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Chris Ofili Icon

Chris Ofili Icon

Thank you, Mr. Ofili, but no ...

– Father Johann G. Roten, S.M.

Sifting through her overflowing e-mail box, Mary, Mother of God and Queen of Heaven came across a most intriguing piece of correspondence. It had been forwarded by Mary Jane Austen of UD's recently erected gateway, and related the conversation she had had with the Holy Virgin Mary, alias Our Lady of Brooklyn, vaulted to instant stardom by political accident. Although more comfortable with her doubles of Lourdes, Fatima and Guadalupe, Mary had taken a special liking to this poor little Dayton wallflower. Mary Jane Austen tried so hard to ingratiate herself with her original in heaven it was almost pathetic. But then she was such an eager beaver when it came to tell and share and communicate. Mary's curiosity was piqued.


MJA (Mary Jane Austen): ... and so they now call you Our Lady of Brooklyn. A most venerable title for somebody who has been on location only some months.

OLB (Our Lady of Brooklyn): Making fun of me, you too! I'm tempted to sue this person, Ofili, or even better, his patron and agent, Charles Saatchi, for harassment. After all, I am a woman and this is the USA, and Ofili made a real dungfest out of me with these snippets of pornographic photographs. By the way, why do they call you Mary Jane Austen?


MJA: Probably for the same reasons they call you Our Lady of Brooklyn: What is unintelligible begets irony. You should see me. With my bonnet and shawl I look like one of the early pilgrims or new frontier women. But more likely, they call me Mary Jane Austen because of a bas-relief of Jane Austen on UD's liberal arts building. We look alike; we are like twins. Now luckily they labeled us differently. In my case it's Mary of Nazareth. But little did it help. Those who deign to look at me, the few, I should add, for I'm well-tucked-away on a lateral arch of UD's new gateway, make an immediate association with Jane Austen. Don't forget, this is a place of higher learning. People know their literature. In a sense I should feel honored, the only book I ever read was the Bible.

OLB: Not so bad, indeed. I like your comparison with early pilgrims and new frontiers. Aren't we Madonnas supposed to be a symbol of new beginnings and of the earliest pilgrim in faith? Christianity is an ever new frontier, isn't it? But I understand your frustration: How do you get people to walk the tight rope that leads from image to meaning or from caption and title to representation? Take my case: They labeled me the Holy Virgin Mary but what people see is as some critics put it a canvas with excrement and porno. You will agree there is hardly even a thread left to walk.

MJA: Yes and no let me for a moment be the devil's advocate (an unusual role for one of us but that's how you get ... living and breathing in an intellectual and Catholic atmosphere) isn't it true that according to solid Christian teaching there is no way we can separate the sacred from the profane. I don't mean to say profanity, of course. But take the baby, our baby who represents the son of God. You know, God who comes into human flesh, etc? Is this so different from an early settler woman who becomes Mary?

OLB: You know sometimes I wish I'd be one of the Madonna icons of the Eastern Church. Grave and distant as they may be, at least you know what they signify. And they don't change. They have been the same for the past two thousand years. But back to your question. I don't have a problem with the early settler woman becoming Mary. I have a problem with Jane Austen or her look-a-like suggesting Mary. After all, we did not write Pride and Prejudice. You understand, there is no room for a Marian meaning. You show people the portrait of Jane Austen and they will always think Jane Austen, provided they know her as seems to be the case at your learned place. The same is not true for the baby and the early pilgrim. In both cases there is room for new meaning. The baby is neither Joe nor Jack. The baby stands for the total trust with which God has put himself in our arms. It is a symbol of the Incarnation, and speaks more clearly than most theologians, Mariologists included.

MJA: Now wait a moment. As preposterous as it may seem, do you really want to imply that you, Ofili's creation, are in a better position than I, Mary Jane Austen, to open people's mind for a better understanding of the true Mary? Please! Let's be serious. Of course, I do know about Ofili's African heritage, and the connection he makes between elephant dung and fertility. And I have not forgotten that early on already the Fathers of the Church have compared us to virgin soil or fertile ground. I may also believe that you have, as they say, I haven't seen you! a glowing quality of cloisonn‚ or terrazzo. Good for you. But is it enough to say that Ofili did not want to offend but to make people think? Thinking of what? How many people, do you think, will think their way back from elephant dung to the Holy Virgin Mary? Whatever Ofili's opinion about the painting speaking for itself, he seemed to have said that he didn't feel as though he had to defend it! It peaks in so many discordant voices that one is tempted to say, "They that sow the wind ...."

