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 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.
``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.