AI: The Holy Virgin Mary

Time for another go at skeptical art critique. For this week I’ve chosen a work that raised considerable controversy: The Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili.

The mixed media creation featured an abstracted woman with exaggerated African features clad in a blue shall typically used to depict the biblical Virgin Mary. The painting also included collage elements of butterfly like decorations made from images of female genitalia. Finally an exposed breast and supports for the piece were made from polished pieces of elephant dung.

It caused quite a stir when it toured.

How do you view this work? Was it in poor taste? Was it brilliant? How should it be interpreted? In what context should we view it?


Ryan is a professional nerd, teaching engineering in the frozen north. Somewhat less professionally, he is a costumer, author, blacksmith, juggler, gamer, serial enthusiast, and supporter of the Oxford comma. He can be found on twitter and instagram @studentofwhim. If you like what I do here, feel free to leave a tip in my tipjar.

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  1. I remember that Rudy Giuliani got a lot of political capital out of criticizing this work and demanding that the Bklyn Museum take it off display because there was tax payer money involved and it offended religious sensibilities. I’ve never seen it before though.

    I’m surprised by the look of the elephant dung. The way it was described then make me think it was splattered about and fresh. Of course it’s anything but that. Seeing it now makes me seethe all over again at what a demagogic idiot Giuliani is.

  2. @Rodriguez: You basically just wrote the comment that I was going to write, so, ditto.
    As for the questions: I’m not sure I know what ‘in poor taste’ means anymore with regard to contemporary art. It doesn’t offend me and it probably wouldn’t have offended the young Catholic version of me. As far as interpretation, I’m about to look up the artist’s intended meaning, since I can’t make heads of tails of it. I was happy about the furor it caused when it was displayed in the ‘Sensations’ exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. But as for the artwork itself… I don’t really feel anything, one way or another.

  3. Brian’s commentary perfectly encapsulates my own thoughts and reaction [or non-reaction] to the piece.

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