Garcia himself told Atlas News Agency, “There is nothing revolutionary in the painting. There is contemporaneity, but all the elements that I have used are elements that have been used in the last seven centuries in sacred art.” Art historian Morgan Haigh echoes the sentiments that there’s nothing shocking going on here, adding that the controversy “seems to me… a huge overreaction to an image of Christ which, whilst unusual to see in our own times, does not especially stand out as an exception in the history of art. Biblical figures and saints have often been made attractive or ‘sexy’ in art history, whether it’s images of the scantily-clad young Saint Sebastian pierced by arrows, the naked body of Mary Magdalene covered only by her hair, or the muscular torso of Christ in works by Michelangelo and others.” Haigh says García’s painting is as close to the real Christ as any by Raphael, Leonardo or Titian.
And in the grand scheme of ecclesiastical art, this isn’t the first rendition of Christ that’s garnered negative attention. When compared to Andres Serrano’s intentionally vulgar 1989 Piss Christ, for example, García’s image appears quite tame.
The debate over what Christ might have looked like is longstanding in both religious and art circles. Professor of religious studies and theological studies at the University of Waterloo in Canada, Alicia Batten, tells BBC Culture that images of Christ within the Christian tradition have always varied, usually reflecting the values of the artists and societies that produce them. “Given the dominance of particular notions of masculinity in many ‘western’ cultures, it is not surprising that some are upset with this image from Spain. The image apparently challenges some peoples’ ideal of who Christ should be, and indeed, their notion of what it means to be a man.”
It’s important to remember why Garcia’s painting was made in the first place: to draw people into the Church over Easter. Haigh says he’d imagine “the Popes of the Baroque period would be over the moon if a painting made people engage with how Jesus might or might not have looked.” While the controversy has certainly garnered public attention, only time will tell if Salustiano García’s latest work actually met the objective of getting more people to attend Easter Mass.
“What is clear”, Alarcón adds, is that what’s potentially controversial “is not the question of nudity – far from it. Precisely, the artist has used a cloth of purity, which is literally taken from a Christ procession in Seville. That is to say: This Christ is just as naked as any other who goes out during Holy Week.”
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