Albuquerque Journal

Sunday, February 17, 2002

'Our Lady' Court Order Hogties Art Museums

By Peter Eller
Art Appraiser and Writer

It is to be hoped that District Court Judge James Hall's recent approval of a court order proclaiming a museum committee to have been in violation of the Open Meetings Act by not holding hearings prior to displaying Alma Lopez's image of the Virgin of Guadalupe will not stand up to rigorous challenge. It is a bad ruling and unworkable as either public or administrative policy.

The Museum of Folk Art in Santa Fe came under fire last year when it included the flowered bathing suit-clad image in the traditional Virgin of Guadalupe surrounding of radiating rays.

Though the exhibit has been down for some time, its repercussions continue in the court case - and in the state Legislature, where several House members requested a review of the statutes governing the Office of Cultural Affairs and its compliance with the Open Meetings Act.

The idea that the museum "should have given public notice and a public hearing" before displaying the image, based on the notion that the latter constitutes cultural and religious material, clearly hogties any museum and its staff. The real issue is of course what can be considered culturally or religiously sensitive material - and that is an issue that can often not be determined until after the fact.

No one here criticizes the individual's right to speak out against Lopez's image or to refuse to see it. But to put in motion a court order to hold museum staff hostage, in effect forcing them prejudicially to anticipate public opinion and its varying sensitivity to cultural or religious material, brings about de facto censorship.

Hall's ruling jeopardizes the current ways and means to display art in public places or to display publicly supported art. If a wisp of eagle down is culturally or religiously sensitive, we will, under the terms of this order, need hearings on the public display of kachinas. If a conquistador's spur or lance is culturally sensitive, we will need hearings on 17th century Spanish armor. If dragons, St. Michael will soon become suspect and require a hearing.

In the end, of course, there is the issue of the image itself, and the degree or source of its presumed offensiveness.

As I remember doctrinal history, the point of the movement on behalf of Mary as it evolved from the Middle Ages was to give a visibly female element, and thereby further to humanize, a previously, presumptively male Christianity and Catholicism. In the process, certain objections had to be overcome, chief of which was that the inclusion of so powerful a female figure as Mary, Mother of Christ as well as the God in Christ, would once more have given support to heathen cults of female deities, mainly the Roman goddess, Diana, who was also linked with Astarte, an earlier goddess of fertility and sexual love.

Iconographically, therefore, the triumph of the new movement to feminize and humanize expressed itself in images in which the older, demonic aspects and images of fertility and sexual love were obscured.

Doctrinally and iconographically, this provided a neat solution to what had at one time appeared an insurmountable dilemma. The "sensitive issues" of sexual love and fertility, which could not be entirely repressed or banished in any attempt to introduce a wholly valid female element into doctrinal Christianity and the imagery it sanctioned, were in fact given a subordinate and "conquered" place.

In her image, Lopez has explicitly pulled away the metaphorical veil that traditionally has kept the more overt female attributes of the Virgin subliminal and hidden. Whether veiled by metaphor, discreetly represented by a downtrodden, crescent moon, or made explicit in the pose of a frankly confident femininity, the elements are there, offensive to some, yet representative of our humanity to others.

Either way, they are part of the doctrine and iconography of Christianity since the Middle Ages. One therefore finds it more than a little frightening that some people should willfully seek to go back to a more frail and one-sided, male-oriented Christian ethos from before that time. The problem with too rigorous or reactionary a formalism is that its proponents sometimes end up quashing the very qualities or virtues they wish to protect. This seems to be the case here. Perhaps it is time to revisit and undo before such a clear and present danger to our cultural well-being and our civil freedoms becomes further institutionalized in our thinking about Mary, Virgin and Mother of God, whose progenitive qualities are mercy and forgiveness.

Peter Eller runs the Peter Eller Gallery and writes on colonial and modern Hispanic religious art in New Mexico. Contact