The Pope’s Jimmy Hat: Artist Creates Benedict XVI Portrait Using 17,000 Condoms

“Eggs Benedict” by Niki Johnson. (Photo by Eric Baillies)

The Milwaukee Art Museum recently acquired a new—and controversial—piece of artwork: “Eggs Benedict,” a portrait of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) made entirely out of 17,000 colorful condoms. To the surprise of no one, Catholic leaders are furious.

Artist Niki Johnson explains her inspiration behind the piece, and it’s quite humanistic:

I believe in sex. It is an integral part of being human. Healthy sex makes for strong communities and happy people. Love in all of its colors, partners and kinky curiosities is to be enjoyed by those who are in it. Understanding the self and expressing personal identity are interwoven in our sexual experiences. As it is our bodies that create each successive generation, healthy sexual choices are at the root of creating a healthy nation.

Johnson further explained in the New York Times that the piece aims to “critique Benedict’s views while raising awareness about public health.”

When it comes to Pope Benedict’s views on sex and contraception, there’s plenty to criticize. When he visited Cameroon in 2009—a country where over half a million people have HIV—he stated that condoms “aggravate the problem” of AIDS. He opposed infertile couples’ use of artificial insemination to create a family, stating, “The human and Christian dignity of procreation, in fact, doesn’t consist in a ‘product,’ but in its link to the conjugal act, an expression of the love of the spouses of their union.” At the same time, he denounced the idea of sex for pleasure, criticizing a society “in which sexuality is something completely detached from procreation.”

And despite the fact that 87 percent of Catholic women disregard church doctrine and actively use birth control, no pope has come close to changing the rules—not even Pope Francis, who’s seen as more liberal than any previous leader.

But the most disturbing message as a result of Johnson’s artwork comes from the Archbishop of Milwaukee, Jerome Listecki, who wrote:

An artist who claims his or her work is some great social commentary and a museum that accepts it, insults a religious leader of a church, whose charitable outreach through its missionaries and ministers has eased the pain of those who suffer throughout the world, must understand the rejection of this local action by the believers who themselves have been insulted. [sic]

Listecki’s way of thinking is exactly how blasphemy laws get formed—“insulting religion” can mean absolutely anything to the theocracy in charge. It can be depicting the Pope out of condoms or drawing cartoon images of Muhammad. It can be criticizing religious beliefs or standing up for the rights of religious minorities. And from Charlie Hebdo to the four atheist bloggers in Bangladesh, we’ve seen the consequences of offending religion.

Kudos to Johnson for not only criticizing terrible religious ideas and challenging the power of the Catholic Church, but for also creating an excellent work of political art worthy of debate and discussion.