True Christianity is not for the squeamish. Even the tamest versions of the faith ask believers to contend with a gruesome event: a human being nailed to a cross and left to suffocate in the sun. From the Pieta to the Passion to “The Last Temptation of Christ,” many famous works of art make Jesus’s suffering manifest in lurid detail. We respond to these images on a visceral level as much as we do on a spiritual one.  Would the religion have resonated through the ages quite as profoundly as it has were it not for all the conspicuous suffering? 

The curators at Curious Matter (272 5th St.) have grappled with this question a few times over the past decade.  It’s traditional for the little art space on Fifth Street to do a holiday installation — and when they do, they give us Christianity unexpurgated, a religion of body and blood as well as faith and release. Raymond E. Mingst and Arthur Bruso recognize that the Jesus of the Gospels was no ascetic. He ate, drank, laughed, and hung out with his friends, and promised a resurrection in the flesh for those prepared to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  The Catholic Church asks us to encounter the Almighty as a corporeal being, and its artificers have fashioned an array of relics and signifiers meant to make belief attain a physical dimension.

“Our Sacred Hearts,” which’ll be on display at Curious Matter until the 29th of January, is a timely reminder that the church — the Catholic church, at least — understands the value of putting on a show. The Sacred Heart is a depiction of a battered, disembodied organ pulled from the chest of the Incarnation. It’s thumped away against the walls of Western art for centuries, but it hasn’t lost the power to shock.  Images at this small but potent exhibition include a depiction of the Sacred Heart boa-constricted by a triple ring of thorns and weeping blood, a Heart like a flaming receptacle with a gash in its side, and a haloed Jesus, stigmata visible on his palms, offering a lacerated Heart with the solicitous expression of a greengrocer giving a customer an apple to munch.  

None of this is a departure from centuries-old Catholic representations of the Sacred Heart. The gash in the side of the organ is a deliberate echo of the thrust of the Lance of Longinus that pierced Jesus’s side as he hung, lifeless, on the cross. The blood dripping from the heart reflects the Sacred Wounds that testify to Christ’s pain, and remain a focus of monastic practice. Devotional books in a display case at Curious Matter, all open to depictions of the Sacred Heart, could have come from any Twentieth Century catechism. Your neighborhood monsignor might argue that the focus on extreme imagery helps fix the wayward mind on the immensity of sin and the perseverance of God’s love, and he’d surely be at least half-right. But he also knows what all showmen do: spectacular imagery packs them in.

All this grittiness and body horror aren’t to Christianity’s discredit.  Among all the major religions, none has a firmer tether to the material world — and the material world, as we’ve all been painfully reminded lately, is a frightening place. Among the religious paraphernalia on display in “Our Sacred Hearts” is a tall votive candle of the sort that Catholics light when they’re desperately hoping for divine intercession. There’s also a Heart done in fragile needlepoint, and a few rough-hewn miniatures in wood, with each stitch and each chisel-mark radiating the earnestness of the penitent. It turns out it’s easier to believe in somebody who has taken a few hits. That goes for deities as well as designers. 

Tris McCall has written about art, architecture, performance, politics, and public culture for many publications, including the Newark Star-Ledger, the Bergen Record, Jersey Beat, the Jersey City Reporter,...