A Case of Christian Graphic Art: Too Graphic? Or Beautiful?

I've mentioned before my friend and colleague Dan here at ACU. Dan teaches in the Art Department and we've collaborated on research regarding Christian aesthetics.

Dan is always pointing me to interesting stuff in relation to Christian art. Last week he sent me a picture of a controversial cover of a New Testament translation. The cover was designed by Chip Kidd for Richmond Lattimore's translation of the New Testament. Kidd's cover uses a picture taken by the infamous Andres Serrano (of Piss Christ fame). The photo is from an actual body in a morgue. Kipp, obviously, uses this dead body to make connections with the death of Jesus. Here was the original cover:

The cover caused such a controversy it was eventually pulled and replaced with something less graphic:

Here is a bit on the Kidd/Serrano cover from the New York Times:

Graphic design projects can range from the sacred to the profane. One of the most notorious: a cover design by the renowned book designer Chip Kidd for the Richmond Lattimore translation of the New Testament, published last year by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. It featured a Serrano photograph of a dead man's face -- all glazed eyes and blood-stained skin. ''It's horrifying, but also kind of serenely beautiful,'' said Mr. Kidd, who was told to think of the translation as a literary novel. ''The cover was startling and fresh and true,'' noted Laurie Brown, vice president of marketing at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. ''But we had quite a strong negative reaction from buyers at Waldenbooks and Barnes & Noble.'' She pointed out that the forthcoming paperback will offer a more traditional image of Christ on the cross.
Here's how The New York Magazine described the cover when the translation came out:
A long-awaited new translation of the New Testament by respected scholar Richmond Lattimore has but Andres Serrano once again in the line of fire. The book's striking cover--created by jacket design guru Chip Kidd--seems like a standard-issue, mildly shocking modern Christ rendering: a photograph depicting the bloodied face of Jesus. The provocation is the fact that the image was created by Serrano, the infamous menace to the Christian right whose National Endowment for the Arts-sponsored Piss Christ--which feature a cross drenched in urine--sparked an unholy stink throughout the nature seven years ago...But while the ide of Serrano's illustrating a Bible will draw fundamentalist fire from all the predictable quarters, Kidd says he like the image and didn't care who created it. "This [Bible] is for literate, intelligent people," he says. "It's not for little old ladies to read on their way to work." "We knew it would raise hackles, "admits a spokesman for the book's publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. "But hey, the picture works."
Any opinions? Too graphic? Blasphemous? Horrifying and serenely beautiful? Theological problems?

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11 thoughts on “A Case of Christian Graphic Art: Too Graphic? Or Beautiful?”

  1. The image doesn't connect as Jesus for me. Instead, it makes me wonder about the pictured man's story. Who was he? How did he die? What happened to him? And why? The image only reminds me that we all die, and that we all have a story.

  2. Design-wise, it's a good picture. And since the Passion of the Christ movie, maybe not too graphic. But the fact that the blood was real, the model a dead body, is disturbing, and I agree with the feelings that led bookstores to refuse to put it on the shelves. You never know who, having recently been through something traumatizing and heading to the religion section in search of answers, would instead stumble on this book. Also, little of the hope found in the NT is expressed in the picture.

  3. I agree with Patricia. Knowing that the picture is of someone real, I immediately break from the Jesus connection. I want to know what happened to the guy in the morgue. Just my two cents.

  4. Christianity's central figure is a man who was tortured to death. I don't like the cover - it makes me uncomfortable - but I think it is right.

  5. Shouldn't the gospel ALSO make us more curious who that man is/was? That man being any nameless person we may come across. Our neighbor, even.

  6. Christianity, at least the conservative American Protestant branch, has long used the dead Jesus as its premiere symbol. Having spent over a decade in conservative churches in the south, if I had to describe what Christianity meant to most of the people in the pews (at least from how they themselves described their faith), it would be "Christainity is about the death of Jesus."

    Thus, I find the complaints to be rather ridiculous. If Christianity wants to separate itself from images of death and be scandalized by them, perhaps it needs to rethink (in many sectors of the faith) how it describes its foundational events. Because, honestly, the churches I grew up in were fixated on the death of Jesus much more than they were interested in his life.

  7. I remember seeing the original Chip Kidd cover in the bookstore and thinking "finally, a New Testament with some cajones". I've got copies of both covers. The Chip Kidd cover was on the hardback, the dull black one came out on the paperback.

  8. Am I a pervert or does that eye remind anyone else of, erm, the female nether regions? I don't know if it's deliberate, but let's assume the eye resembles a vagina. To me, that makes a lot of sense. Because after Christ's death there comes resurrection. Rebirth, life. The eyes as the windows into the soul and Christ's death as the salvation of souls. On the other hand, the decidedly dead gaze (or lack of gaze altogether) might also be a negative comment. Spiritual stillbirth or something. That in Christ's death we find a frustrated promise. A negative comment on the cover of a New Testament is pretty cool. And brave. What do you guys think?

  9. My husband's response, when I showed him the cover was "What the hell is wrong with people?" I think that sums it up pretty succinctly.

  10. Hehe.. Don't tell my wife that I'm a Freudian, because she studies psychology and hates the guy. I must admit though, as much as I like the science based psychology of today, I do find the almost "practical philosophy" psychology of Freud and his ilk much more appealing. If as nothing else than as thought experiments. Then again, I might just be in love with my mother! :)

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