madone_by_herman_richirA new interactive exhibit in Estonia is raising hackles among Christians, as the government-sponsored museum invites visitors to “kick the Virgin Mary.” When kicked, the virtual image—a lighted, computer-generated rendering of the Mother of God—shatters and falls into pieces; the word “REFORMATION” then appears on the screen.

The offensive Marian installation is among exhibits in Estonia’s new National Museum, which opened in September with Estonian president Toomas Hendik Ilves in attendance. Since its opening, there has been a groundswell of opposition from politicians, business leaders and the public. “The image should be removed as soon as possible,” said a statement from the chairman of the Conservative People’s Party, Mart Helme, “because the virtual destruction the authors offer insults the feelings of religious Russian-speaking residents and hinders their integration.”

Helme, who was Estonia’s ambassador to Russia in the 1990s, noted that the exhibit had a political dimension. “An attack on symbols may lead to an escalation of social tensions and a cooling of the inter-state relations,” he warned.

And in a September 30 Facebook post, Urmas Viilma, Archbishop of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, complained that the exhibit ridicules religion and hurts the feelings of believers. Archbishop Viilma expressed concern regarding the meaning the exhibit will have for the museum’s visitors: tourists, attendees at institutions and conferences, foreign guests, Catholics from the United States, and others. He recalled that Muslims were offended by the portrayal of their prophet in cartoons; and he acknowledged that for himself and for most of Christian Europe, the exhibit is similarly offensive.

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Estonia is a historically Lutheran country, which has more recently been populated by Russian Orthodox. Together, the two groups comprise more than 27% of the Baltic nation’s population, with Catholics at only ½ percent. The exhibit’s inference, though—that Reformation theology somehow trumps Marian dogma and supplants Catholic respect for the Mother of God—is not supported by the teachings of the early Reformers.

Martin Luther had a life-long devotion to Mary, and said of her in his festival sermon on September 8, the date on which Mary’s birth is traditionally celebrated:

…the honor given to the mother of God has been rooted so deeply into the hearts of men that no one wants to hear any opposition to this celebration… We also grant that she should be honored, since we, according to Saint Paul’s words

[Romans 12] are indebted to show honor one to another for the sake of the One who dwells in us, Jesus Christ. Therefore we have an obligation to honor Mary. But be careful to give her honor that is fitting. Unfortunately, I worry that we give her all too high an honor for she is accorded much more esteem than she should be given or than she accounted to herself.”

The pre-Lutheran reformer John Wycliffe said of Mary,

“It seems to me impossible that we should obtain the reward of Heaven without the help of Mary. There is no sex or age, no rank or position, of anyone in the whole human race, which has no need to call for the help of the Holy Virgin.”

And John Calvin believed in Mary’s perpetual virginity and in her designation as “Mother of God.” (Calvin mistakenly believed, however, that what he called the “Papist” understanding of Mary as one who can hear our prayers and ask her Son to answer them was somehow not scriptural. He did not understand, as does the Catholic Church, that Mary’s intercession at the wedding feast in Cana, when there was no wine, revealed how she was to be an intercessor for all Christians.)

Only later, in the 18th and 19th centuries, would the objection to Marian devotion gain prominence among some Protestant theologians.

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The Estonian National Museum is located in the city of Tartu, and was designed by international collaboration of architects Dan Dorell (of Paris, France), Lina Ghotmeh (also of Paris), and Tsuyoshi Tane (London, UK). The single-story building includes the museum, as well as conference space and a cinema. It hopes to draw more than 200,000 visitors per year.

The Estonian National Museum actually owes a debt of gratitude to Christians. During World War II, Soviet bombers destroyed Raadi Manor, the museum’s main building, and established an air base on the site. With no place to house its collections, the museum’s art was redistributed—hidden and preserved in various churches throughout the city.


Image:  By Herman Richir (1866-1942) (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons