09/29/2015 01:53 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Depictions of His Holiness Throughout Art History

By Marcy Kenney, Junior Specialist at Auctionata


As Catholics throughout the tri-state area gathered for His Holiness Pope Francis' visit to New York City, the work of American photographer Andres Serrano is ever-prevalent. Studying the complex ideologies of contemporary culture, Serrano is best known for his amber-hued photograph, "Immersion (Piss Christ)" which depicts the crucifix in, purportedly, a jar of the artist's own urine. First displayed in 1989, its inflammatory nature outraged many, though Serrano has proclaimed he is no heretic. Raised in a devoutly Catholic neighborhood, Serrano seeks to reconcile the sacred and the profane through formal imagery. Juxtaposing religious symbolism and bodily excretion, this photograph depicts the physical torment of Christ in his last moments upon the cross.

In the same series, Serrano also intimately studies the papal legacy of one of Pope Francis' predecessors, Pope Saint John Paul II. In "Immersion (Blood Pope III)," a striking portrait of His Holiness confronts the viewer, measuring five feet in height. His bust is closely cropped as he and his collar are stained in the recognizable rust color of blood, suggesting a sinister culpability of the Catholic Church. Executed in the shadow of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, blood came to symbolize danger, death and defilement while it has religiously symbolized redemption through transubstantiation. This duality of violence and passion is embodied in the startling beauty of the image. "Works such as these, from the artist's 'Immersions' series (1987-1988) which launched his career remain his most sought after work." says Miles Barth, Auctionata's Consulting Photography Specialist.


Depictions of His Holiness stretch back to Saint Peter, the first Pope with whom Jesus entrusted the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio depicts the martyrdom of Saint Peter through crucifixion in his 1601 painting "Crucifixion of Saint Peter." Peter asked that his cross be inverted so as not to imitate Jesus Christ, and Caravaggio's painting captures the Ancient Romans struggling to erect his cross.


A large number of the 266 popes are scattered throughout art history and these depictions have recently reentered the contemporary art world. Francis Bacon's 1953 painting, "Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X," portrays a distorted version of Spanish artist Diego Velázquez's dignified portrait executed three centuries earlier. With his mouth open in a bloodcurdling scream, Pope Innocent X becomes a symbol of existential agony not often associated with the Catholic Church and its devout faith. Many younger artists are also taking note of this reinterpretation of papal portraiture and with the expansion of social media, Pope Francis himself has embraced photographic depiction often posing for "selfies" with those who visit the Vatican.