Graven Images

It was the kind of thing that was bound to get them crawling out of the woodwork. There is a certain type of Christian that just cannot resist embarking on a Crusade when anything that vaguely resembles a “just” cause presents itself. When Comino Carvallo intended to display his sculpture – a life-sized, anatomically correct figure of the naked, crucified Jesus (without the cross itself), made from more than 100kg of chocolate – at the Lab Gallery at the Roger Smith Hotel in Manhattan, during Holy Week of 2007, just such an opportunity arose. Leading the charge was Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, who hyperbolically (although completely earnestly) dubbed the piece “one of the worst assaults on Christian sensibilities ever” (don’t get me started…).


It’s almost so predictable as to be banal: myopic Christian becomes offended by an artwork that challenges his sense of himself and the world and so throws a tantrum. We see it all the time. Put a penis or a boob – any naughty bits – in it and all of a sudden you’re dancing with the devil. Worse, dare to actually ask said Christian to engage critically with his beliefs by making him examine the problematic constructions he has made of Jesus, and you might as well have booked your ride to the toasty side of eternity.


Now I do not necessarily hold that the Carvallo is a genius, but I do think that “My Sweet Lord” is a profoundly thought-provoking piece. I have watched interviews with him, and while he certainly exposes Donohue for the bigot he is, I do not think he has fully grasped exactly how profound his piece is. In other words, although I do not believe that Carvallo was deliberately making many of the points through My Sweet Lord that I am about to, it doesn’t matter: interpreting art was never a monologue by the artist that used the art object as a vehicle for expression; art is always a conversation. That is, by the way, why the Bible never has been, and never can be infallible: people are always unavoidably involved in the meaning-making process. Like Donohue, I hear the piece posing some troublesome challenges to traditional Christianity. Unlike Donohue, I recognise that the problems it reveals are mine, not its own.


There are three comments that the piece makes very powerfully to me. The first is about the commodification of contemporary Christianity. In the modern era, the Christian experience has become a consumable. We evaluate our church-going experiences according to how much we enjoyed them: Did we like the music? Did the sermon make us feel all warm and fuzzy? Was my worldview validated? Can I get a CD or T-shirt or book out of it to prove that I was there and am a serious devotee? Can I do it all again next week, once the euphoria has died down? Modern Christianity seems to me to spend a great deal of its time chasing spiritual highs and becoming so addicted to this drug that ultimately distorts its entire world. I think the sculpture, especially given that it was displayed during Holy Week, made that point perfectly. Pity Donohue and Co couldn’t be bothered to see it.


Second, it speaks to the temporary nature of the peace that is wrought through scapegoating violence. The crucifixion of Jesus was God’s rejection of the fundamental religious belief that violence against a scapegoat can provide lasting peace. In Jesus’ death, God is not endorsing the practice (otherwise Jesus should remain dead), but critiquing it by participating as the scapegoat and then forgiving the perpetrators of this unjust act, replacing it instead with the communal act of Holy Communion. For me, this statement is made through Carvallo’s use of chocolate as medium. In pagan scapegoating rituals, the victim is often consumed as part of the restorative process, just as the consumer would experience momentary bliss in consuming the chocolate Jesus. But the peace is never lasting: eventually society breaks down – blood-sugar levels spike and dip – and another scapegoat must be sought. Jesus’ death, however, exposes the inadequacy of scapegoating. Jesus told his disciples at the last supper to eat his body in remembrance of him (Luke 22:19), a living bread (or chocolate) that would never leave them hungry (John 6:35); not because his scapegoating was successful or somehow just, but because its very obvious injustice ought to make it clear to us that it is forgiveness, not violence, that leads to lasting peace.


Last, I like the idea of no cross, the separation of the icon of empirical power from the icon of the revelation of the nature of God. It says, in Jesus’s own words: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—  just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28). Take a moment to digest that: Jesus is saying that God does not act like an empire; Hen does not expect to see us bowing and scraping and insisting we are not worthy. On the contrary, God’s love for us expresses itself in Hens service to us, not in lordship. If that doesn’t make you question your evangelical notions of what happens in Heaven, then I don’t know what will. God is not Nero, despite our post-Calvinistic attempts to make Hen look like that.


Who knows why the Holiness Crusaders object to artworks like Carvallo’s. It could well be a case of “I don’t understand it, therefore it is evil”. It could be because it is threatening to have one’s sense of identity, so deeply entwined with a particular picture of God, threatened. Perhaps that is the principle behind the second commandment, which is commented on in Deuteronomy 4: 15-20:


You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the Lord your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven. But as for you, the Lord took you and brought you out of the iron-smelting furnace, out of Egypt, to be the people of his inheritance, as you now are.


If you read carefully, you will note that what is being commanded is that we make no graven image of God Henself, not that we make no graven images of other gods (that was covered in the first commandment; if this is not so, there is no substantive difference between the first and second commandments). The clue to interpretation lies in verse 15: because God did not reveal Henself to the Israelites in any substantive form at Horeb, they should resist attempting to confine God to any particular form. In other words, the second commandment essentially tells us that our human conceptions of God are inadequate and, more pertinently, destructive.


And before you use that statement to justify condemning Carvallo’s piece, ask yourself this: which is the more destructive idol: the milk chocolate Jesus-figure, fashioned as a non-religious artefact to prompt us to engage with the flaws in our attempts to do theology, or the post-Reformation notion of an angry and violent deity (in direct contradiction of the God revealed through the way that Jesus related to others)that insists on exacting blood-justice from the ones He purports to love, to which we stubbornly cling and which continues, half a century later, to perpetuate social injustice?

2 thoughts on “Graven Images

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  1. “The crucifixion of Jesus was God’s rejection of the fundamental religious belief that
    violence against a scapegoat can provide lasting peace.” Now, THAT is a provocative thought! Excellent piece!


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