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Artist's Virgin Mary Defaced

A 72-year-old man has been arrested after he smeared white paint on a controversial painting of the Virgin Mary decorated with elephant dung.

Dennis Heiner was immediately surrounded by security guards and taken into police custody after Thursday's incident at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. He was charged with criminal mischief, a felony.

Heiner called the art blasphemous, witnesses said. His wife, Helena Heiner, told the New York Post the couple considered the painting an insult to Christians - and that she "encouraged him to do it."

Chris Ofili's painting, "The Holy Virgin Mary," is part of a successful and much-criticized exhibit of works by young British artists titled "Sensation."

The art in the exhibit has incensed various groups, including the Catholic League and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who tried to cut off the city's $7.2 million annual subsidy to the museum. The mayor's attempt was denied by a federal judge on First Amendment grounds.

Ofili, who is of Nigerian descent, has said the elephant dung is a cultural reference to his African heritage. The museum said the painting would be cleaned and back on display Friday.

Heiner apparently smuggled the paint into the museum in a small plastic hand lotion tube, said museum spokeswoman Sally Williams.

Witnesses said the retired teacher lured security guards away from the painting by telling them he was feeling dizzy and ill. He then ducked behind a Plexiglas panel in front of the painting and defaced it.

"He squirted it on the painting and then smeared it with his hands," Williams said.

In a statement, the museum said the board of trustees and its staff "are shocked and extremely saddened by this incomprehensible act that has attempted to deface an important work of art by a world renowned artist."

Written By Donna De La Cruz