New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani famously attacked the landmark work in 1999, when it was part of the “Sensation” show at the Brooklyn Museum, calling it “sick stuff” and anti-Catholic. The piece, which was included in Ofili’s 2014 New Museum retrospective, features a black Virgin Mary with exaggerated features, surrounded by butterfly-like images of women’s butts cut from porn magazines. Shimmering yellow, gold, and blue, the piece rests on two spheres of elephant dung; another adorns her breast. It stands as one of the key works of late-20th-century art.
At the time of the controversy, which Giuliani ignited and stoked in the run-up to a potential showdown with Hillary Clinton for a Senate seat, the mayor attempted to cut off all city funding to the museum and threatened to evict it from its city-owned home. “If I can do it, it’s not art, because I’m not much of an artist,” he said at the time. “And I could figure out how to put this together. You know, if you want to throw dung at something, I could figure out how to do that.”
The battle played out in the courts, where the mayor was roundly defeated, with a ruling stating that if he did not restore funding to the museum he and the city would be held in contempt.
Ofili, who was 30 at the time of the controversy and raised Catholic, told the Guardian of the piece, “As an altar boy, I was confused by the idea of a holy Virgin Mary giving birth to a young boy. Now when I go to the National Gallery and see paintings of the Virgin Mary, I see how sexually charged they are. Mine is simply a hip-hop version.”
The Bloomberg report notes that the work sold at auction in 2015 for $4.6 million at Christie’s London, and that in 2016 Cohen and his wife, Alexandra, gave $50 million to MoMA through their foundation.
MoMA owns more than 30 works by Ofili, including another remarkable piece with elephant dung, the resplendent Prince amongst Thieves (1999), but The Holy Virgin Mary stands in a league of its own. (The museum also recently acquired a painting from Ofili’s show last fall at Zwirner in New York, which was donated by Mimi Haas and Lisa and Steven Tananbaum in honor of Kynaston McShine, the longtime MoMA curator who died in January.)
Cardinal John O’Connor also criticized the work at the time of the Brooklyn show, saying in one sermon, “I’m saddened by what appears to be an attack not only on our blessed mother . . . but one must ask if it is not an attack on religion itself and in a special way on the Catholic Church.”
In one memorable episode that was reported by the Washington Post, while Giuliani held a press conference to condemn the work—“There is nothing in the First Amendment that supports horrible and disgusting projects,” he said—passersby heckled him, shouting “Adolf Giuliani!” and “Get your hands off our museums!”