MANILA, Philippines — Former Philippine first lady and art patron Imelda Marcos on Monday joined Roman Catholic leaders in denouncing an art installation that combines religious symbols with phallic objects.

The exhibit at Manila’s Cultural Center of the Philippines by contemporary Filipino artist Mideo Cruz has provoked heated debate about freedom of expression in the predominantly Catholic nation.

Critics vandalized the installation last week by removing a wooden penis from a poster depicting Jesus Christ. Another sculpture shows a penis hanging from a wooden cross while another portrays Christ as Mickey Mouse.

Marcos, the flamboyant widow of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos and founder of the cultural center near Manila Bay, said after visiting the exhibition that the work was a “desecration” and no longer represents art.

“To desecrate some kind of a symbol for what some religions hold sacred, it is no longer right,” she told reporters.

Cruz did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. The center’s head of visual arts refused to comment.

Cruz calls himself “a visual artist who commonly tries to cross borders of discipline in producing my works.”

Cultural center chairwoman Emily Abrera was quoted as saying by Inquirer.net, the online portal of the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper, last week that it was part of the artists’ duty to challenge prevailing beliefs.

“It is part of our culture to question, to seek answers, to look behind the surface and try to dig out what our real values are,” she said.