Serrano’s 1987 photo has attracted so much controversy over the last thirty years that it has become difficult to discuss it without reference to this history. It became the US culture war’s iconic image of artistic transgression. And even as recently as 2011 one of the prints was irreparably damaged in an attack in France.

Quite understandably, many Christians interpret this photo as a direct, blasphemous attack on the Christ who sacrificed his life for them. At first glance and acquaintance, this is a perfectly natural response.  

A deeper meaning

Yet, as art often does, the work also opens up space for further reflection. Indeed, it invites further theological reflection on the meaning of the cross itself as a sign of the utmost physical indignity and offence — something often getting lost in our sanitised and formulaic language about ‘the blood of the cross.’ Serrano draws attention to the fact that we may have domesticated the event of the crucifixion to the point that it is no longer felt as repulsive. He intended the piece to be a statement on the grotesque nature of crucifixions themselves. That it was, after all, the horrific event of a man being beaten, broken, and dying nailed to a cross.  As he once said it in an interview: ‘The fact that we are not horrified when viewing such an image does Jesus a disservice.” 

‘The fact that we are not horrified when viewing such an image does Jesus a disservice.” 

Not long ago I heard an Evangelical minister (unaware of Serrano’s work) say in a sermon: ‘My muck is smeared all over Jesus on the cross.’ Serrano’s work illustrates this perfectly. Moreover, throughout his ministry Christ was surrounded by the abject and the ‘waste’ of the world – that was his chosen environment. For Catholic Serrano the work is not sacrilegious but religious. He believes the work should not primarily be engaged with as an object of aesthetic contemplation but as an object of devotion, like an icon, to help one pray and meditate. Pondering these and several other layers of meaning, perhaps it is possible to give Immersion a second chance.

images can speak more powerfully than words.

To have the photo hanging side by side to pictures of detainees being tortured during the Troubles will lend even more meaning to the piece. Northern Ireland has as yet not had a proper truth recovery and reconciliation process. Words of peace and reconciliation do no longer have the semantic currency they may once have carried — instead they sound hollow and tired. Perhaps, in such circumstances, images can speak more powerfully than words.

Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin is Teaching Fellow in Religion, Philosophy and the Arts at King’s College London

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