Sunday, April 11, 2010

Touched, like a Virgin. (Part I)

The Virgin, Mary, Madonna, Maryam, and at one time Theotokos. These are a few manifestations of probably many more appellations of this figure. Though she is so much more than that : a constant, yet ever-changing, ever evolving idea that has become the quintessential holy mother figure for both followers and non-followers of religions around the world.

Yet she is also a host of contradictions that demonstrate how she herself is not a single person or representative of a set of ideals, but rather a reflection of what is needed by leading individuals—for most of history religious ones—of the time. Most Marian images were created as tools or vehicles for Christianity. What interests me particularly about her (and because this is my soapbox I will make my own personal fascination rather than the important art historical theme the focus of this entry) is her effect on people. The ability for her image to spiritually seduce people by, like a marionette, no pun intended, chaning form and role to carry out the intentions of others.

My favorite images rendered of her are a collection of several paintings, all entitled Madonna, by the unusual Symbolist painter Edvard Munch. The one to which I am most drawn is shown below, where she appears as an ephemeral being whose presence is alluring and strong yet fleeting. She attracts you, drawing you to her aura, but then you are repelled when you remember that this is an image of the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus. She is not virginal, nor is she chaste.



Oil on canvas

Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo, Norway

Her unruly hair--a motif one never sees on traditional images of this figure--flows over her shoulders. It frames her peaceful yet expressive face and leads the viewer’s eyes to her voluptuous, naked body--another trait that is not featured on traditional images of Madonna--that appears to be rotating right, in the direction of the paintings light source. Her head is crowned by a red crescent shape that, as this is an image of a religious subject, alludes to a halo. But then again, its red color could bring in a host of sexual, sensual connotations.

It also could be regarded as a setting sun which can render the viewer uncomfortable since it creates a dichotomy of a earthly realm and a heavenly (or extraterrestrial or just simply "elsewhere"): we see the setting sun, a body that exists in our world, yet appear to be no where in particular by the appearance of the rest of the painting. This dualism is repeated by the both solid and fleeting nature of her body. Madonna's hair, face and torso appear nearly palpable while her extremities flow off into the abyss of the background and turn into an echo of expanding rings that frame her body.

Perhaps, just for the sake of juxtaposing, it would be interesting to see some of the other images Munch created in his Madonna series.

Madonna(The Brooch/ Eva Mudocci).



Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway

Madonna (Conception)


Colored Lithograph

Museum of Modern Art, New York

Madonna (Loving Woman)



Art Institute of Chicago

The permutations of possible meanings brought out in these paintings' range of title, medium and symbol complicates the already unusual and mysterious appearance of the first example displayed. But this is not what I wish to discuss, not this time at least, and this is just a blog entry and not a dissertation, I will pass on to other favorite Virgins of mine.

Ah, and there goes a perfect subject for transition. As Munch gave his versions the name Madonna, this name was not used popularly until the 14th century. For example, such as this example by Cenni di Pepo a.k.a. Cimabue shown below.

Madonna of the Holy Trinity (Maestà)


Tempera on Panel

Uffizi Gallery, Florence

This is likely much more of the kind of "Madonna" image that comes to mind, as opposed to the rather sexualized Munch version. Here she is shown enthroned (maestà means “majesty” in Italian) presenting the smiling Christ child who makes a benediction sign to the viewer. The two are framed by a parenthetical formation of eight angels, four on each side, and sit above four other religious individuals. Mary is the largest figure in the work, thus designating her as the most important. She is also placed centrally and at the apex of the pyramidical formation, both of which emphasize this hierarchy. She wears her traditional tunic, in blue, as that was color designated for royalty and important. The golden hue of the background as well as the halos demonstrate Cimabue's Byzantine influence as that color often dominated the brilliant mosaics that decorated churches like the Hagia Sofia or those at Ravenna.

Before "Madonna" became who she was, however, she was more simply the Virgin Mary. This nomenclature has a far more Medieval connotation. Another particularly characteristic designation of this time period is the idea of sedes sapientiae or throne of wisdom.

Virgin and Child in Majesty


Walnut with paint, gesso, and linen

From the Auvergne, France

Metropolitan Museum, New York.

This surprisingly well preserved example illustrates this archaic idea. Sedes sapientiae is the idea that Mary was the actual vessel or passage through which God was incarnated as man. This style of sculpture is demonstrative of 12th century central France, though visually related images are known to have been made in other territories. While the work today appears austere by nature—the simple wood materials, the equally sober appearance of the Virgin and her son and their unembellished, humble clothing is an ironic contrast to the name of this genre of sculpture—Throne of Wisdom— evokes for it implies a more royal presence. This style of sculpture was always either painted (notice there are still traces of polychrome that survive)or in some cases in a metal shell or with metal embellishments (i.e. royal regalia or jewels). This one, specifically, has traces of tin, so it may have had such details. The purpose and function of this kind of statuette vary from source to source, though it is generally accepted that they were mean to be portable, which may explain why the vast majority of objects in this style are made from wood, rather than a more sumptuous material (though originally the wood cores were covered in a thin metal sheet – this was only done very rarely), and fairly damaged. Modern scholars believe that these Thrones of Wisdom would be exhibited during processions on special feast days (such as on August 15th for the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin) so that pious churchgoers could venerate her.

Slightly more is known about the iconography of this type of statue. Mary is shown here not as a queen, despite her placement on a thone, but as the Mother of God. That is, she is meant to be the throne on which her son, Jesus, sits. During the years in which these sculptures were popular Mary still had somewhat of a minor role in Church practices and in the liturgy; she was important only because she gave birth to the son of God. Though this was not meant to be celebratory either of maternity or of Christ as a child—observe how though he is small he is stern, making a gesture of benediction, while his mother, shown equally as serious, doesn’t cradle him but holds him by his waist on either side, presenting him to the viewer The pair is rendered in this fashion in order to solicit awe and amazement. These types of statues are sometimes seen as representations of the story of the Tree of Jesse, which is a Biblical Passage from the Book of Isaiah that metaphorically describes the arrival of the Messiah as it says that “there shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots…” (Isaiah 11:1-3). That is, Christ is viewed as the growing branch while Mary is often seen as the stump of the tree. While the Tree of Jesse is really about the genealogy of Christ, associating him with O.T. kings and the Throne of Wisdom iconography is more about Mary as the vessel, the seat of the Incarnation, the correlation between the two concepts is apparent. This relationship has other applications as the Virgin was sometimes referred to as the embodiment of the Church itself or the vessel through which God was incarnated as Christ; though returning to the object at hand, it is clear to see how that story was applied to this type of sculpture as it appears that Christ is an extension of the Virgin herself. In fact, the bodies of these works were often made from one solid piece of wood (with the heads attached later). Finally, it was sometimes, though not always the case, that objects of this nature were used as reliquaries. Conservators have found small chambers in the backs of some of these statuettes though no relics were found to remain. Therefore, this remains an open question. However, if they were used for relics, they may have been Marian relics (those believed to be from the Virgin herself), such as the hair, blood, or milk from her body, or pieces of her vestments. While this type of sculpture is so characteristic of the Romanesque, iconic even, it evolved and lived on into the Gothic style, reflecting ideological and societal changes, upon which I will elaborate in the next entry.

1 comment:

  1. Rich food for thought: Madonna versus The Virgin. Where do one start and the other stop? Are they one and the same, or different? Where do the mysterious “Black Madonna” and “White Goddess” fit in? Who are ‘they’ talking about when using ‘Madonna’ or ‘Virgin’? Why would anyone name his or her kid that? Is Mary in anywhere?