Spotlighting Student Work #11: Mary–Tradition and Controversy

Today’s essay is from Lois Denbury, and discusses Christianity’s most famous female figure, and her presence in art.

I am studying for a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Art History and minor European Studies.  I was inspired to write this essay after completing papers on the history of art, in particular, Ways of Seeing Contemporary Art, also Understanding Contemporary Art Practice. On graduating, I hope to join a local primary school and assist children with their reading skills. I live on the North Shore and enjoy the lifestyle of sun and sea. I chose the Bible and Pop Culture paper to look at the many ways in which the Bible influences contemporary art and film, and also to learn more about the Bible stories.  The depiction of The Virgin Mary has been of particular interest to me throughout my studies in Art History.

Enjoy your Sunday and have a good read!


The Virgin Mary: Controversy in Contemporary Art

Lois Denbury

I will discuss the biblical portrayal of the Virgin Mary and compare it with some of her contemporary afterlives.  The majority of the Virgin Mary’s contemporary afterlives are religious statues and paintings, which are usually found in churches. I will reference three examples of Mary’s contemporary afterlives, which have all caused great debate.  They are three artworks, where the creators have had a religious background and the reaction from viewers to the artworks has been strong. I will highlight the public reaction to these works, where the Virgin Mary was depicted in non-traditional ways.  In these less religious times, today, Mary is often depicted according to contemporary values, which can provoke great controversy (Tsironis).

In the New Testament Gospels, the Virgin Mary is portrayed as an ordinary, young Jewish woman, who was chosen by God to become the mother of his Son (Carlson).  The four Gospels all give different accounts of Mary, but the Gospels of Luke and John give the most complete picture (Carlson). Luke tells us how Mary was visited by the Angel Gabriel, who announced that she had been chosen to become the mother of the Son of God (New Revised Standard Version, Luke 1.26-28).  Mary asked how that could be possible, as she was still a virgin, but accepted Gabriel’s explanation and the honour.  During her pregnancy, Mary left her home town of Nazareth to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who was also pregnant (Luke 1.34-36).  Mary stayed at Elizabeth’s house for three months (Luke 1.39-56). Later, Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born and placed in a manger (Luke 2.5-7).  Luke also records the visit of Mary and Joseph to Jerusalem to present their son at the Temple (Luke 2.22-40). Then, when Jesus reached the age of twelve, the family travelled to Jerusalem for the Passover, but he disappeared and Mary and Joseph had to search for three days, before they found him at the Temple, where he was teaching (Luke 2.41-52).  Luke also confirms that Mary was very happy to serve God (Luke 2.19, 2.51). However, we have to look to Matthew’s Gospel for the account of the family’s flight to Egypt to escape King Herod’s soldiers, who wanted to kill the baby Jesus (Matthew 2.13-23). Similarly, we need to refer to the Gospel of John to find confirmation that Mary was present at the Crucifixion of her Son (John 19.25-27). John also includes the miracle at the wedding in Cana, where Jesus turns water into wine, at the request of his mother (John 2.1-11).  Overall we get a picture of the Virgin Mary as a caring mother, who was happy to carry out God’s wishes (Carlson). However, the traditional image of Mary has been built up by later artistic interpretations of her role as the Mother of God.

A modern yet traditional portrait ‘The Solemnity of Mary’ by Kristyn Brown

Ever since the biblical accounts of the Virgin Mary were written, 2000 years ago, she has been a very popular figure in the history of Christianity, being depicted in many religious artworks, such as portraits and statues, throughout Europe.  Her portrayal in the Bible has been taken as a base image and revised over the centuries by many artists and churches (Badley). Artists have depicted her in certain traditional formats, from the breastfeeding Mother of God to the Queen of Heaven (Badley).  However, Mary’s popularity weakened after the Reformation, as Protestantism, which generally does not share the Catholics’ affection for the Virgin Mary, came to dominate large parts of Europe. By the twentieth century, Europe had become a much more secular society and, as a result, respect for Mary had weakened further.  This is the background that has led to some modern artists depicting the Virgin Mary in ways that appear to be disrespectful. My three examples of less respectful contemporary depictions of the Virgin Mary all caused controversy when they first appeared.

My first example is a painting by British artist, Chris Ofili, who was educated at a Catholic school and became known in the 1990s for his paintings of black men and women (Nesbitt 9).  However, he was also well known for including elephant dung and pornographic images in his paintings (Nesbitt 10-13). In 1996, he mixed all of these elements together, to create a painting called The Holy Virgin Mary (1996).

