It’s August 2007 and Rod Pattenden’s phone is ringing off the hook. The Uniting Church minister, who usually comes across as cool and unflappable, grows increasingly distressed as he juggles calls from pushy journalists and outraged Christians.

The upset callers were offended by art works shortlisted for the 2007 Blake Prize, the country’s leading award for religious art. “I was inundated with phone calls, and a number of those were just absolutely abhorrent conversations,” recalls the man who has overseen this prize for the past five years.

The flurry of calls centred on two contentious finalists. The first was a holographic image of a doe-eyed Jesus Christ that morphed into an equally beatific portrait of Osama bin Laden. The second work was a statue of the Virgin Mary in bright pastel colours, partially cloaked in a burka.

Pattenden remembers how “a young man told me I was doing the wrong thing. He then proceeded to swear at me and tell me how he hates Muslims. Another woman rang and she described seeing her object of devotion, the Virgin Mary, treated like this in an art work. She said it was like being punched in the stomach. She had a very visceral response.” He recalls “it was a very difficult day” as a media storm enveloped the award and “overrode the complexity” of the artworks.

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