In the 56 years since it was first awarded, the Blake Prize for Religious Art has not been noted for controversy.
But this year’s entries for the coveted £6,000 award have caused a chorus of outrage from Christians and Muslims alike.
They include a portrait of Osama Bin Laden which, viewed from an angle, morphs into an image of Christ.
And just for good measure there is a figure of the Virgin Mary, hands clasped in prayer, with an Islamic burqa concealing her upper body apart from the eyes.
While such exhibits might merely cause raised eyebrows if entered for Britain’s always-controversial Turner Prize, the decision to place them on show at the National Art School in Sydney has caused deep upset in Australia, whose 20million population is predominantly Christian.
In an astonishing defence, the chairman of the Blake Society, the Rev Rod Pattenden, denied that they were likely to cause harm because “the Christian community doesn’t look at art a great deal”.
Queensland lawyer Priscilla Bracks, who painted the Bin Laden portrait entitled Bearded Orientals: Making the Empire Cross, said it was not meant to compare Jesus to the terror leader but was a commentary on the way Bin Laden had been treated in the media.
She was concerned, she said, that Bin Laden would be unintentionally glorified in years to come.
Describing him as a “common criminal”, she added that, although he has so far evaded any would-be captors, he should be “extradited and put on trial”.
Sydney artist Luke Sullivan, creator of the Virgin Mary entry, entitled The Fourth Secret of Fatima, said his work was intended to pose the question of what was the future of religion.
But both Muslims and Christians rang radio stations to complain about what they perceived as an insult.