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A painting that appears to show an act of oral sex being performed on the lifeless figure of Christ prompted fierce controversy when it was unveiled earlier this month as part of an exhibition in a deconsecrated church near Modena, Italy. Outraged worshippers described the work by artist Andrea Saltini as “blasphemous” and more than 30,000 signed a petition calling for the show to be closed.

The dispute reached a dramatic conclusion on Thursday (28 March), when a masked individual entered the Museo Diocesano—the museum in the former Church of Sant’Ignazio in Carpi where the exhibition is taking place—and slashed the painting, as well as covering it with black spray paint. Saltini, who was present at the time, approached the unidentified vandal and tried to stop him. The artist was struck on his neck with the blade before the aggressor fled the scene, according to Italian media reports.

Police arrived shortly after, finding a discarded knife and facemask at the church, and a black wig that may have been worn by the vandal during the attack in a doorway nearby. Saltini, who was immediately taken to hospital, suffered only minor injuries and was discharged a few hours later with four stitches, the Bologna-based newspaper Il Resto del Carlinoreports.

Andrea Saltini, Gratia Plena, 2024

“[Saltini] asks the entire community of Carpi to reflect on the limits of dissent, the right to criticism, the right to freedom of thought,” said Giuseppe Chierici, the artist’s lawyer, in a statement. “Saltini hopes an open and free discussion respecting everyone’s sensitivities and opinions can begin as soon as possible.”

The disputed painting is one of roughly 20 new mixed media works on canvas by Saltini—each showing a contemporary twist on a religious theme—currently on display in the Gratia Plena exhibition. Paraclito (2024) resembles a Pietà but with a figure in a space suit, rather than the Virgin Mary, cradling the body of Christ. INRI (2024), the work that was vandalised on Thursday, shows the figure of Jesus’s nude body splayed on the floor while the head of St Longinus, the Roman soldier who pierced his side with a lance during the crucifixion, is seen from behind as it hovers above his crotch. Organised by the diocese of Carpi, the exhibition opened on 2 March and runs until 2 June.

Andrea Saltini, Paraclito, 2024

Controversy erupted soon after the show opened, with Pro Vita & Famiglia, an anti-abortion movement, launching a petition calling for the exhibition to be closed and arranging for a van towing a mobile billboard bearing the message “Stop the Blasphemous Exhibition” to circulate the streets of Carpi. The petition has been signed by more than 30,000 so far.

On 15 March, the lawyer Francesco Minutillo filed a complaint to public prosecutors in Modena accusing Erio Castellucci, the archbishop of Forli who has resisted calls to close the exhibition, of vilification of the Catholic religion, blasphemy and display of blasphemous images in a sacred place. Public prosecutors dismissed the complaint earlier this week.

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