Piss Christ depicts a crucifix submerged in a Plexiglas tank containing a yellow liquid that is indicated by the title to be urine (likely the artist's own). The photograph's tones range from bright yellow through to orange and dark red, with small, suspended bubbles visible throughout. The work is part of Immersions, a series featuring various Christian devotional objects immersed in urine, water, and/or blood, including a small papal statue (White Pope, 1990) and a miniaturized version of the Last Supper (Black Supper, 1990). Like much of Serrano's early work, it uses bodily fluids to approximate painterly abstraction in a photographic image.
Although Piss Christ was read as sacrilegious and highly contentious in the scandal that followed its display in 1989, Serrano insisted that Piss Christ was not meant to be merely provocative, but should also be seen as a work of devotion. Referencing his Catholic background and upbringing, he explained that the image symbolizes "the way Christ died: the blood came out of him but so did the piss and the shit. [Piss Christ] gives some sense of what the crucifixion actually was like." Serrano suggests that the picture is also a critique of the commercialization of religion through the mass production of cheap souvenirs. Referencing the ubiquity of the crucifix, he questions whether we still see the bodily horror an object so familiar represents. He argues that, rather than being a benign figurine, a crucifix "represents the crucifixion of a man who was tortured, humiliated and left to die on a cross for several hours. In that time, Christ not only bled to death, he probably saw all his bodily functions and fluids come out of him. So, if Piss Christ upsets people, maybe this is so because it is bringing the symbol closer to its original meaning."
Piss Christ remains one of the most controversial artworks of the 20th century. Serrano received several death threats in response to the work, and it was widely condemned, maligned and censored by politicians and municipal authorities. In 1989, Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) used the image to blast the National Endowment for the Arts' use of public funds to support the creation of "blasphemy and filth" after the piece won the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Arts 'Awards in the Visual Arts', exhibition, which had been sponsored by the NEA. The controversy around Piss Christ was one of the opening salvos to the 'culture wars' of the 1990s, where conservative politicians attempted to systematically undermine arts funding and artists whose work they considered immoral or undesirable. Piss Christ has also been physically attacked numerous times, most recently when it was assaulted with chisel, hammer, and spray paint in Avignon in 2011. It was removed from Associated Press' archive following the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris in 2015.
Although this controversy dominates much of the writing and thinking around Piss Christ, it is a striking image that has been positively assessed by art historians on a formal level. The visual effect of the urine is often referred to as rendering the figure of Jesus 'luminous', as described in the work of Richard Meyer. Art historian Catherine Bernard similarly writes that in the Immersions pictures "Light bathes the objects of ritual [...] creating translucent effects and 'halos' around the objects, which reiterates their original function as mediators between the profane and the sacred." Despite the artist's denial of shock as his motivation, this work has earned Serrano a reputation as a provocateur, particularly within arts journalism. As art critic Jonathan Jones writes, "With this work, Andres Serrano created what is surely the visual manifesto and original prototype of the use of shock in contemporary art."