The Holy Virgin Mary (1996) is likely the most famous and most controversial artwork by Chris Ofili. In a painting of monumental scale (253x182.2 cm), Ofili created his version of the Madonna: powerful, black, and sexual. Ofili explained that he found the traditional interpretations of the Virgin Mary painted by Old Masters to be sexually charged. In his version, he wanted to depict a hip hop Madonna. In The Holy Virgin Mary, he alluded to traditional iconography and imagery of the Virgin. Still, at the same time, he manipulated these conventions by injecting elements of irony and humor into the work.
The background, shimmering orange resin with glitter, is reminiscent of the gold leaf used in religious icons, and the small glittery dots give the effect of halo around the figure. The figure is surrounded by what from a distance appear to be butterflies, but are, in fact, cutouts of female genitalia from pornographic magazines. The pornographic cutouts reference images of black women in gangsta rap music and serve as a contrast to the sacred image and subject. The placement of the cutouts can also ironically reference images of putti - nude chubby children with wings that were frequently depicted with the Holy Virgin in Renaissance paintings.
The Madonna adorns a blue robe, a traditional attribute of the Virgin Mary, with one of her breasts exposed. Ofili applied a round piece of dried, varnished elephant dung to mark her breast. He also used two balls of resin-covered elephant dung to prop up the painting, instead of taking the traditional approach of hanging it on the wall. The artist incorporated elephant dung in other paintings from the period, like Double Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars (1997) and No Woman No Cry (1998). This practice was inspired by his first visit to Africa in 1992. He was struck by the energy of the African natural environment, and by applying the elephant dung onto the canvas, he found a way to incorporate the environment into his art. The elephant dung, widely used in Africa as a fertilizer, can be interpreted as a symbol of growth and motherhood.
The use of the elephant dung was what grabbed headlines and caused a big stir in 1999 when the painting traveled to the Brooklyn Museum as part of the exhibition Sensation. The mayor of New York City at the time, Rudy Giuliani, tried to stop the painting from being shown by withholding funding from the Brooklyn Museum. The museum, however, did not budge: they sued the city and eventually won the court case. Furthermore, during the exhibition, the painting was vandalized by a man named Dennis Heiner, who managed to bypass security barriers and spray the canvas with white paint. Ultimately the controversy surrounding the painting raised Ofili’s international profile and solidified his position in the art world. While it is unknown to what extent the artist intended to provoke audiences with The Holy Virgin Mary, he certainly created a potent image that contrasted between profane and sacred. Additionally, it was important for Ofili to make a black Madonna. In the painting, he combined different facets of black culture: African heritage and American hip hop culture.