‘The Holy Virgin Mary’, Chris Ofili

Many people thought that he had gone too far with his large painting of a black Virgin Mary, which included small erotic images and highlighted her breast in elephant dung.   The painting was displayed in a major exhibition in London and Berlin, without too much upset (Nesbitt 16). But, when the exhibition was moved to New York, in 1999, the painting was condemned by the Catholic Mayor of the city and the local Cardinal Archbishop.  The Mayor threatened to hold back the funding for the Brooklyn Art Museum, despite never actually seeing the offending painting (Nesbitt 16). The publicity generated in the press by the furore resonated around the world. However, both artwork and Museum weathered the storm and Ofili’s fame and reputation grew as a result.  The episode was only defused when a Federal Judge ruled that censorship of the Ofili painting was not an option (Nesbitt 16-17).

Secondly, the vicar of Saint Matthew’s Anglican Church in Auckland erected special Christmas billboard images of the Virgin Mary in 2009 and 2011.  In 2011, Mary was portrayed holding a pregnancy test kit and appeared to be shocked by the result. There was no caption on the billboard, as the vicar wanted viewers to put forward suitable suggestions.

The St Matthew’s Billboard

His advertising agency reported that he wanted “to spark thought and conversation in the community” and he hoped to encourage people to be generous to those who needed help at Christmas time (Whybin/TBWA).  However, a different view was taken by Gerry Bowler, who believes that the vicar wanted to “cause offence for the sake of debate” and reports that the billboard was eventually pulled down by “an angry passer-by” (132).  Saint Matthew’s Church received much publicity from the Christmas billboard, but also a lot of criticism. Bowler concludes that, after one more year of his provocative Christmas messages, the vicar concerned left the Anglican Church, in 2013, to take a position with a “suburban Presbyterian” church. He continued to produce his Christmas billboards at his new location, but they were less controversial than the billboards he created for Saint Matthew’s (Bowler 132).

My final contemporary artwork is called The Virgin Mother, 2005, a large bronze sculpture, which was created by British postmodern artist, Damien Hirst.

‘The Virgin Mother’, Damien Hirst

It is a three metre tall statue of a pregnant woman, with the layers of skin and flesh cut away on one side to display a baby inside her womb.   Niki Tsironis records that this statue was prominently placed in the courtyard of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, in 2006. She states her belief that Hirst’s aim was to shock the viewer, as they are very likely to interpret the name Virgin Mother as being the Virgin Mary (179).  Tsironis sees it as Hirst’s attempt to remove the mystery surrounding the Virgin Mary; to reflect the “deconstructed society” of the twenty-first century (179). This Hirst sculpture has since been purchased by an American multi-millionaire, who relocated and placed it in his estate in New York.  However, in 2014, he was forced to cover The Virgin Mother with a large tarpaulin, because of complaints from his neighbours (Massive Damien Hirst).

In conclusion, it is interesting that these three provocative art depictions of the Virgin Mary were all created by people who had a religious background. The two artists grew up in Catholic homes and the creator of the billboard was an Anglican vicar.  When compared with the biblical image of the modest Virgin Mary, I would agree that these three contemporary artworks are very controversial. However, the description of the Virgin Mary that we get from the Gospels was written at a time, when religion dominated people’s lives and women had a very different position in life, compared to today.  Despite the changes over time, in the twenty-first century, the majority of the Virgin Mary’s afterlives are still statues and paintings in Catholic churches. These three controversial artworks were all created by people who, besides having a religious background, appear to be independent thinkers. However, they and their artworks could simply be a reflection of contemporary postmodern thinking, as claimed by Tsironis (179).



All references to the Biblical text are from the New Revised Standard Version.

Badley, Jo-Ann. Madonna in Art, Bible Odyssey, Accessed 30 Sept.   2018.

Bowler, Gerry. Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and     Defending the World’s most celebrated Holiday, Oxford University Press, 2017, p. 132.

Carlson, Stephen C. Portraits of Mary in the Gospels, Bible Odyssey,    Accessed 30 Sept. 2018.

“Massive Damien Hirst Bronze Covered With Tarpaulin After Village Complaints.” Artlyst,  17 May 2014,

Nesbitt, Judith. “Beginnings” In Chris Ofili, edited by J. Nesbitt, Tate Publishing, 2010,         pp. 8-63.

New Revised Standard Version. Bible Odyssey, Accessed 30 Sept.     2018.

Tsironis, Niki. “Emotion and the Senses in Marian Homilies of the Middle Byzantine period” In The Cult of the Mother of God in Byzantium: Texts and Images, edited by Leslie Brubaker and Mary B. Cunningham, Ashgate Publishing, 2011, pp.179-198.

“Whybin\TBWA\Tequila Auckland’s Virgin Mary pregnancy test billboard for St Matthew- in-the-City causes worldwide controversy.” Campaign Brief, 16, December 2011,    Accessed 30 Sept. 2018.

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