Devout take exception to Tate's depiction of Diana as Madonna

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CLAD IN the Virgin Mary's gilded red-and-green robes, Diana, Princess of Wales, will today become the Madonna some always considered her to be and take up a berth near Jesus Christ in Liverpool.

Both figures appear in an iconographic Tate Gallery exhibition in Liverpool; Diana as a limewood statue standing nearly 6ft in the gallery, the risen Christ as a 15ft effigy in fibreglass outside on the River Mersey at the Albert Dock.

Catharine Braithwaite, a spokeswoman for the Tate, insisted Christ, who will float on a pontoon, was not symbolically walking on water. "There is no link to the Sea of Galilee. It's just the easiest place for visitors to see it," she said.

Diana's heavenly elevation, in an exhibition entitled Heaven and Earth - an Exhibition that will break your heart, has elicited a chorus of disapproval from some religious quarters. Many would find it "deeply offensive," said former Liverpool MP Lord Alton, a Catholic and professor of citizenship at the Liverpool John Moores University. "I find it depressing that this is the best we can do in the name of modern art."

The Prayer Book Society has also dismissed the exhibition, which first opened at the Kunsthalle in Dusseldorf, as a "vulgarity." The Italian Demetz art house which has created the Diana sculpture and specialises in producing icons for churches, insisted it was not casting her as the Madonna, only conveying how others worship her. Treading delicately around Catholic sensitivities, Demetz described the Diana piece as "a work of art" while the Christ statue, which it has also created, was an icon.

The Tate said its exhibition of fashion, video, paint, sculpture and photography, explored millennial icons - pop stars, royalty and fashion models - which are replacing traditional religious focus.

"They are adored as once were saints or angels," said another spokeswoman. "A tropical beach resort or a fashionable shopping mall has become, for many, a vision of paradise. Humans have an inherent ability to believe in things. This reflects that."

The Bishop of Liverpool, the Right Rev James Jones, said: "The Church has to face up to the fact that, although people are spiritual, many do not find it fulfils their hopes."

The exhibition includes images of Michael Jackson and his pet chimpanzee, Bubbles, Elvis Presley, Leonardo di Caprio and female bodybuilders. It runs until 27 February.

The Tate, Liverpool: 0151 702 7400.