Jesus and chocolate. I love both. So when I heard the song “Chocolate Jesus” for the first time last week (on a podcast about religious kitsch), it sounded yummy. The song is satirical, but as I listened to it, I thought, I bet candy makers have actually tried this. And sure enough, they have.
Besides making a splash in the folk rock world (in the world of candy sales, not so much), chocolate Jesus has also cropped up in at least three works of visual art in the last twenty years, the most recent one garnering a firestorm of media attention.
This list is not comprehensive, but here’s what I could dredge up in the way of chocolate Jesuses.
Chocolate Jesus in the Visual Arts
Trans-substantiation 2, sculpture by Richard Manderson (1994)
In 1994, philosophy student Richard Manderson created one hundred jam-filled, Jesus-shaped chocolates, which he sold at an arts center gift shop in Canberra, Australia. No one thought much of it . . . until a condemnatory headline in a US newspaper prompted Manderson to do something more outrageous: create a life-size chocolate Jesus for public consumption. He did so by filling a plaster mold with fifty-five pounds of melted chocolate. He used chocolate-dipped strings for hair and plastic Easter wrap for a loincloth. After Easter, Manderson invited people to come eat the immaculate confection.
Irony was behind his production of the original candies, and it was behind his decision to go large scale as well. Although not a Christian, Manderson said he was disappointed that secular culture has turned Lent and Easter from a time of solemn spiritual reflection into a time of sugary indulgence. The title of his sculpture, Trans-substantiation 2, is a reference to the Catholic doctrine that states that during the Eucharist, the sacramental bread and wine turn into the literal body and blood of Christ. During this time of year, suggests Manderson, Jesus’s body transubstantiates into chocolate; the awesome weight of his death and resurrection is edged out by airy, candy-based festivities in schools, stores, and homes. This ought not to be.
Manderson’s sculpture challenges us to join those who use this time to fast rather than consume. That’s not to say we must be anti-sweets but only realize that sweets are not the true substance of Easter.
Jesus on the Cross, sculpture by George Heslop (2006)
Chocolate Jesus sculpture number two is by English artist George Heslop. It was on display from April 8 through May 6, 2006, in Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire as part of Ale and Porter gallery’s Chocolate exhibition, which also included chocolate reproductions of Michelangelo’s David and Dalí’s Venus, a chocolate tree, chocolate deck chairs, and chocolate townscapes. For photos, click here.
Heslop had been working in chocolate for over a decade at this point, and for Holy Week, he decided to turn his attention to a holy theme: the Crucifixion. For the exhibition he sculpted a life-size crucifix as well as several mini ones. He said he wanted to draw attention to the shameful practice of “retail opportunism” that takes place at this time of year—that is, when candy companies exploit the sacred holiday to make more money.
My Sweet Lord, sculpture by Cosimo Cavallaro (2007)
My Sweet Lord by Cosimo Cavallaro has been by far the most controversial chocolate sculpture of all—and that likely has to do in part with its exhibition in the United States, where the religious right takes greater issue with art like this than in countries like Australia or England and wields formidable power and influence.
Cavallaro’s life-size Jesus, outstretched in a cruciform pose, was supposed to be displayed at the Roger Smith Hotel’s Lab Gallery in Manhattan during Holy Week in 2007. However, after death threats, charges of hate speech, protests, and boycotts—all initiated by the Catholic League under the leadership of president Bill Donahue—the exhibition was shut down. Donahue’s bully tactics and vitriol are evident in a CNN interview with Anderson Cooper, embedded below.
Cavallaro, who was raised Catholic, said he actually received a lot of support from Catholics for this piece, including invitations from two priests to exhibit My Sweet Lord in their churches. Ultimately, the piece ended up being exhibited at The Proposition gallery in Manhattan later that year, along with a series of chocolate saint figurines, also by Cavallaro. According to the gallery’s press release, My Sweet Lord is the artist’s way of recalling the ecstasy he experienced as a boy during his celebration of the Eucharist and relating it to the experience of chocolate. By engaging the viewers’ senses of smell and taste in this work, not just sight, Cavallaro invites them to experience Christ bodily, much as they would during Mass—only instead of incense, wafers, and wine, chocolate is the stimulant that leads them into deeper communion with Christ.
