The Brooklyn Madonna: Some Deeper Questions



            Dung. Female genitalia. The Virgin Mary. Each of these images, all by itself, can evoke powerful movements in the spirits of American Catholics. Juxtaposing them in the same physical presentation at the Brooklyn Museum of Art was sure to set off at least a minor explosion.

            The showing of Chris Ofili’s work raises many issues, leading to many different avenues of reflection. Others will appropriately debate the artistic merits of the piece; or the significance of the whole exhibit of which it is a part; or the issue of using public money to support such exhibits; or the potential in such a situation for posturing by public officials for their own political ends. My aim is at once both more modest and potentially of richer import for our religious formation. The reality is that, for all its emotional shock, the painting may actually provide what religious educators call a ‘teachable moment’.

            We need first to lower the level of the rhetoric and begin by asking some very direct questions.



            First, is the painting “obscene”, as many (including some church leaders) have charged? Simply put, no.

            Obscenity, as the term is used in moral theology, turns on whether a particular depiction incites its viewer to illicit sexuality. Now there are graphic representations of female sexual anatomy in the painting, but I submit that no one would find these detached, free-floating images sexually stimulating. There is more possibility of illicit stimulation in much of what passes for harmless advertising in our society than in Ofili’s work. We may not be used to graphic presentations of labia; some may be disturbed by them; but that does not make them obscene. Moral theologians distinguish between the genuinely scandalous — that which directly incites to sinful behavior — and what they nicely refer to as scandalum pusillanimorum, which might be freely translated as ‘that which is shocking to the faint of heart’. They are hardly the same thing. So let’s agree that the painting may be ‘shocking’ or ‘disturbing’ or ‘disorienting’ to some or perhaps many. It is not obscene. (Unless ‘obscene’ is simply a high-decibel synonym for ‘deeply upsetting’; but in that case the language provides no help for critical assessment, simply shutting it off.)

            Those who would charge the painting with being ‘obscene’ have the burden of explaining why the whole exhibit caused no uproar at all in Great Britain. The English, Catholics and Anglicans alike, are quite capable of outrage over sexual matters. Did they just miss the point on this one? Doesn’t the dramatic difference in the two responses compel us to dig a little deeper, to discover the possible origins of the hyper-American reaction?



            Well, then, perhaps the work may not be obscene in the technical sense, but don’t we have to conclude that it is certainly ‘sacrilegious’ or ‘blasphemous’? Doesn’t it attack a holy icon of our faith? Or — to adopt the rhetoric of another segment of our leaders --- isn’t it a part of a concerted campaign to denigrate Roman Catholicism?

            Those who would level such charges have first the burden of explaining what Mr. Ofili, who is after all a believing Roman Catholic, would have to gain by attacking a significant element of his own faith tradition. It would seem the more probable explanation of the situation that he sincerely believes his work to be an attempt to convey some deeply felt truth about Mary and what she might mean — to him and to those viewers who are willing to work at understanding what he is trying to capture. Whether or not, as measured in artistic terms, he is successful in his attempt is a different issue, one for the critics. But should not a balanced critique first ask what he is trying to convey, before immediately convicting him of blasphemy?

            But the dung! And the genitalia! How can they possibly be intended to express esteem and honor for the mother of God?

            Now we are getting closer to the issue — and to the possibility of some serious religious education, the teachable moment. To approach the matter from a religious perspective, I presume that as Christians we need to turn to the our foundation, the teaching of Jesus. Does the work stand in opposition to what Jesus was about?

            If we are to reach a possible new insight into the actual teaching of Jesus, we need first to examine what people are really naming when they declare their revulsion at the use of dung and genital organs in a work focused on Mary. Do we Catholics really believe dung and genitalia are ‘dirty’? (For if we listen carefully to the commentary of the attackers, that is what is coming through.) And if so, is that what the Christian view of human sexuality and the body is all about? Is that what we want to transmit to our youth?

