By Luke Baker

Rome - Images of the Madonna always get lots of exposure in Italy in the run-up to Christmas, but this year the mother of Jesus is completely naked.

And then some.

In a 2003 calendar on sale at news stands country-wide, a glamour photographer has shot 12 months of undressed women in provocative scenes inspired by the life of Christ.

It's all part of a sexy calendar craze that takes Italy by storm every year, with top models and TV celebrities baring all in what has become a €10-million (about R100-million) business.

This time, however, the naked Madonnas calendar may have gone too far.

September features a heavy-bosomed Virgin Mary suckling a child, while March depicts a raven-haired nude washing a woman's toes in a pose evocative of Mary Magdalene, the penitent prostitute who anointed Christ's feet.

And those are just the mild months.

April is a bare-breasted Virgin Mary, halo shining above her head, with her arms held out to reveal bleeding palms like the wounds of Christ on the cross, and wearing nothing but a transparent loin cloth and white high heels.

It's all too much for news stand salesmen, many of whom are keeping the calendar under the counter, not to mention the Church, which is hot under the collar about the blasphemy of it all.

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

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

Newspaper salesmen have stopped displaying it with other titillating calendars because of customer complaints.

That's all something of a shock to Alberto Magliozzi, 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," said the photographer 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, Magliozzi said the public reaction was positive and sales were strong, although he had no numbers.

Publishers printed 40 000 copies, which retail for €8.

A random selection of people on the streets of Rome was not particularly impressed, however.

"It's revolting," said 26-year-old Alessandra D'Abramo as she cast an eye over a picture of a redhead 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."