Although this was the first time Cavallaro sculpted in chocolate, he is known for using food in his work. Other media of his include cheese, ketchup, and ham.
Some of the hullaballo surrounding My Sweet Lord was due to its medium, but just as much, or more, was due to the full frontal nudity of the figure—or rather, the combination of chocolate and nudity. Renaissance artists were fond of portraying biblical figures in the buff—but in marble or paint. Chocolate genitalia lend themselves to cruder connotations.
Chocolate Jesus in Music
“Chocolate Jesus,” song by Tom Waits (1999)
The song “Chocolate Jesus” appeared on Tom Waits’s 1999 Grammy Award-winning album Mule Variations and has since been covered by dozens of artists, most notably Beth Hart. The lyrics describe a boy who goes to a candy store every Sunday to get his fill of chocolate Jesus. No other candy will do—because “only a chocolate Jesus / Can satisfy my soul”; “it’s the only thing / That can pick me up.”
The chorus goes:
Well it’s got to be a chocolate Jesus
Make me feel good inside
Got to be a chocolate Jesus
Keep me satisfied
Waits said he was inspired to write this song after learning about Testamints, a candy product with a cross imprinted on it and a Bible verse on the wrapping. Amused, he thought he’d take it one step further.
The song is commonly interpreted as a jab at those who use religion merely as a feel-good mechanism. Eating chocolate is known to release endorphins, or pleasure chemicals, in the brain; practicing religion can have the same effect, and it is this superficial pleasure experience that attracts some to the faith and sustains them in it. Those who have a taste for only the sweetness of a religion, suggests Waits, are like candy-addicted kids, dependent on sugar highs and undernourished. What of the cross that Jesus calls Christians to bear? What of social and moral responsibility? What of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” “Blessed are those who mourn,” and so on? What of the bitter pill of sin and its consequences? These aren’t so tasty, and so some Christians omit them from their diet.
The problem then is that Christianity becomes me-centered and ceases to be Christianity.
Anglican rector Christopher Page has written a thoughtful blog post on this song over at In a Spacious Place.
Chocolate Jesus in Books and Theatre
Chocolate Jesus is the name of a novel by Stephen Jaramillo, published in 1997 by Berkley Books. The plot revolves around Sydney Corbet, who sells his idea for a chocolate Jesus to a candy company to pay off a gambling debt but then is forced to reckon with the Reverend Willy Domingo, leader of the Church of the Returning Vegetarian Christ, who launches a crusade against the candy. Apparently, Publishers Weekly thought the book significant enough to review.
Thomas Quinn’s encounter with a chocolate Jesus launched him on a journey of spiritual questioning that turned into the book What Do You Do with a Chocolate Jesus? An Irreverent History of Christianity (BookSurge, 2010). (He remains a skeptic.) In the introduction he recounts his reaction upon standing before that merchandise table at a Christian revival meeting:
Strange. I had never seen a marshmallow Mohammad or a Gummi Bear Buddha, so I wasn’t sure what to make of it. But it did raise a question: What do you do with a chocolate Jesus? How do you eat something like that? Do you work your way up the legs or go right for the halo? Do you worship it? Share it with twelve friends at the Last Dessert? Was it like a communion wafer that became the flesh of Christ before it hit your lips? And if so, did that make it okay for a low-carb diet?
Quinn writes that even though these questions sound silly, there’s an entire Christian subculture that takes them seriously, and it is this subculture, and how it sprung up, that he sets out to investigate.
