The archbishop of Santa Fe says a bikini-clad version of the Virgin Mary shown in a folk art museum depicts her "as if she were a tart" and should be removed.
But Alma Lopez, the Los Angeles artist who designed the photo collage on a computer, says she doesn't see what's offensive about showing the Virgin of Guadalupe as a modern woman, "a strong woman, like us."
The regents of the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe on Wednesday began considering whether to remove the work from the state-funded Museum of International Folk Art, but ended up postponing the meeting because there was not enough room to hold everyone who wanted to comment.
Museum officials said some 250 people were outside the standing-room-only meeting of about 300 and were unable to attend.
The collage depicts Mary in a midriff-baring two-piece outfit covered with flowers. Mary stands barefoot, hands on hips with elbows akimbo and chin up in a pose that could be interpreted as a defiant stance.
"It's a challenge to old images people have in their mind about Mary," said Jacqueline Orsini Dunnington, an independent expert who has written award-winning books on the history of the Virgin of Guadalupe and on the Virgin Mary. Our Lady of Guadalupe was a vision of Mary that appeared to a peasant in Mexico in 1531.
Archbishop Michael Sheehan said he found Lopez's image insulting and expressed frustration with Catholic images being singled out.
"No one would dream of putting Martin Luther King in speedos and desecrating his memory by putting him in some outlandish outfit. I wouldn't want anyone to do that," Sheehan said. "But somehow it seems open season on Catholic symbols."
In recent years, Mary has also been shown "as a golden-haired Barbie doll," he added.
Museum regents said they would try to find a larger meeting space to discuss the issue and reschedule the meeting. By law, they have to advertise it for 72 hours in advance.
In 1999, the city-funded Brooklyn Museum of Art invoked the ire of New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani when they exhibited a painting of the Virgin Mary that featured sexually explicit cutouts dappled with elephant dung.
The controversial art (CBS)SIZE>
Giuliani called the photo "disgusting" and "anti-Catholic."
Both Sheehan and Giuliani argue the works are particularly offensive given that they are displayed in state-funded institutions.
"I don't elieve I'm promoting censorship," Sheehan said. "My objection to the picture is not on the basis of morals, as if the bishop was disapproving of a particular movie ... My objection is on the basis of the insult to the religious beliefs of a very large number of people that look at the Virgin Mary as being very holy. She is depicted in a floral bikini as if she were a tart."
Lopez, in a written statement Monday, said she grew up in Los Angeles with images of the Virgen, as the word is spelled in Spanish, and that Mary belongs to everybody.
"The Virgen is everywhere. She's on tattoos, stickers, posters, air freshener cans, shirts and corner store murals as well as church walls," she wrote.
Lopez feels under attack by Sheehan and Jose Villegas, a Santa Fe resident who said he was outraged by the bikini and by the bare-breasted female angel included in the digital retablo.
"It violated the sacred boundaries of our culture," Villegas has said.
Dunnington argued that the Virgin was invoked as a revolutionary icon for Mexican independence in 1810. That invocation was expanded later to include all ethnic and racial groups and genders.
"If she is an icon of freedom, the protesters then have to accord the artist equal liberty," Dunnington said. "There has to be the right to freedom of expression. That is what she has stood for."
©MMI The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed