It is hard escaping the spirit of Christmas when the French capital is strung with jeweled lights and every corner church displays a dazzling creche. But perhaps nowhere have the images of Jesus been more prolific or provocative than at the elegant Hotel de Sully, in Paris's ancient Jewish quarter of the Marais.
Here, Jesus is wrapped around a Nazi Swastika or sprawled, in blue coveralls, on a dusty road near Gaza. He is an old Japanese man in diapers, cradled by his son. He is a skeleton on a cross, and he is Cuban revolutionary fighter Che Guevara. He is one of many muddy, cross-carrying impersonators who regularly trudge up Jerusalem's Via Dolorosa.
Billed as the first of its kind, "Corpus Christi: Photographic Representations of Christ 1855-2002" is a startling exhibit -- all the more so, perhaps, because it was conceived by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
"First of all, the Israel Museum is not a Jewish museum, although we are, de facto, the national museum," said exhibit organizer Nissan Perez, the Israel Museum's curator of photography, in a telephone interview from Jerusalem. "But we are also an international museum. And let's not forget that we're based in Jerusalem, and Christianity is all around us."
The 150 photographs, on display through tomorrow in Paris, are the painstaking distillation of hundreds depicting Jesus and Christianity over the decades, Perez said. He expects the show will travel to other European capitals and possibly to the United States.
The exhibition aims to reveal profoundly different interpretations of Jesus across generations and cultures, to raise unsettling questions about his sexuality and to examine the exploitation of Jesuslike images in advertising and political propaganda.
"These are religious images, or images related to religious subjects, but it's not a religious exhibition," Perez said. "It's all done in the perspective of the history of photography and art history."
The curator's point is underscored by the show's photographers, who include lapsed Catholics, Jews and agnostics, although no Muslims.
"Judaism and Islam both apply the Second Commandment against engraved images," Perez said. "But Judaism has been influenced by Western imagery, so it's quite natural for a Jewish or Israeli photographer to use such images. We see much less photography among the Muslims."
Perez said he was careful to consult Roman Catholic authorities in selecting the photographs and discarded those that risked stirring "gratuitous scandals."
The French church's response, he said, was far more enthusiastic than he expected. Negotiations are now under way to hold a show in staunchly Catholic Italy.
The photos on display are sometimes tacky but skirt being deeply offensive. Although the work of controversial artist Andres Serrano is present, his image of a black Jesus stirs none of the outrage provoked by his 1989 photograph "Piss Christ."
Some of the images -- young U.S. soldiers in Vietnam and self-portraits of 19th-century American photographer Fred Holland Day speaking Jesus's last words -- are haunting. Others -- such as a pair of fish-carrying Virgins -- are humorous.
Some photos draw on current events in the Middle East. A 1999 take on the Last Supper features a table packed with Israeli soldiers, eating bread and oranges. A 2001 scene, captured by photojournalist Pavel Wohlberg, shows women lamenting over a Palestinian man who fainted during an Israeli army raid.
"Christ has become a universal symbol. When there is suffering or discrimination or any kind of injustice, the Christic image is there to explain, or to carry the message," Perez said.
The show's next stop is Jerusalem, in May, and the Israeli curator predicts a more volatile reception there.
"I believe Orthodox Jews will scream and shout at the fact that the Israel Museum is daring to show photographs of Christ," he said. "For the very Orthodox Jews, even the idea of Christ goes against the grain. It's taboo. It shouldn't be seen or talked about, since they consider him a renegade."
The exhibit is only the first step for Perez, who is now working on a more in-depth book on photography of Christian subjects that is meant to explore themes only touched on in the Paris show.
"It's enough to look around us," he said. "It's absolutely everywhere and anywhere, and not necessarily in a religious context of Christianity, but in any context of humanity. That's really what is fascinating."