BeliefWatch: Strong Reaction to Chocolate Jesus

Last Monday, as Christians around the globe prepared for Holy Week and Easter, the Italian-American artist Cosimo Cavallaro was leading a car chase through the streets of New York City. With reporters trailing close behind, Cavallaro drove a refrigerated truck through narrow, clogged streets until he finally lost his pursuers and came to rest at an undisclosed—but large, cool and accommodating—location. There, he unloaded his masterpiece: a life-size sculpture of Jesus Christ, totally nude and made entirely of dark chocolate.

The week before, plans to display the sculpture at a Manhattan gallery were scrapped when Christian groups protested the upcoming exhibition. Bill Donohue of the Catholic League called it "one of the worst assaults on Christian sensibilities ever." Newspapers and blogs from Winnipeg to Romania picked up the story and, as a sign of how tense things have become on both sides of the culture wars, the artist and his wife began receiving death threats on their answering machine and via e-mail. In an age where inflatable Jesus, light-switch Jesus and skateboarding Jesus are available online—and other artists have, within recent memory, produced versions of the Christian Lord far more controversial than this one—an observer might pause to wonder why Cavallaro's sculpture triggered such a strong reaction. The artist himself insists there's nothing X-rated in his conception, although "I can't stop people from thinking that way." Having grown up in a house where crucifixes hung above beds, Cavallaro imagines that Christians took offense because his Christ was "perishable and palatable ... It made [Jesus] a real man."

Neither sex nor religion is Cavallaro's usual subject. Food is his medium and most of his work is at least a little disturbing. He once covered a bed entirely with ham; another time, he plastered a hotel room with melted cheese. He hopes, one day soon, to do a jelly-filled room and a baloney wall. He created his Jesus Christ once before, pouring milk chocolate into a mold, as you would a bronze sculpture, but he couldn't find a home for it and it melted. Now, as Cavallaro fields offers to exhibit this darker, more durable Christ in bookstores, galleries, churches and restaurants across the country, the statue itself quietly awaits its fate, and if it could be said to do such a thing, is probably praying that the cool weather holds.