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Archbishop Erio CastellucciTEDx Talks / YouTube

Editor’s note: WARNING – the details of this article are extremely disturbing and scandalizing. LifeSiteNews has chosen not to publish any of the images described in this article.

CARPI, Italy (LifeSiteNews) — An Italian bishop has defended a controversial art exhibition in one of his churches, after some of the images on display were labelled as “blasphemous” due to the suggestion they portrayed someone performing sex acts on Christ on the Cross. 

In a statement published March 4, the Italian Diocese of Carpi defended a controversial art exhibition which launched in the diocesan museum church only days prior. 

Archbishop Erio Castellucci’s diocese is currently hosting an exhibition of around twenty images by artist Andrea Saltini, entitled “Gratia plena.” Running from March 2 through June 2 in the museum church of Sant’Ignazio a Carpi, the exhibition reportedly caused controversy within just “minutes” of opening to the public. 

As noted by La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana, Saltini – who presents himself as atheist or agnostic – produced images which portray Christ during His passion and death, along with images of Our Lady and St. Mary Magdalene. 

Presenting the exhibition to the public, the Diocese of Carpi wrote that it was “a new corpus of works, also including some papers, which pushes the artist to linger in a personal search for spirituality, for dialogue with the Other, the Mystery and the Faith, inviting the visitor to an experience of profound contemplation and comparison, starting from the languages of contemporary art.”

Father Carlo Bellini, a priest of the diocese, stated in the accompanying booklet for the exhibition that “we must recognize that they [Saltini’s images] are imbued with spirituality.”

In the twenty-fifth session of the Council of Trent, the Church outlined that images of the sacred are to be given “due honor and veneration… so that by means of the images which we kiss and before which we uncover the head and prostrate ourselves, we adore Christ and venerate the saints whose likeness they bear.”

A purpose of sacred images was also highlighted, with the Council fathers noting that bishops must employ the use of beautiful and sacred images so that people are “instructed and confirmed in the articles of faith,” and ultimately “be moved to adore and love God and cultivate piety.”

But, as noted by Bussola Quotidiana, the images are strongly suggestive:

The painting that is particularly scandalizing and outraging portrays a Christ on the cross perfectly recognizable by the inscription INRI (which gives its name to the work in plaster, wax and pigmented clay) and the nail marks on his feet. 

Except that, there’s a man bent over Christ’s groin with his face peering closely at the Lord’s genitals (God forgive us the boldness of the words, but that is what it is) who is not even clothed in a miserable rag. His right hand is hidden behind the Redeemer’s thighs, while his left hand reaches out to press Jesus’ ribs.

According to Bussola Quotidiana, the guide at the exhibition explained the INRI painting as portraying the centurion Longinus “crushing the rib of Jesus,” an action which contradicts Scripture. When the obvious pictorial suggestion of “oral sex” was highlighted to the guide, she reportedly replied: “Well, it could… after all, provoking is one of the artist’s intentions.”

Another image of Christ is entitled “Ascension,” and depicts Christ in a a clingy, sparkling green jumpsuit, split open at the front. He is wearing brightly colored motorcycle boots and holding a motorbike helmet. 

The “Noli me tangere” image, instead of portraying the Scriptural encounter between the Risen Christ and Mary Magdalene, shows Magdalene sitting in her underwear, while a dead man is bent over in her lap, wearing a loincloth. 

Saltini’s artistic treatment of the Virgin Mary – that is presented in a series of images called “Gratia plena” which give their name to the entire exhibition – features three images of Mary wearing armor, which Pharisees – wearing clothing akin to diving frog-suits – undress her.

According to the account provided by the explanatory booklet quoted by Bussola Quotidiana: “The painting depicts the Virgin being undressed by the Pharisees who want to investigate her virginal conception, but in reality she is dressing in armor.” The images portray the woman, meant to be Mary, in gradual stages of undress down to her underwear.

Having visited the images in person, Bussola Quotidiana repeatedly described them as “blasphemous,” highlighting the obvious intended “sensuality” of the images. 

But Archbishop Castelluci strongly defended the exhibition in the wake of the “thousands of readers” who contacted him following Bussola Quotidiana’s March 4 report, to express their consternation at the images. Castellucci is first of three vice presidents of the Italian bishops and was tipped to become the next president of the Italian bishops’ conference in May 2022. He is perhaps best known in the English-speaking world for a 2017 article recounting his experience at an exorcism, along with being a consulter of the Synod of Bishops and a participant of the Synod on Synodality. 

According to Fr. Bellini, Saltini – read the statement issued March 4 – “makes explicit reference to a religious narrative and theology that is not merely alluded to. The sacred scriptures with accounts of Jesus, Mary, the apostles, technical terms such as Grace, Paraclete, refer to a precise religion and thus the spiritual content flows from a tradition that is thus actualized, questioned, provoked and ultimately made alive and interesting today.”

“Saltini’s art is not devotional, we could hardly see it in a church,” said Bellini, “but it is true contemporary art with a religious subject, again a rarity. In front of these works one can meditate. That is why his work is a gift for believers and nonbelievers alike, to reflect on the mysteries of our being in the world, renewing the iconographic legacy and the affective heritage from our cultural tradition.”

With Bellini’s quotation ended, the diocesan statement continued by attesting that the images were not “blasphemous” at all, arguing that viewers needed to understand the images from the artist’s perspective. 

As for the judgments (or prejudices) that some paintings on display reproduce blasphemous or desecrating images, while falling within the free flow of opinions, besides being disrespectful to the path taken especially by the artist and also by the promoters, none of this is detectable in front of a correct view of the works (i.e. each one seen in the whole exhibition), documented (the exact point of vision as also indicated in the catalog for example for the painting entitled “INRI – St. Longinus”) and with a clear gaze (see Friar Christopher in The Betrothed “omnia munda mundis” “everything is pure for the pure” quoting St. Paul, Titus 1:15).

“For this purpose,” the diocese continued, “a subsidy will be prepared as an addendum to the exhibition catalog, presenting the individual works from the artist’s point of view that illustrates his religious and spiritual quest, providing the cultural and personal elements to understand its meaning.”

LifeSiteNews contacted Fr. Bellini for comment who replied that “I can honestly say that in the painting in question there is no intention to depict oral intercourse. Instead, the Gratia Plena painting is meant to exalt the virginity of Mary, who is dressed in a kind of armor. I exclude any blasphemous intent.”

To respectfully make your concerns known, readers can email the bishop’s office at: [email protected]