When Alfred Hrdlicka, Austria's most cherished — and most provocative — artist turned 80 earlier this year, Vienna's Cathedral and Diocesan Museum was ready to honor him with an exhibit of his most impressive works, which included a homoerotic painting of "The Last Supper."
Hrdlicka's "The Last Supper, restored by Pier Paolo Pasolini," shows cavorting apostles sprawling over the dining table and masturbating each other. Pasolini was a controversial Italian filmmaker and writer who was murdered in the 1970s.
Although curators at the small museum knew it would be risky to show Hrdlicka's painting, they were unprepared for the barrage of angry messages and negative reactions they received, mainly from people in the United States, who reacted to reports of the mural on Catholic Web sites. Some called for the exhibition to be shut down.
The museum, hoping to tamp down criticism, hastily removed the main picture, "a homosexual orgy" of the apostles, as the artist describes it.
But the protests continued.
The exhibition has attracted fierce criticism on religion blogs, with bloggers denouncing it with such terms as "blasphemy" and "desecration."
One article on the Catholic Web site kreuz.net called for the museum director to apologize to Catholics worldwide.
In the United States, conservative columnist Rod Dreher wrote in his widely read religion blog, "I would not have guessed that, given his reputation, a man like [Austrian Archbishop Christoph] Schoenborn would have stood for this abomination for half a second."
The Cathedral Museum's director, Bernhard Boehler, has reportedly been defending his decision to host the images in a museum tied to the Roman Catholic Church.
Boehler, who could not be reached today, has previously told reporters in Vienna that "Hrdlicka is entitled to represent people in this carnal, drastic way. I don't see any blasphemy here. We never intended to offend people. Art should be allowed to provoke a debate."
Schoenborn, the archbishop of Vienna, nevertheless ordered the museum to take down "The Last Supper" just a week after the exhibition opened, leaving a blank wall at the entrance to the display.
The prelate's spokesman, Erich Leitenberger, told ABC News in a telephone interview, "The Cardinal decided independently from those negative reactions that a painting of the kind has nothing to do in an exhibition that is tied to the Catholic Church."
Leitenberger went on to explain, "This has nothing to do with censorship but rather corresponds with the 'reverence for the sacred' and the respect for the faithful. It is also an act of respect towards those believers who feel the painting is offending them in their deepest religious sensitivity."
Hrdlicka, who calls himself a communist and atheist, has always said the Bible, playing a big role in his life, is the most thrilling book he has ever read and that religious imagery has always been central to his work.
The artist told ABC News, "I'm a free artist. I never belonged to a Christian party and I never felt obliged to follow any Christian rules in my long life. I've been an artist now for about 60 years and I consider about one fourth of my works Christian art, whether in compliance with so-called Christian rules or not."
Mr. Hrdlicka explained he was quite pleased with the exhibition at the Viennese Cathedral and Diocesan Museum. He said, "It's a magnificent display and well worth seeing."
The fact that his "Last Supper" has been removed did not come as a surprise.
"Rather the opposite," he told reporters in Vienna. "There was such a reaction to its physicality. For me it was quite surprising the museum wanted to show the piece in the first place."
The exhibition "Religion, Flesh and Power," is open until May 10, 2008.
The Cathedral and Diocesan Museum, regarded as one of the most exquisite among many Viennese museums, with a focus on sacral works of art, is located across the street from Vienna's impressive St. Stephen's Cathedral.