Here's a portrait of Pope Benedict, who recently stepped down as the Roman Catholic Church's Vicar of Christ on Earth.
It's made entirely out of condoms and reportedly took artist Niki Johnson a total of three years and 270 hours (split evenly between taking condoms out of their wrappers and then weaving them into a metal mesh).
According to the U.K. Sun, Johnson means it as a critique of church policy toward contraception, especially in Africa, where the 25 year old Wisconsin artist thinks condom use would slow the spread of AIDS:
"I find people's anger toward it very interesting. Someone said that if I'd made a portrait of Muhammad, I'd have been stoned or something.
"I just thought, 'But the great thing about this country is that we have a freedom of expression and we can stand up for what we believe in."
She also told a newspaper: "I see it as an inclusive piece. Yes, it says something about the church's position on sexuality but it also embraces diversity with humour and irony."
Beyond the sheer insanity of it, one of the things I find interesting about the piece involves Catholic policy on contraception. Growing up Catholic as I did, the church's position on contraception was a given—indeed, it was one of the things that defined Catholics against Protestants or Jews (Muslims, Hindus, and most other religions weren't really in the mix back in the day). Yet that total ban on all forms of "artificial" contraception is hardly set in stone. After the birth-control pill appeared, Pope John XXIII put together a theological commission which delivered a report to the pope (by then Paul VI) in which a majority suggested that some forms of contraception be allowed. Paul VI waved that aside and issued a 1968 encyclical condemning the use of contraception.
As it turns out, Pope Benedict was a bit squishy on the use of condoms as a means of suppressing infection and there is a robust debate going on regarding new Pope Francis's take on the matter. As a non-Catholic these days, I'm not particularly interested by intra-church squabbles but I always find it genuinely fascinating when seemingly bedrock truths for a given organization are opened up for potentially massive change. Few organizations are more adept at making major changes and then incorporating them into a nearly seamless revisionist genealogy than the Catholic Church. Whether it's shifting doctrines regarding the liturgy, democracy, the status of Mary, or countless other issues, the church is excellent in making it seem as if it is an unchanging rock in a sea of transition. There's an interesting lesson in that, both for organizations that want to inspire loyalty and continuity across the ages and for people who want to deconstruct how tradition and authority are created.
Speaking of Pope Francis, check out why Americans should be grateful that Congress doesn't work as smoothly as the College of Cardinals: