be surrounded by the beauty of Rome churches and lots of us are stuck with auditoriums?”
    Good point–makes it easier. thanks!

  • Mary O’Grady

    I seem to remember that one of the early-20th-century surrealists painted a highly provoked Virgin Mary spanking the Child Jesus.

  • melissa w

    They are there, but they are less controversial. St. Joseph’s Cathedral of Columbus, Ohio has the most stunning stained glass window of Joseph teaching Jesus to use a lathe. It brings tears to the eyes it’s so everyday and real.

  • Y. A. Warren

    The Roman Catholic church has no business buying artwork with money that should be used in good works. The best advice the church should take is in the ten commandments: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.(Exodus 20:4-6)

  • Peggy Bowes

    Mary would have never spanked Jesus, and Jesus would have never done anything to be spanked over.

  • Peggy Bowes

    Um, Jesus was not born in a bloody, painful mess, according to Catholic doctrine. His birth was a miracle that left the Virgin Mary as ever-virgin. That can’t happen in a normal human birth as her hymen would have been broken.

  • jasonbmiller

    Graven images, as described in the Bible, were forbidden because people would worship them like idols. The ancient Hebrews had the bad habit of picking up these practices from their pagan neighbors. Sacred art is not worshiped, but evokes worship of God. You’re also cherry picking scripture, because in the instructions for the Ark of the Covenant, the builders were clearly asked to put statues/images of angels on it. These were also within the tabernacle. Sacred images are visual prayers and representations of scripture. You’ve heard the story a picture is worth a thousand words? That is certainly the case with religious art – they tell stories from the bible and the lives of holy people. Up until the last 100 years, illiteracy was a major problem in the world and still is in many nations. Religious art is a logical and beautiful solution to this problem. So when Protestants, who don’t know history very well, make the false claim that the Church kept people from reading the Bible – it was because 1) they were really expensive to produce and 2) people couldn’t read. Sacred images also inspire the worship of God. So when you patronize the Church suggesting they shouldn’t spend money on art, that is like saying the Church shouldn’t spend money on religious education or Bibles – the images educate, inspire, and promote worship! Plus, you make it sound like the Church doesn’t spend a ton of money on charitable activities, which is insane – schools, hospitals, medical clinics, medicine, food and shelter for the homeless, etc. anybody?! There are literally thousands of Catholic religions organizations, many of which have been around for hundreds of years, that do good works all the time. And please – promoting religious art to educate, inspire, and promote worship (and employ artists for glorifying God) is a good work. Come on man, you’ve got a serious chip on your shoulder against the Church.

  • Y. A. Warren

    “…you’ve got a serious chip on your shoulder against the Church.”

    You are correct. I do have a serious chip on my shoulder against the Church of Rome, which sold the Church of Jesus out to a political system, no later that the rule of Constantine. The riches of the church on earth are consistent with how to show power on earth, but are not signs of spiritual wealth.

    Pope Francis may be the only Pope who has ever attempted to walk the walk of Jesus and his humble apostles. It is time that all religions that call themselves “Christian” stop looking to the Church of Rome (The Vatican) for guidance in following Jesus as their “Christ.”

  • Marion Meely

    I found the most gorgeous Bronze
    Catholic Religious Plaques
    at Creator Mundi!