Dung-Covered Madonna Sparks Controversy: Art Professor Michael Davis Takes A Look

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FOR "Mayor Giuliani's reactions appear to be based on the narrow definition that art should only be beautiful and an equally narrow picture of a Virgin Mary who looks like Ingrid Bergman," says MHC art professor Michael Davis.




is The Holy Virgin Mary, a 1996 collage by Chris Ofili, an award-winning British artist, which incorporates elephant feces.

AGAINST "The idea of having so-called works of art in which people are throwing elephant dung at a picture of the Virgin Mary is sick," says New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

Several weeks ago, New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani announced that the city would cut its funding to the Brooklyn Art Museum unless the museum canceled an upcoming exhibition. Titled Sensation, the show included installations containing animals in formaldehyde and sculptures of people with genitalia replacing their faces. The mayor was particularly offended by The Holy Virgin Mary, a 1996 collage by Chris Ofili, an award-winning British artist, which incorporates elephant feces. The CSJ asked Professor of Art Michael Davis, who is teaching a seminar this semester titled The Many Faces of Mary: Representing the Virgin, to put Ofili's piece in context and to comment on the controversy. His comments follow.

Chris Ofili's collage is "shocking," in that it is deliberately provocative and intends to jolt viewers into an expanded frame of reference, and perhaps even toward illumination. In this sense, it relates to the medieval aesthetic of ugliness in which visual dissonance and distortion were used in art to urge the viewer to move beyond the superficial material plane to a higher level of spiritual contemplation. The mayor's reactions appear to be based on the narrow definition that art should only be beautiful and an equally narrow picture of a Virgin Mary who looks like Ingrid Bergman.

Actually, the Virgin is no stranger to artistic controversy. Because we know so little about the historical woman Mary and nothing of her appearance, opponents of religious art in the early Christian church argued that any image of "Mary" bore no relation to reality, but resembled instead a pagan idol. This attitude enjoyed a long life; a writer at the court of Charlemagne attacked the adoration of imagery by pointing to the problem of accurately identifying a statue of a beautiful woman with a child on her lap. Was it the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus? Venus and Cupid? Alcmeme and Hercules? Should one venerate the statue as a sacred Christian image or destroy it as a hated idol?

Another notable case is Caravaggio's Death of the Virgin, painted in 1605 - 1606, but rejected for its lack of decorum--it was rumored that the figure of Mary had been based on a whore who may also have been the artist's lover. Shocking! More recently, the Virgin of Guadalupe, introduced into the New World soon after the conquest of Mexico, has become a symbol of political, social, and religious liberation among the underclass.

One of the fascinating things about the representation of Mary is its variety and ability to express a range of religious and cultural meanings. The Virgin initially appears as a humble, generic mother in the Roman catacombs as early as the mid-third century C.E., then is transformed into an exalted queen of heaven following the 431 proclamation at the Council of Ephesus that she was the Mother of God. With the explosive growth of her cult in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Mary became the focus of popular veneration as the beautiful and loving mother to humanity, our merciful intercessor to God.

The evolving theology of Mary continues to spawn new subjects such as that of the Immaculate Conception, a doctrine pronounced only in 1854, but first represented in the seventeenth century. Her image has spread throughout non-Western cultures where she has been portrayed according to indigenous artistic styles and traditions.

It is perhaps Mary's role as virgin and mother that best captures the paradoxical character of her identity and her imagery. Mary has often been cast as the counterpoint to Eve--woman as the agent of sin and death vs. woman as vehicle of redemption. Yet, remember, Mary also bore a son. In one fourteenth-century book, the Annunciation scene is surrounded by cats, rabbits, monkeys, and flirtatious girls and boys to contrast the Virgin's chastity with worldly carnality and simultaneously to offer a message of fertility. (If the mayor learns of this, perhaps he'll cut off funding to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the owner of the manuscript.)

I think that Ofili's imagery--as extreme as it may be--must be seen against this rich, often contradictory visual history and in terms of the personal and universal that has underlain much of art connected with the Virgin. Ofili depicts her features and uses elephant dung to connect her in a basic way to the African earth and its people. After all, Mary is as much theirs (Africans') and his (Ofili's) as she is Giuliani's.

But one must move beyond the collage's materiality ("acceptable" images are after all confections of oil, types of earth, egg, rock, and wood) to wrestle with the concept, imagination, or spiritual expression that have brought it into being. Mayor Giuliani needs to brush up on his theology and to take a crash course in art history (I'll let him in to my seminar on the Virgin Mary) before he tries to take this work of art off the wall.

Davis2/low resMichael Davis with a Virgin Mary at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum.

Photography by Fred LeBlanc