Naked Madonnas outrage Rome

APRIL features a bare-breasted Virgin Mary in high heels, with arms outstretched to reveal bleeding palms like the wounds of Christ on the cross.

September’s Virgin Mary is suckling a child, while March depicts a raven-haired nude washing a woman’s toes in a pose evocative of Mary Magdalene, the prostitute who anointed Jesus’s feet.

For the glamour photographer who took them, they are just an innovative new take on Italy’s Christmas obsession for calendars featuring buxom nudes.

But for a vocal minority in the country the 12 scenes inspired by the life of Christ are blasphemous monstrosities.

In a campaign that echoes similar moves against Martin Scorsese’s film The Last temptation of Christ or against a Benetton advert featuring a dying Aids patients in a Christ-like pose, Christians are demanding that the offending calendars are taken off the shelves.

"It’s the height of sacrilege and a disgraceful transformation (of the Madonna)," Gino Concetti, a moral theologian who is close to the Pope, said.

"It’s playing with religion to exalt hedonism and eroticism, and turns women into blatant consumer objects."

The annual 6.25 million nude Christmas calendar business triggers moral debate almost every year in Italy.

But this time customer complaints have been so strong that some newspaper salesmen have been forced to stop selling the calendar, while others are keeping it hidden under the counter.

It’s all something of a shock to Alberto Magliozzi, the glamour photographer who has an international reputation for his "artistic-erotic" images of celebrities, including Sharon Stone and Nicole Kidman.

"I think the calendar has been misinterpreted," the photographer, 52, said from his studio outside Rome.

"The naked body of a woman is not an obscene thing.

"I didn’t want to create anything blasphemous ... these pictures transmit innocence, desperation, pain and suffering.

"I’m a religious man myself, but I’m also passionate about the aesthetic form.

"Being religious doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate beautiful women."

While conceding some of the images might be difficult to take, Mr Magliozzi said the public reaction was positive and sales were strong, although he had no numbers.

Publishers printed 40,000 copies, which retail for about 5 each.

The controversy is the latest in a series of bitter debates between Christians and the media over the use of religious icons and images.

In 1988, Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ caused moral outrage through a dream sequence where Jesus made love to Mary Magdalene.

Feeling was so strong that British Board of Film Classification director James Ferman received more than 1,850 letters of complaint before the film was even shown in Britain.

Four years later, clothes retailer Benetton produced an advert featuring a dead AIDS victim with a startling likeness to Jesus Christ.

Glossy magazines pulled the advert after complaints by AIDS campaigners and over fears that it would offends Christians.

But despite the Vatican’s outrage over the new calendars, a random selection of people on the streets of Rome did not seem to find them blasphemous.

"It’s revolting," said 26-year-old Alessandra D’Abramo as she cast an eye over a picture of a red-head looking somewhat angelic, naked but for a slip of white gauze at her waist. "Rather than blasphemous, it’s just ugly."

For the men, the Madonnas can’t compete with the host of other temptresses that adorn calendars.

This year’s favourites include Elisabetta Canalis, the long-legged, sultry girlfriend of Inter Milan soccer star Christian Vieri, who had said she’d never pose topless, and Luisa Corna, another soccer-mad Mediterranean beauty.

Alongside that pair, the Madonnas don’t stand a chance.

"It’s not even that erotic," said Lorenzo Taglioferro, 20, as he went through the calendar.

"I wouldn’t buy it. But Canalis - now she’s a winner."

Earlier this year, the Roman Catholic priest Antonio Mazzi publicly urged Canalis to recall her calendar because he liked her better dressed. But she chose to go ahead anyway.

"I continue to ask why women have to be nude, to be thought of as an object of desire?" the priest said.

But in Italy, as elsewhere, nudity sells.

The most famous calendar of them all, the Pirelli, whose limited private distribution - 46,000 a year - has been sent to select clients of the Italian tyre company since 1964.

Last year the company decided to cover up its models, but nudity has returned for 2003.

Although Italy is a mainly Roman Catholic country with strong family values, it also voted a former porn star, Cicciolina, into parliament and regularly casts scantily clad showgirls as backdrops on talk shows and game shows, not to mention on the covers of respected news weeklies.

The sociologist Franco Ferrarotti calls the phenomenon a kind of societal split personality that is rooted in a refusal by Italians to accept dogma of any kind.

"Italians are Catholic, religious and are happy to receive the Pope in parliament.

"But at the same time, they are also happy to receive naked women in their offices and kitchens by hanging their calendars in public places, accessible to all, even children," he said.

But Enrico Pozzi, a professor of social psychology at Rome’s La Sapienza university, has a far more philosophical answer.

He says the Italian fascination with calendar girls is actually a very natural response to the passage of time that a calendar documents.

"The pin-up is the antidote to the decay, the end that’s implicit in the days that pass," he said.