10 of the Most Controversial Christian Artworks in History
In times past, artists had to follow conventions on what they could and couldn’t do. The Middle and Renaissance Ages adhered to strict laws based on religious doctrines, and as such, anything potentially blasphemous can result in shame at best — and execution at worst.
But with new centuries emerged new ideals: They’re now more liberal than austere, and have offered artists more creative liberty than ever before. With communal values no longer at the forefront of activities, artists can illustrate their religious opinions without being curtailed by convention. However, this doesn’t mean that their work would be free from criticism and public scrutiny. Which works of art shook — and shaped — Christian thinking?
1) The Alexamenos Graffito (ca. 200 C.E.)
One of the earliest surviving depictions of Jesus was not even in a positive light: It was a graffiti of a man praising a figure on the cross, a donkey for a head. Inscribed below the figures were the words: Alexamenos worships his god.
The graffiti dates back to the 2nd century, a time characterized by two contrary social states: the rising popularity of Christian faith versus religious persecution and martyrdom. The Alexamenos Graffito was found at the Palatine Antiquarium in Rome, which was believed to be a school of sorts. It was likely a mockery of the Christian faith and its believers (in this case, a man named Alexamenos).
2) The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci (1492)
The enigma behind Leonardo da Vinci’s notorious The Last Supper has persisted and even changed over time. From the moment it was created, the piece created an uproar among the community. Historian and novelist Ross King called it “the ‘work of fame’ about which [Leonardo] dreamed [of].” He said: “It was the most copied painting of the next century — not only in paint, but also in marble, wax, and terracotta. Everyone wanted a version of it.”
The painting is thought to have featured Mary Magdalene, a follower of Jesus whom He cleansed of seven demons (She was also often labeled as a prostitute, although there’s no canonical account for that).
Mary Magdalene as a character was already the subject of scrutiny for many Christians. She was mentioned more times than other disciples in the Bible, which led some to think that she was Jesus’s lover — and even inspired fictional adaptations like Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. However, this claim was disputed several times by historians and theologians, saying that the figure in question is, in fact, St. John the Beloved.
But this is not the only mystery in the painting: Others believe that it was a mathematical code prophesying the end of the world, while others thought it encoded a 40-second requiem that paid tribute to the Passion of Christ.
3) The Creation of Adam, Michelangelo (1512)
The most celebrated fresco in Christian history, according to art scholars, contains secular themes and is therefore contrary to religious doctrine. Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, displayed in the marvelous interiors of the Sistine Chapel, depicts God within an anatomical figure: a human brain.
Michelangelo himself was religious, but he also valued secular thinking. The interpretation of the fresco as a brain led people to speculate that the artist may be positing two things: One: that God is central to our lives (a fairly religious postulation), or two: that God is an idea merely created in the imaginations of people. With multiple theories that connote different things, The Creation of Adam continues to baffle minds 500 years after its completion.
4) The Last Judgment, Michelangelo (1541)
Yet another painting by the famed Renaissance artist remained central to controversy. In fact, this fresco is considered to be the most overtly secular of all his work and was met with criticism and disapproval at the time it was painted. Here, Michelangelo painted humans (including saints) in the nude — a feat that was considered highly inappropriate, especially within a chapel.
People at the time, including dramatist Pietro Aretino, accused Michelangelo’s work of sacrilege. In a letter he supposedly addressed to the painter, he wrote: “[You have] chosen to display to the whole world an impiety of irreligion only equalled by the perfection of [this] painting!”
Michelangelo also incorporated elements from Greco-Roman mythology — another potential record of blasphemy. But beyond its religious implications, The Last Judgment remains especially iconic for its endeavors to illustrate reformative religious views.
5) The Yellow Christ, Paul Gauguin (1889)
By the end of the 19th century, society has adopted a more rational stance in most aspects of life. Avant-garde artists like Paul Gauguin, friend to Vincent Van Gogh, explored more radical themes in religious art. His work The Yellow Christ made use of elements that were largely “unnatural,” a complete turnaround from the Neoclassical art of the previous century.
In The Yellow Christ, the background was more geometrical than detailed, the peasants were painted with vague faces of disinterest, and — most notably — Jesus’s skin color is a stark yellow. Some art historians theorized that Gauguin was portraying a growing sense of disconnect between Jesus and the ordinary human (in this case, the peasants). Still, Gauguin continued to be fascinated with religion, incorporating it as a central theme in many of his works.
6) The Sacrament of the Last Supper, Salvador Dalí (1955)
Many considered Salvador Dalí’s The Sacrament of the Last Supper to be a bizarre interpretation of the biblical event. He depicted Jesus and the 12 apostles, all bowed towards Him, in a geometrical cupola with a scenic view of the mountains. Above them was the looming image of a man’s bosom and shoulders, wide and outstretched.
Dalí had once said: “Heaven is to be found exactly in the center of the bosom of the man who has faith,” and perhaps this was his (rather literal) way of depicting such a statement. Despite the criticisms it’s facing, Dalí’s work is defended by other critics as a piece of genuine spirituality — and not one of irreverence. Dalí himself had an ambivalent relationship with religion, calling himself a “Catholic without faith.”
