A sculpture showed Mary giving birth to Jesus. A vandal beheaded it.

A sculpture depicting the Virgin Mary giving birth to Jesus has been destroyed just days after it went on view at a cathedral in northern Austria and drew criticism from some Catholics, who condemned it as sacrilegious.

The Catholic diocese of Linz said in a statement that the Virgin Mary’s head was sawed off early Monday morning in an act of vandalism. The work, titled “Crowning” by Austrian artist Esther Strauss, is no longer on view, and the incident has been reported to the police, the diocese said.

Johann Hintermaier, episcopal vicar for education, art and culture, apologized to those whom the piece may have offended but denounced “in the strongest possible terms this act of violence and destruction,” calling it an “attack on artistic freedom.”

Strauss said the vandal “acted very brutally.”

“For me, this violence is an expression of the fact that there are still people who question women’s right to their own bodies,” she said in the diocese statement.

Organizers behind an online petition calling for the sculpture’s removal write that the birth of Jesus is considered sacred and such an explicit depiction “destroys precisely this sacredness.” The petition has received more than 12,000 signatures.


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“Crowning” went on view at St. Mary’s Cathedral on June 27 as a part of a wider project looking at women’s roles and gender equality in honor of the 100th anniversary of the cathedral’s consecration, the diocese said.

Developed specifically for the space, the sculpture referenced a Nativity scene at the cathedral created by Sebastian Osterrieder. It intended to show the birth of Jesus from a feminist perspective, according to the diocese’s website.

After the incident, Alexander Tschugguel, a traditionalist Catholic and conservative Austrian activist known for throwing statues of the Andean deity Pachamama into the Tiber River, celebrated the sculpture’s destruction, calling the work “blasphemous” in a post on social media.

Tschugguel also shared a statement he claimed was from the perpetrator, in which he said that he tried and failed to get in touch with the diocese to express his disapproval. “In view of this abominable and blasphemous caricature, urgent and decisive action was required,” the statement said.

Strauss isn’t the first contemporary artist to face controversy for an of-the-moment take on a biblical figure. In 1999, then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani threatened to terminate the Brooklyn Museum’s lease for displaying a Chris Ofili portrait of the Virgin Mary stained with elephant dung. Earlier this year, more than 22,000 people signed a petition protesting what they saw as a “homoerotic” painting of Jesus commissioned to celebrate Easter in the Spanish city of Seville.

Strauss’s work is a significant departure from imagery traditionally associated with the Virgin Mary, who is more commonly seen being visited by the angel Gabriel, holding the baby Jesus or immersed in prayer. “Crowning,” by contrast, shows her in the throes of childbirth.

“Most images of the Virgin Mary were crafted by men and have therefore often served patriarchal interests,” Strauss said in the statement. In this work, Strauss added, “Mary gets her body back.”

Martina Resch, a theologian at the Catholic Private University of Linz and one of the organizers behind the display, stressed that visitors were introduced to the sculpture “very gently.” When they entered the room, they first saw Mary’s back and “had to approach her and find their own perspective,” she said.

Resch said the piece captures Mary in her exposed state, “but also in her strength.”

Kate Brady contributed to this report.

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