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Pope Francis greets Andres Serrano at the Vatican, June 23, 2023.Video screenshot

VATICAN CITY (LifeSiteNews) –– Among nearly 200 artists received and warmly welcomed by Pope Francis at the Vatican on Friday was the notorious photographer Andres Serrano, creator of a blasphemous image of a crucifix immersed in urine.

June 23 saw Pope Francis welcomed around 200 artists from around the world to mark the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of the Vatican Museums’ collection of modern and contemporary art. The meeting, held in the Sistine Chapel, was comprised of “painters, sculptors, architects, writers, poets, musicians, filmmakers and actors” from across the globe, and included those who were no strangers to promoting anti-Catholic imagery.

Serrano and Catholic imagery

Andres Serrano – the 72-year-old photographer, whose widely immoral work includes the 1987 image “P— Christ” – was part of the large crowd gathered to meet the Pope, and received a warm greeting from Francis.

Serrano’s image, otherwise entitled “Immersion,” was a photograph of a small, plastic crucifix completely immersed in a liquid which Serrano attested was his own urine.

Indeed, the blasphemous image was not an isolated incident but part of a series Serrano made of similar such images involving bodily fluids, using blood (in particular sometimes menstrual blood) or semen. His 1985 work “Blood Cross” was an image of a “plexiglass cross filled with cow’s blood.” Blood leaked out of the cross in the image, to create the impression of flowing blood.

His 1985 “Pieta” featured his wife holding a “a large limp fish” in a distortion of the classic portrayal of the Virgin Mary holding the dead Christ at the foot of the cross.

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Speaking to The Guardian in 2016 about his controversial works, Serrano stated that “I see myself as belonging to a tradition of religious art going back to Caravaggio and others.”

He defended the work “Immersion” in particular, saying “Maybe if P— Christ upsets you, it’s because it gives some sense of what the crucifixion actually was like.”

Serrano claimed in more recent years that “you could say, I’m a controversial artist by accident. I had no idea P— Christ would get the attention it did, since I meant neither blasphemy nor offense by it.”

He added that “I’ve been a Catholic all my life, so I am a follower of Christ. But I’m an artist, and the role of the artist is to break new ground for himself and for his audience.” Such a claim is in stark contrast to his 2016 Guardian interview, in which he recounted how he was raised Catholic, received his Holy Communion and Confirmation, but then “stopped going to church for about 20 years.”

Warm papal welcome

Addressing the assembled participants of the meeting, Pope Francis spoke about the Catholic Church’s “natural and special” relationship with “artists.” An artist has “free rein to originality, novelty and creativity, and thus brings into the world something new and unprecedented,” said Francis.

Praising them for “cultivating your own originality,” Francis stated that the artists “enrich the world with something new.”

Going so far as to describe them as “visionaries, prophets” who introduce “novelty into history,” the Pope added that “like the biblical prophets, you confront things that at times are uncomfortable; you criticize today’s false myths and new idols, its empty talk, the ploys of consumerism, the schemes of power.”

This is an intriguing aspect of the psychology of artists: the ability to press forward and beyond, in a tension between reality and dream.

Often you do this with irony, which is a marvelous virtue. Humor and irony are two virtues we need to cultivate more. The Bible is rich in touches of irony, poking fun at presumptions of self-sufficiency, dishonesty, injustice and cruelty lurking under the guise of power and even at times the sacred. You can also serve to discern genuine religiosity, which is all too often presented in trite or demeaning ways.

Speaking to the press afterwards, Serrano stated he “was surprised to be invited and even more surprised that he [Pope Francis] gave me a thumbs up. And I was very happy that the [C]hurch understands that I am a Christian artist and I am not a blasphemous artist. I’m just an artist.”

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Serrano added that Francis’ greeting was with full knowledge of who Serrano was, saying “it was a great, mischievous smile.”

The photographer’s claim does not appear to be unfounded. In the lengthy greeting session following the Pope’s address, Francis can be seen greeting the participants with increasing fatigue. But when Serrano appeared before the Pope’s chair, a brief pause occurs while Serrano imparts a greeting, at which point the Pope clapped Serrano’s hand warmly, gave him a big “thumbs up” and smiled warmly.

Vatican official defends Serrano

In a press release issued prior to the event, the Vatican’s Dicastery for Culture and Education stated the purpose of the meeting was to build on the series of papal encounters with artists begun by Paul VI, and to “celebrate the work and lives of artists, highlighting their contribution to building a sense of shared humanity and promoting common values.”

The Dicastery’s prefect, Cardinal José Tolentino de Mendonça, added that “we need to revive the experience of the Church as a friend of artists, interested in the questions that contemporaneity poses to us (both the current ones, pressing with drama, as well as those so visionary that point to new possible futures) and willing to develop a richer dialogue and a growth in mutual understanding.”

It seems that Serrano’s history of blasphemous images was not an issue for the Vatican, however. The Dicastery’s Secretary, Bishop Paul Tighe, stated that controversial individuals had been specifically included at the event. “I think we all just have to work on the presumption of good faith of the artist who is trying to say something, challenge something, and may sometimes have to resort to strong measures to waken us up,” Tighe told the AP when asked particularly about Serrano.

Serrano’s work is without doubt “challenging.” His website contains a listing of his works, among which can be found his solo exhibitions, such as:

  • “A History of Sex” from 1997
  • “The Beauty of Evil” from 2001
  • “Via Crucis” from 2002, exhibited in Rome.
  • “Sh-t” from 2008.
  • “Ainsi soit-il” from 2015, which is French for the word “Amen.”
  • “Tortue” from 2016.

His work has also been included in hundreds of public exhibitions, particularly those highlighting sexual images or more “noire” works, including exhibitions such as the following:

  • “The Sacred and the Sacrilegious” in 1986
  • “Mary” in 1987
  • “AIDS in Democracy” in 1988
  • “Female (Re)Production” in 1988
  • “Elements: Money, Sex, Religion” in 1989
  • “Erotica Desire” in 1991
    “Saint Vitus on Ecstasy” in 1992

But Bishop Tighe downplayed fears about artworks, saying that provocation in art served “to waken us up, call us to a new alertness and a new consciousness.”