In addition to these two book titles, “Chocolate Jesus” was the theme of a SpeakeasyDC story performance series at the 2007 Capital Fringe Festival. Stories were based on the things we love and hate about religion. I mention this event because it shows that “chocolate Jesus” has become a symbol, one that represents lowbrow Christianity, especially as manifested in commercial culture—that is, in the preponderance of Jesusy stuff on the market.
Chocolate Jesus in the Candy Aisle
In 2008 a Christian businessman, Frank Oynhausen, started selling gold foil-wrapped chocolate Jesuses in his native Germany in an attempt to restore traditional religious values to Christmas. He encountered criticism from churches all over the country—they thought the candies inappropriate and tacky—and after a modest sales run ended up shutting down the operation.
Crucifix lollipops and choco-crunch Christ heads
Now it appears that the primary seller of chocolate Jesus candies is LLK, Inc.
Jesus hopping down the bunny trail
Heresy bars and Take-n-Eats
I’m not sure whether these are or ever were real products. My guess is no, that they’re just digitally manipulated images, though I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw them in somewhere like Spencer’s or Newbury Comics.
Is Chocolate Jesus Tasteless?
Some Christians feel strongly opposed to having Jesus cast in chocolate form. They feel that to do so trivializes Christianity and dishonors its message, and that to eat Jesus in any form other than consecrated bread and wine is sacrilegious.
On the other hand, Christians are oftentimes the ones behind the production of chocolate Jesuses. Christian gift shops carry tons of edible religious merchandise, to be used in evangelism, as gifts, for teaching children, or for personal inspiration.
I’m sure a lot of Jesus food sculptures at fairs are made by Christians who simply want to express the joy their faith gives them—or maybe by non-Christians who are attracted to Christian iconography. And the professional artists who cast Jesus in chocolate usually do so in a way that advocates a return to biblical roots or encourages a new, positive experience with him—or at least that’s how they spin it when responding to complaints.
My reaction to chocolate Jesus is: OK, sure, I’m down with that.
Though unusual, chocolate is not an inherently irreverent medium for sacred art. Sure, marble and wood have the weight of tradition behind them, but why can’t artists experiment with different materials? Generally, Christians have been accepting of sand sculptures and even butter sculptures depicting their Savior. Why not chocolate? Artists are doing some really cool things with chocolate these days! For roundups, see “The Art of Chocolate” and “Wonderful World of Chocolate,” the latter featuring exhibits from the World Chocolate Wonderland in China. And these are only large-scale examples; chocolatiers, at least the high-end ones, have been making chocolate art on a small scale for centuries.
What about eating a giant Jesus sculpture as a participant in a piece of performance art, as Richard Manderson invited folks to do? I admit, that would make me feel a little uncomfortable—much like playing a Roman soldier in a passion play would. But that’s not to say such pieces have no place; they’re supposed to be uncomfortable. In Manderson’s case, the act of eating was meant to illustrate the desecration of Easter via overconsumption.
As for eating little bite-size Jesus candies, I see no problem with that. Whether I’m downing a bunny or a square or a Jesus is inconsequential to me; they’re just shapes. I think I can safely say that the chocolate Jesus-eating experience wouldn’t deepen my connection to Christ any, but hey, if a chocolatier finds meaning in making Jesus-shaped chocolates, and if consumers find meaning in eating them (or not), then so be it. I don’t consider it offensive, even if profit is the primary motivator. It’s just candy. And Jesus is a pop culture figure, so I expect his face to show up in stores.
In 2012 the United Church of Canada ran an ad featuring a chocolate Jesus with the line “What is Easter really about?” It directed people to WonderCafe, an online forum run by the Church, where various life questions are posed and discussed.
I throw that question over to you.
If a non-Christian were to ask you why you celebrate Easter, what would you say? Don’t cheap out with the bare-basic “We celebrate the resurrection of Christ”: Who is Christ? What does his resurrection mean to you, personally? How does it fit in to the larger story? Why does it matter today?
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