Catholics in the Canadian capital Ottawa were shocked late last month when a giant mechanical spider appeared on the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
The creature, named Kumo, was created by a street theatre company and appeared at the cathedral as part of the Canada 150 celebrations.
Needless to say, reaction from the laity was mixed, with some calling the installation “sacrilegious”, “disrespectful” and even “demonic”, prompting an apology from the Archbishop of Ottawa, Terrence Prendergast.
“I say to those who were shocked that I understand that this would have been upsetting for them and that I regret that a well-intentioned effort to cooperate in a celebration was anything but that for them,” the archbishop said.
The debacle, nicknamed “spidergate”, has drawn attention online, with many seeing it as an example of an out-of-touch clergy trying to impose “trendy” art on worshippers who long for traditional beauty.
So what does make acceptable church art? Fr Hugh Somerville-Knapman of Douai Abbey says while the Ottawa spider was not blasphemous, it might have been prudent for the diocese to have consulted worshippers beforehand. “The robotic spider was not inside the cathedral, it was a temporary feature as part of the anniversary celebrations. A spider is not an obviously satanic symbol, and it seems the diocese was motivated by a spirit of solidarity with the local community in its celebrations,” he says.
“However, it must be said, it is spectacularly unattractive despite its cleverness. It must have offered a disturbing sight to worshippers not forewarned.”
There have been plenty of instances of controversial art appearing in churches in recent years, with proponents maintaining they help people “reflect” and deepen their spirituality, while opponents criticise them as inappropriate, “trashy” and possibly satanic.
One such example could be found in St Marylebone, an Anglican church in London that raised eyebrows in 2015 by installing a life-size marble sculpture depicting the singer Pete Doherty being crucified.
Nick Reynolds, a friend of the former drug addict, said he created the work – titled For Pete’s Sake – because he saw the singer “being crucified by the media”.
The vicar, Stephen Evans, explained the decision to host the sculpture in the church: “I hope that For Pete’s Sake might help visitors … stop and reflect not only Christ’s Passion and Resurrection and what this means but also to stop and reflect on what in their own lives leads to death or to life.”
Another controversial artwork that recently received media attention was a mural in Terni Cathedral in Italy, which drew considerable criticism for its “homoerotic” themes and sexually suggestive imagery. A great deal of the controversy came from the fact that it was commissioned by Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, now head of the Pontifical Academy for Life.
American website LifeSiteNews described it as featuring an “effeminate” Jesus (reportedly based on a local hairdresser) carrying nets filled with naked men, women, transsexuals, prostitutes, and drug dealers, “jumbled together in erotic interactions”. Dr Thomas Ward, president of the National Association of Catholic Families and former corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said there was need for “reparation” for the “blasphemous” work.
“And it is blasphemy because of the effeminate depiction of Christ in a context that the artist himself said was meant to be ‘erotic’,” Dr Ward added. “It is especially insulting that this image is in the presence of the tabernacle, in the presence of Our Blessed Lord. It is no stretch to say that in this context, and with the image’s clearly erotic content, it is demonic.”
Of course, even the amateur observer knows that Catholic art has never been ashamed of the naked form. So what, if anything, can distinguish Terni Cathedral’s mural – or indeed Kumo the spider – from a masterpiece such as Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam?
According to Fr Somerville-Knapman, mankind has an innate, if often inarticulate, sense of what is beautiful or not, or even what is offensive or not.
“For a Christian the measure might be derived from the artwork’s ability to raise our spirit to higher things, to God and his mercy, the life of heaven, the spiritual combat of Christian living, the utter desirability of sanctity. If an artwork makes us retch, or struggle to find any positive meaning, or smacks of artistic hubris and artificiality, then it probably has no place in or on a church building.” If spidergate shows us anything, it is that Church art should raise people to God. If not, perhaps it would be better placed elsewhere.