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Blasphemy or Art? Piss Christ by Andres Serrano

ByKeisha Frimpong

Mar 17, 2021
Chist on a cross is represented in a bright radiant light while the background fades into an intense red. The whole image appears as over-saturated

The American photographer, Andres Serrano has produced numerous series exploring identity, culture and humanity from his 1992 series The Morgue to the 2017 series, Made in China. However, Serrano is most known for his highly controversial photographs involving bodily fluids such as menstrual blood and human breast in connection with Christian symbols. The most famous of these works is Serrano’s 1987 Piss Christ.

Andres Serrano was raised in a strict Roman Catholic home, but during his time at Brooklyn Museum Art School he started to explore his own beliefs and understanding of Catholicism. Thus, the majority of Serrano’s early works had a strong focus on the Catholic church.

However stirring away from the classical representation of the lamb of God rather than presenting its canonical idealised images, this photographer chose to take a more explicit approach by using the body parts of a cow and its blood to accompany the religious subject. Piss Christ is a photograph presenting a small plastic crucifix that has been plunged into a small glass tank containing Serrano’s urine.

The image presents a weak and defeated looking Christ nailed to the cross and as a yellow light shines on the godly figure, a red cloudy colour surrounds the plastic figure almost masking itself as blood. The artwork has been quite successful and received positive global recognition especially after winning the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art’s Awards in the Visual Arts Competition. The artwork also received positive reactions after being exhibited at the Stux Gallery, New York in 1987.

This picture however, has caused a huge uproar amongst members of the Catholic Church and become highly controversial after raising the question of whether the image is blasphemous or not.

In an interview with Bill Moyers, the Catholic nun and art critic, Sister Wendy Beckett did not view the work as blasphemous but was instead shocked at how Christ is being represented. More recently, in 2011 the photograph was vandalized while exhibited in the Collection Lambert museum of contemporary art in Avignon. Serrano himself was shocked at the attention Piss Christ received and he has previously stated that as a Catholic and a follower of Christ himself, he did not intend to produce an image that would cause any offense or was blasphemous in any way.

When I first saw Serrano’s artwork, I assumed the crucifix was surrounded by blood, as this was a usual material for the artist to use. However, after learning the true context of Piss Christ truthfully, I was disgusted. I had previously only seen artworks with religious subject matter that presented Christ’s divinity as sacred, usually by depicting Him with a halo above his head, and when blood was involved it was often presented to be biblically accurate and meant to represent his sacrifice.

For example, The Crucifixion by Matthias Grünewald presents a weak Christ with his head hung to the side, just as Serrano’s plastic Christ. Additionally, although the Holy figure is detailed with blood, it is biblically accurate as the blood pours out from his side and drips down his face as his head is being pierced with the crown of thorns. So, to learn that Serrano had submerged the Christ figure in his own urine, I was confused at why the artist believed this was an appropriate material to use when presenting such a divine figure. However, I decided to take a step back and try to understand why Serrano used his own bodily fluids.

I referred back to my own Catholic teachings and interpreted the artwork as a way to portray the Catholic idea that all human beings are made in the image of God. Thus, as our bodies were created by God and are a presentation of his omnipotence and perfection, by placing an image of Christ in bodily fluids Serrano presents humanity’s emotional connection with God while forming as well a physical connection.

Alternatively, Serrano has stated that Piss Christ, symbolises the way in which Christ died and that the urine represents the other bodily fluids that come out of a dead body.

Despite this being a highly graphic interpretation, I slightly agree with the artist that the audience and society must begin to understand the crucifixion as it really was. Rather than masking and idealising the event as it has been for decades in the art world. Overall, Andres Serrano is a highly skilled artist and I admire the way in which he bravely uses various materials to present religious subjects.

Although I do not agree that Piss Christ is blasphemous, I do not think it was neither necessary nor respectful to submerge a divine image in bodily fluids. However, I do agree that today’s society must mature past the previous idealised depictions of Christ and view the crucifixion as a highly violent death sentence in order to truly appreciate the Christ’s sacrifice for humanity.

Image: ‘Piss Christ’ by Andre Serranos used under fair use.