The Holy Virgin Mary

Anger Over Work Evokes Anti-Catholic Shadow, and Mary’s Power as Icon

Chris Ofili: British Artist Holds Fast to His Inspiration


By Alastair Sooke
25 November 2014

“Ambitious”, “vibrant”, “gorgeous”: these were just three of the adjectives marshalled by American art critics to salute the mid-career retrospective of the British artist Chris Ofili that opened at the New Museum in New York last month. Fifteen years ago, though, when Ofili participated in a group exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, the reception he received was anything but rapturous. In fact, it was downright brutal.

The opprobrium was directed at his unforgettable painting The Holy Virgin Mary (1996). In this lustrous yet provocative work, Ofili presents a black Madonna surrounded by fluttering putti against a yellow-and-orange background. In the tradition of Western paintings of the Madonna nursing her baby, her blue robe is parted to reveal one exposed breast. Yet unlike tradition, this breast is a ball of lacquered elephant dung adorned with glitter and carefully attached to the linen support. Similar lumps of manure provide two ‘feet’ for the picture. On closer inspection, it becomes apparent that the putti actually consist of material cut from pornographic magazines, enhancing the overall voluptuousness of the image.


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