            To answer such questions we need first to uncover within ourselves any vestiges of the monophysite heresy condemned by our church in the momentous Council of Chalcedon. If I may bypass the technical language of its decree, the point is that Jesus was not some divine essence using an apparently corporeal but really insubstantial body “as if” he were like us, but rather that he was fully human, as human as any one of us. Any presentation of his divinity which equivalently waters down or denies the full implications of that truth is heretical.

            Besides other things, that means that Jesus was also an inculturated being. His humanity, like ours, was ‘situated’ within a people: both graced by and limited by the strengths and limits of the Israelite people and culture which shaped his existence on our earth. His prayer forms, his images, his language, the rituals which shaped his consciousness — all the ‘stuff’ within which he made his choices and became the uniquely individuated man he eventually revealed in the laying down of his life --- came out of that culture.

            Once we take seriously the full humanity of Jesus and its roots in the culture of his people, a new possibility emerges: perhaps the disgust that people are expressing does not have its origins in Jesus’ view of life but rather in strains of thought not only different from but even quite opposed to the mentality he brought to his earthly journey. In the Jewish world which was the matrix of his development we are confronted with a world-view that is diametrically opposed to the body-disdaining and sexuality-denigrating view that would hold that dung or a woman’s genitals are in any way objects to be viewed as dirty or degrading. The Hebrew world-view was grounded in the dignity and goodness of the physical, including all aspects of the body, and including in that its sexuality.

            No, if we are not afraid critically to examine the possible beliefs that occasion feelings of disgust at the portrayal of the sexual character of the human body or the products of metabolism and elimination, we will find that their origins are quite unchristian. They are grounded in manichean or stoic world-views that have no foundation in Scripture. They have continually cropped up across the ages to distort the goodness of all aspects of creation, proclaimed by Jesus as the raw material of God’s reign.


Mary as Giver of Life

            In Ofili’s culture elephant dung is not something to be scorned but rather a profound symbol of life, vitality, and our dependence on the nourishment coming from our earth. Without that precious dung the soil of his land would be depleted and made barren. (It is worth noting that in the descriptions of the painting it is quite accurately referred to as dung, after all; it is not called ‘shit’, an ugly expression characteristic of our asphalt culture.) Dung is a natural product of vital processes, created and used by God in the great mystery of life; a woman’s genital organs play an important role in the transmission of that same incredible gift. Why not try to ponder the mystery of life and vitality and procreation represented in the rich mystery of Mary --- the mystery of our ground in the fertility of this lovely earthly creation --- instead of construing the work as ‘disgusting’?


OK for “them”

            Which takes us to what could be another unacknowledged motivation at work in the negative reactions: it may be OK for Ofili (and ‘those Africans tribals’) to use those kinds of symbols in their world, we just don’t want them showing that stuff in ours. I am aware that such a critique might itself be considered offensive, but honest self-criticism should make us consider at least the possibility that unacknowledged racial chauvinism could be lurking at the edges. It would not be the first time that that deep plague came on stage dressed in lofty religious garb.

            The whole situation reminds me of an event that took place in the Tyrol shortly after World War II. An artist was commissioned to paint a mural of the crucifixion on the wall of a small church in the hills above Innsbruck. When it was unveiled, the faithful were confronted with a scene in which the soldiers and bystanders at the crucifixion were clothed in Tyrolean garb. The audacity of that painter, to suggest that the good folk of the Tyrol might be contributing by their actions to the contemporary crucifixion of Jesus! The outrage was such that the painting had to be covered for ten years. Because people didn’t want to deal with the deep feelings of revulsion and shame at their personal responsibility which the mural was asking them to confront, a rich potential for conversion was lost.

            So too in the present case. It would be sad if we allow perfectly understandable feelings to close off a graced opportunity for critical reflection on the full implications of the Good News and the kinds of conversion to which it calls us.


[George Wilson, S.J., is an ecclesiologist who does church organizational consulting out of Cincinnati, Ohio.]