Thursday April 5 7:52 AM ET

Tumult Ends Hearing on Virgin Picture

By Leslie Hoffman

SANTA FE, N.M. (Reuters) - An angry crowd upset over an artwork depicting the Virgin Mary in a bikini forced New Mexico state museum officials to postpone a hearing called on Wednesday to address Catholic-led protests over the image.

Tempers flared and officials said they feared violence after a larger-than-expected crowd of about 800 people showed up for a public hearing by the Museum of New Mexico board of regents. The crowd was too large for the venue, leaving more than 300 outside chanting ``cancel the meeting.''

The hearing was called because of mounting protests by Catholic activists and the archbishop of Santa Fe over the artwork ``Our Lady,'' a digital collage depicting the Virgin Mary in a floral bikini held aloft by a bare-breasted female angel.

The work is being exhibited as part of a show in the Museum of International Folk Art. Critics say the picture is anti-Catholic and portrays the Virgin Mary as a pin-up girl, but California artist Alma Lopez says the image depicts the Virgin Mary as a strong, modern woman.

About 450 people jammed the auditorium of Santa Fe's Museum of Native American Arts and Culture for the hearing, but more than 300 were left in a courtyard outside chanting in protest.

The board called off the meeting about half an hour after it started when police told officials they feared possible violence by the people outside.

``Emergency Situation''

``We have an emergency situation,'' Toby Lynn Herzlich, one of two professional mediators hired to run the meeting, said as the chants grew louder. ``People are threatening unsafe activities outside and this is something we cannot allow.''

Police lined both sides of the courtyard outside the museum's entrance where most of the overflow crowd stood.

Most of those outside appeared to be critics of the picture. Many shouted for its removal and others carried traditional images of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a venerated depiction of the Virgin Mary as she reputedly appeared to a Mexican peasant in the 16th century.

``Our Lady'' is styled after the Virgin of Guadalupe. Its creator, Lopez, read a statement to reporters that she had planned to present at the hearing, arguing that removing the picture would be censorship and that it is an artwork in a museum, not a sacred object in a church.

``What happens to the rights of artists and curators to create an exhibit without censorship? ... It scares me to see so many people organized against me and attacking me,'' she said.

Catholic activist Henry J. Casso rejected talk of censorship. ``It's not about First Amendment (free speech) issues. It's about a sacred image,'' he said.

The state board of regents has not indicated that it will vote on calls for the picture to be removed, just that it wants to hear the rival views.

Museum officials said the public hearing would probably be rescheduled for sometime next week in a larger venue.