OLB: ... shall reap the whirlwind." I agree, the reference to fertility alone fails to connect image and caption. So what else is left to make me feel like The Holy Virgin Mary? Certainly not the elephant dung, although it no longer smells. There is little satisfaction here, other than the fact that many people speak out in favor of a somewhat holier and more recognizable figure of the original, whatever that may be. And, of course the fact that they now call me Our Lady of Brooklyn: It tickles my vanity. However, I cannot sympathize with the sound and fury generated in some religious and political corners. Instead of shouting blasphemy and sacrilege, wouldn't it be better to invite the artist henceforth to better mind his metaphors?

MJA: My opinion, too. But didn't you just say "the original, whatever that may be"? Sounds intriguing, and isn't this the mother of all questions about Mary? Who is the original? I wouldn't want to sound too intellectual but didn't Augustine already tell us "non novimus," we do not know about Mary's physical appearance as the people at The Marian Library here on campus keep repeating. On the other hand (here Mary Jane Austen chuckled) isn't Mary's mystery our livelihood? Where would we be if the original were known? There would be no mystery left. Sorry to say this, but doesn't this look a bit like the ultimate publicity stunt: the original vanishes, the mystery perdures, and the market for holy pictures flourishes?

OLB: Now, you mind your metaphors, Mary Jane Austen! The original has vanished but not for marketing reasons. There is a different lesson here: What matters is not the physique; what matters is the inner person. You and I, we should be imaging something of the inner person of Mary. Early in the twentieth century there was this painter, Kandinsky, if you allow me to be a little intellectual myself who wanted art to be able to produce an "inner sound." I'm wondering, are we able to produce this inner sound, are we able to evoke in people some of the joyful light that captures Mary in God's grace, the delightful intimacy with her Son, her boundless generosity even beyond loss ... and other facets of her life as recorded in Scripture? See, here lies, in my opinion, the good and bad of this uproar over Ofili's piece of shock art. It triggers some good discussion in spite of itself. For that reason I say: Thank you, Mr. Ofili, but no thanks.

MJA: I see we both have got a problem ...

And on and on they went as only two frustrated Mary images can do. Meanwhile, Mary in Heaven went through a roller coaster of her own emotions. Despicable, how greedily people suck up every provocation, she thought. And how low the standards of unbelief had dropped. There was a time, she mused almost nostalgically, when it was a genuine pleasure to cross swords with old-time deists and atheists. What had Henry Adams once said about her? "Very childlike, very foolish, very beautiful and very true as art, at least." Well, this was the end of the century, a postmodernist period, and Cole Porter's "Anything goes," some kind of a secular profession of faith.

Her mood went from indigo to black. What can we do? In the end she did what she had always been good at: She pondered at great length. Would it take a new apparition to set the record straight? Should she step forward and tell them, once and for all, who she was? Too risky. The Church authorities might not buy the apparition; her Son might not like it. Why should she be better known than he! Intensify Scripture studies across the board? Not a bad idea, but don't leave it at that, she told herself. My people want more: They want to see me with "eyes of flesh" but also with "eyes of fire." "Eyes of flesh" which can see the original in representations that speak the language of culture and time though not necessarily in the company of sliced cows and pickled shark. We don't want "Sensation" (she decided) but eyes of fire" capable of seeing the other dimension, the mystery that speaks from the core of many of my better representations. "Eyes of flesh" and "eyes of fire," that's it. How should we make it work? She wondered. Well, let them bother with it. Maybe I should give the guys at The Marian Library a call.

All About Mary includes a variety of content, much of which reflects the expertise, interpretations and opinions of the individual authors and not necessarily of the Marian Library or the University of Dayton. Please share feedback or suggestions with


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