REVIEW: Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea
by Timothy Verdon, Melissa R. Katz, Amy Remensnyder, Miri Rubin, Kathryn Wat

I flick through the book, filled with images of the Madonna and child going back 700 years. I pick out my favourites and quickly recognise a pattern. There’s the 15th century terracotta statue from Florence, where the mother looks so anxious, so inwardly distracted, as she hugs her baby close. There’s a painting made around the same time where she tickles her giggling baby, a goofy grin on both their faces.

There’s one by Caravaggio, where Mary’s head droops as she sits, cradling her baby in a rosy milk coma while she falls exhausted into sleep, and another, by female painter Artimisia Gentileschi, where Mary presses just above her nipple, ready to manoeuvre it into her expectant baby’s mouth, his eyes fixed on the meal to come.

The pattern is obvious. I have picked out the images which reflect my own experience as a real, earthly, human mother.  A mother who worries, who plays, who is exhausted, who feeds on demand. There’s also a wonderful Flemish annunciation, where Mary is rooted to the spot, and you can almost hear her saying to the angel, “What, me?”.  Angel Gabriel has, of course, never been part of my parenting experience, but if he was, I think I would have that exact same freaked out expression on my face.

This is the catalogue of an exhibition called Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea, which is on at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC, until 12 April 2015. The book contains four scholarly essays and 71 sumptuous reproductions of the artworks in the show, focusing largely on the Renaissance and Baroque periods during which Marian imagery was at its height.

Mary is most often shown as secondary to the baby she is holding, and her role in the Gospels is limited to that of supporting actor. But as early as the second century, her life story was being written to satisfy those who wanted to know more. Rejected by the Catholic church as Apocrypha, this new history was embraced widely in the Middle Ages, and even used as the basis for a whole sura (chapter) in the Qur’an, which venerated the virgin Mary (Maryam) as one of the four perfect women of Islam.

For me, Mary is that anxious, worried mother I can identify with. But her anxiety is not about the baby’s vaccinations, or whether the milk bottle is sterile. Even while she holds her perfect bundle of joy, she knows what he has in store for him. It’s hard to look at paintings such as the nativity, by 17th century nun Orsola Maddalena Caccia, because the infant’s deep sleep, head falling back, body limp, consciously foreshadows his later horrible death, after which his adult body, pierced and grey, will lie cradled on his grieving mother’s knees. That iconic image of human suffering, the Pietà, was probably invented by Flemish religious women, the beguines, to aid their devotions.

Mary as a real, human mother was brought to the fore from the 13th century, when Francis of Assisi invented the classic nativity scene to present the holy family as poor, modest people accessible to the masses. But in her time, Mary has meant many other things to many other people. She is the perfect, ideal woman, a vision of beauty, purity, patience and wisdom (this works better, in general, for the male painter and viewer). She is the Queen of Heaven, regal, aristocratic, ruling from her throne. She is a place of refuge, sheltering an infinite number of people under the safety of her cloak, just as she once protected all Constantinople from attack under its vast folds.

And she is a warrior. Like the warrior goddesses of antiquity, and the female warrior saints of the middle ages, she has a distinct virtue which gives her access to the masculine realms of hunting and battle: she is a virgin. In all the images of Mary as the Madonna of the Militia, she is not holding her son. She wields weapons, she lacks that maternal softness, she promises a victory both bloody and just.

Mary was invoked by Christian soldiers in the fight against non-Christians as far back as the early 7th century. Her image was packed in military kits and featured on the war banner of flagships, and her name was shouted as a battle cry. In the 16th century she was central to the conquest and Christianisation of the Americas. By the 18th century, artists gave Our Lady of Battles explicitly male warrior attributes such as those of saints James and George. A sculpture from that time shows her sitting on a rearing stallion, sword held high, two Muslims crushed and dying underfoot.

And yet, she was a key Islamic figure as well as a Christian one. Learned men even argued that she should be given the status of prophet. Ordinary Muslims and Christians mingled for centuries at Marian shrines across the Mediterranean, such as the island of Lampedusa, where a lamp was kept burning by sailors of both religions, and her shrine kept stocked with supplies for escaped prisoners of war washed up there. Refugees of both faiths are still washed up there today, on their way from Africa to Europe, a fact not lost on Pope Francis I, who chose to pray there after he was elected in 2013.

There’s much to say about Mary. She is an enduring icon of womanhood, adapting through history and geography and even religious revolution to survive and grow. She is an ever-changing reflection of our own cultural and individual ideals and needs, but through it all, she remains a strong, heroic mother.

Amsterdam Mamas, 13 March 2015