7) The Black Christ, Ronald Harrison (1962)
By the 1960s, people were edging toward religious beliefs that were oriented towards freeing people from oppression. Philosophies like liberation theology began to be more apparent in poor and marginalized communities.
In 1962, South African artist Ronald Harrison painted The Black Christ, in which he depicted Albert Luthuli, activist and chief leader of the African National Congress, as Jesus on the cross. Beside him were Hendrick Verwoerd and John Vorster, two principal proponents of apartheid (racial segregation policies in South Africa). The painting led to the arrest and state-regulated torture of Harrison, and The Black Christ was smuggled into the United Kingdom. It was returned in 1997, a few years after South Africa began to be a democracy.
The wonder of The Black Christ lies in its revolutionary potential: Harrison challenged the view of Jesus as a God from merely above. He contextualized Jesus with and among a suffering community. Radical as it seemed, such depictions seem all too fitting — the majority of Jesus’s work, after all, involved immersing with the marginalized.
8) Piss Christ, Andres Serrano (1987)
Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ wasn’t a painting but a 60x40-inch photograph — and perhaps the most profane and controversial one to date. The image is simple: a small Crucifix submerged in urine. It caused an uproar in the Christian community and even sparked some dispute on whether such kinds of art should be censored.
Catholic League president Bill Donohue responded to the piece decades after it was made. “I think it has something to do with the fact that they know they can get away with impunity by insulting Christians,” he remarked in a YouTube video. He also said further in an interview with The Guardian: “I would argue that ethics should dictate that you don't go around gratuitously and intentionally insulting people of faith.”
On the other hand, Serrano himself claimed that he didn’t “mean anything” by the image. “The thing about the crucifix itself is that we treat it almost like a fashion accessory. When you see it, you're not horrified by it at all, but what it represents is the crucifixion of a man,” he said, and added: “In hindsight, I’d say Piss Christ is a reflection of my work, not only as an artist, but as a Christian.”
9) The Holy Virgin Mary, Chris Ofili (1996)
Typically, the view of the Madonna is one of purity and divinity, but painter Chris Ofili challenged this with a far more unorthodox take: a “sexually charged” Mary featuring clipped images of women’s buttocks from pornographic magazines. And it doesn’t end there: Against the golden resin was a ball of elephant dung plastered against the Virgin’s breast.
Ofili’s work outraged the Christian community; a visitor smeared paint on it after calling it “blasphemous.” The controversy ran so deep that former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani threatened to close the Brooklyn Museum of Art (where it was then displayed).
But to Ofili, the work was not meant to be profane; it was merely contextual to the black community, which he was a part of. “As an altar boy, I was confused by the idea of a holy Virgin Mary giving birth to a young boy,” said Ofili. “Now when I go to the National Gallery and see paintings of the Virgin Mary, I see how sexually charged they are. Mine is simply a hip hop version.”
Even the elephant dung had a purpose: “It had a connection with Africa,” he told The Telegraph. “People seemed to react to me using it, as a person of African origin. They assumed it was a front for selling drugs or had healing, mystical powers. But over time it became very beautiful and desirable — a spectacular substance in its own right.”
10) Monkey Christ, Restored by Cecilia Giménez (Originally Ecce Homo by Elias Garcia Martinez) (1930/2012)
When 81-year-old parishioner Cecilia Giménez noticed that the Ecce Homo, a fresco in the Sanctuary of Mercy Church in Zaragoza, was chipping and fading away, she wanted to do something about it. After securing permission from the priest, Giménez began to paint over it in the hope of restoring it to its former glory. Unfortunately, the effort turned futile when someone snapped a photo of it and shared it on social media.
Giménez claims that the work, at the time it was shared, was unfinished — but it was too late. The feat had gone viral. What was once known as Ecce Homo, or “Behold the Man,” is now known as “Behold the Monkey.” This name even had variants: “Monkey Christ” and sometimes “Potato Man.”
The constant ridicule took a toll on Giménez’s health, but it later brought about valuable things: an economic boost through local tourism, a £43,000 charity raise, and a culture of finding joy in things that used to be purely ceremonial.
“It was done with good intentions,” Giménez said. “People from all over the world are visiting the sanctuary now. That’s the best medicine. I used to cry a lot over all this but I don’t cry anymore because I can see how much I’m loved.”
“Blasphemy” and Creative Freedom
“Art is reflective of its time,” said Pop artist and former nun Corita Kent. Art is also reflective of the mind and identity. Many times, “controversies” are merely words to describe periods of societal reform (Michelangelo’s “secular” art, for instance, represented the ever-changing ideals of the period).
Still, it might help to realize that whatever art produced comes with some level of responsibility — not to the community, but the self. If a piece is questioned and doubted, the artist must be ready to defend it. How they defend their work is reflective of how committed they are to their creative and spiritual process.