Stormy Daniels is almost unrecognizable as the Virgin Mary. Unlike the garish glare of porn, Nika Nesgoda's photograph of her is soft and stylized. Daniels looks demure swathed in royal blue and burgundy robes, coyly leaning away from the camera like she might just slip out of frame. If the portrait in question, an interpretation of Italian painter Simone Martini’s Annunciation from 1333, turned up in the pages of Vogue, you might not bat an eye.
But Daniels isn't just any adult film star. She's the woman leading the charge to expose President Trump’s alleged affairs and the hush money he offered to women over the years. Her name has become a lightning rod for partisan rhetoric, martyred by the left and demonized by the right.
That's why, 16 years after it was shot, Nesgoda's photograph of Daniels as the Madonna is suddenly in the news. What began as a meditation on the role of women in Renaissance-era religious art is being held up by conservatives as a liberal assault on religion. But what critics don't understand, or choose to ignore, is that the photo is actually pretty traditional. If you care to learn the history, porn stars posing as the Virgin Mary actually make a lot of sense.
Nesgoda created her Virgin series in 2002. She’d been reading about artists like Caravaggio and learned that the Old Masters often used prostitutes as their models. Nesgoda was raised Catholic but felt conflicted about belief, and she decided to explore the relationship by recreating images of the Virgin Mary using models similar to the original women who posed as her in paintings.
“I’m not saying they were all prostitutes, but a good deal of artists’ models back then were sex workers, barmaids, marginalized women, anyone on the fringe of society,” Nesgoda told VICE. “I thought, Who’s a cultural icon today who’s misunderstood? They’re mostly visuals. They have millions of followers, but we don’t really know who they are. We don’t really get to hear their voice. I thought, OK, it’s porn stars.”
Nesgoda flew out to LA and had Paul Fishbein, co-founder of Adult Video News (AVN), connect her with leading talent. Then she poured through the suitcases of art books she’d toted from New York to cast porn stars in Renaissance-era religious tableaus.
Nesgoda said working with the porn performers she shot for Virgin was delightful. “They were wonderful, smart, and funny. A lot of them were single moms, and some of them were working on their masters degrees,” she told me. “They didn’t feel ashamed of what they were doing. They looked at it as a job, and saw themselves as sort of performance artists. They are not prostitutes. They were very clear that this is a different category of sex work.”
When Nesgoda got back to New York, she showed the work around but got negative feedback. “It was just too early for this kind of thing,” she explained. So she shelved the series. But first, Nesgoda reached out to a Jesuit priest and a nun she was friendly with to ask what they honestly thought of the work and whether she’d crossed a line. “Some of my Catholic guilt started kicking in there,” she told me.
But the response from the clergy members was positive. “They said, ‘We have all strayed from the path. Not one of us is without sin, and these women are just as worthy as anyone else to portray the Virgin.’ I thought that was so brilliant,” Nesgoda said. “So I decided, The world is not ready for this. And I put it away.”
Fast forward to 2018. On January 12, the Wall Street Journal broke the news that Michael Cohen paid Daniels $130,000 in hush money to conceal an alleged affair with Trump. In May, one of Nesgoda’s friends sent her Virgin series to TIME, and they ran the photos as diptychs paired with the paintings on which they were based.
This month, eight of Nesgoda’s photographs from Virgin are on display at a gallery in Southampton, New York. The press got wind of a story with “Stormy Daniels” and “Virgin Mary” in the same headline and pounced. Also paying attention was Bill Donohue, the president of the Catholic League, which brands itself as a civil rights organization defending Catholics from persecution.
Donohue is well-known for issuing impassioned—and divisive—public statements when he feels the church is under attack. He publishes several a week on the Catholic League website, targeting everyone from Samantha Bee to the State of Pennsylvania.
His post about Stormy Daniels as the Virgin Mary begins with, “They really do hate Christians,” before calling Nesgoda’s work “trash” and “barnyard fare.” It ends on a puzzling and provocative note: “I have a suggestion for this genius. Why doesn’t she do an exhibit called ‘Muhammad’ that features Harvey Weinstein and Anthony Weiner as the prophet? That might attract a crowd, but I’d make sure to call the bomb squad first.”
I reached Donohue over the phone and asked why he was so offended by this particular work. “I thought it was cheap. I thought it was lacking in courage,” he told me, before repeating his comments about posing Weinstein and Weiner as the prophet Muhammad. I pressed him to explain that particular comparison. “Well, she's a porn star, and the other guys are predators,” he said. “And why did I make that leap? Because artists are gutless, that's why. Can you think of a single example where they choose to mock Jews or Muslims in their artistic expressions?”
To date, Weinstein has been indicted on three counts of sexual assault, two counts of rape, and one first-degree criminal sex act charge. Last fall, Weiner was convicted of sexting a minor and is now serving 21 months in prison. Donohue equating legal sex work with their crimes is troubling. But his claims also infer that Catholicism is inherently at odds with expressions of sexuality. As Nesgoda had discovered, art, religion, and sex actually have a long and complicated history.
Throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the Christian Church worried that if holy figures were depicted too realistically and beautifully in art, parishioners would lust after them. The Met Breuer recently explored the clergy’s paranoia in its exhibition Like Life. In the exhibition catalogue, curator Emerson Bowyer wrote, “To worship the statue rather than what is represented was the essence of idolatry—one of the great evils perceived by Reformation thinkers in 16th century Europe.”
He points to a cautionary tale from the Old Testament, The Idolatry of Solomon depicted by German artist Lucas Cranach the Younger around 1537. It shows King Solomon kneeling before an alluring, dark skinned pagan idol given to him by one of his foreign wives. “Dangerous, blasphemous feminine idols like the one worshipped by Solomon became the femmes fatales of fin-de-siècle Europe. At that time, many sculptors produced literal, three-dimensional idols that hovered ambiguously between life and death and, Medusa-like, stupefied men with their gazes,” he wrote.
While the church was on guard against sexy depictions of Jesus, it was also willing to overlook some impure behavior in the name of commissioning great art. “In some of my reading, I learned that some of the famous artists the church sought after to paint cathedrals and whatnot would bring their models—and a lot of these models were prostitutes and ‘sinful women’—and the church condoned it, under the auspices of trying to convert them into good Christians,” Nesgoda said.
“If you think about someone like Michelangelo or Leonardo [...] and what the Church chose to ignore, it's very interesting that the church felt that the best art was the most important,” Dr. Aaron Rosen, professor of Religious Thought at Rocky Mountain College and visiting professor at King’s College London, told me. For that reason, for centuries the Catholic church was relatively chill about “impure women” posing as the Virgin.
Things changed in the 18th and 19th centuries, as artists found patrons outside the church and began rejecting institutional norms. Art became less reverential, but artists never stopped exploring the divine. Nowadays there’s more room for misinterpretation, however. “This wasn’t meant to be ironic, like, Oh, I’m making a porn star the Virgin Mary. I mean, that’s so obvious,” Nesgoda told me. “It was more about the reductive way that women are seen.”
Donohue, for his part, isn’t particularly interested in context. “No explanation about what she really means is going to mean anything to me,” he told me. “I've been doing this for 25 years, and artists habitually lie, OK? Whenever they offend Catholics they say, ‘The problem is the people who are offended, not the people who deliberately sought to offend us.’”
Critics like Donohue lump the image of Stormy Daniels as the Virgin in with art like Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987), a photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine. Serrano has said the work is meant to be ambiguous but not blasphemous, alluding to the cheapening of religion and the graphic realities of crucifixion. When we spoke, Donohue also mentioned Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary (1996), a portrait of the Virgin collaged from porn magazines and elephant dung. In 1999, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani tried to stop the Brooklyn Museum from showing the work by threatening to cut off its funding, but the museum took him to court and won.
Nesgoda told me (and her artist’s statement points out) that Virgin is more about how society categorizes women as virgins and whores than it is about skewering Christianity. But religious texts are rife with these archetypes. “There’s very little of Mary in the Bible. Like, she was just a vessel for the birth of the savior, but she doesn’t have anything to say? She has so much meaning to so many. It’s curious that she doesn’t have more to say,” Nesgoda said.
She added, “The idea of the virgin is just a way to categorize and control women, in my opinion. Did it really matter if Mary was a virgin? [...] I see the Virgin and cultural icons [like porn stars] as both untouchable, in a way, and not really human.” Nesgoda cast adult film stars as the Madonna as a way of zeroing in on the complexity and humanity of both. In a way, she’s asking who is worthy of being idolized.
“Theologically, this assumes that there's something intrinsically unredeemable about the women that are being pictured, and that's what I think is so concerning in the commentary by Bill Donahue: the idea that these women don't deserve to be figured like the religious icons of the past,” Rosen said. “I mean, is someone like Stormy Daniels less worthy of salvation? I think that's something that Jesus would strongly disagree with. It's precisely the people that others find appalling or uncouth or don't approve of [...] that Jesus specifically seeks out in the gospel [...] to say, Look, this is where I am. I'm not hanging out with the falsely pious, hypocritical elite. He'd be much more a fan of Stormy Daniels than Donald Trump, you know?”
A lot of contemporary art is provocative, including Nesgoda’s Virgin series. But what’s missing, Nesgoda and Rosen agreed, is honest dialogue. At the end of the day, the kerfuffle over Stormy Daniels posing as the Virgin Mary is a politicized reflection of our deeply fissured, reactionary times. “I think [critics like Donohue are] missing the point, but their reaction makes me think that there must be a powerful message if it’s bothering them so much,” Nesgoda said.
Donohue said he understands why artists are drawn to Christianity. “Particularly with the Catholic religion, the iconography is voluminous and extraordinary,” he said. But he chooses to ignore the whole story, spreading the message that Catholics are under attack and taking criticism of the institution as a personal affront. At the end of the day, his diatribe against a porn star and the artist who photographed her expose puritanical views about sex more than anything else.
“I just don't understand why you have to choose Stormy Daniels,” Donohue said. “I mean, JLo would've been edgy, but she's not a porn star.”
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.