Sorrows of the Mother
Humanization of Mary
The images of mother and child have existed for a very long time. Mother goddesses have been found in almost every civilization and religion. Without doubt, mother and child images are still popular all of over the world with more and more styles of representation every year. Whether it is a sculpture, painting, drawing or photograph, the concept of a mother as supreme is neither hard to grasp nor to feel. Images of a mother with her child are symbolic of an optimistic occasion- be it the celebration of a new life or all life as we see it.
Artemisia Gentileschi. Madonna and Child. C.1613
In Christianity, however, the mother is not supreme, at least when she is alone. Mother Mary is worshipped but she is only important in context to Christ and God Himself. Barring few exceptions such as Donatello’s Penitent Magdalene (1453-55)[Fig1], Mary is always imagined as queen of heaven in Gothic sculptures, symbolised with a crown on her head. She is queen of heaven only because of her conception of Christ. She is a vessel for the birth of Christ on earth. As we see in Botticelli’s Madonna of the Magnificant[Fig.2], she is crowned the queen of heaven with child Christ on her lap, with the symbol of resurrection in his hand. In Fra Angelico’s The Coronation of the Virgin (c.1441-45) [Fig.3], Mary is crowned by Christ himself with six saints in attendance.
In the byzantine representations of the Theotokos- meaning ‘god bearer’ as Mary came to be known- both Mary and Christ are stiff icons of motherhood and salvation. Among the changes from the late Romanesque to the gothic art styles, one of the primary ones is the humanisation of both Christ and Mary. They are not just emotionless icons of divinity. Mary becomes more human in her emotions as a mother in all narratives, be it a mother and child or a scene from the lamentations. She feels for her child as any mother would and does not refrain from these feelings as earlier renderings portray as divine disinterest in her own son’s death. What we now see is the effect of Christ’s death on his mother and this shifts the focus from him being the son of God, the relation that was, till now, being presented as the entire focus. Even with God present in a painting, the focus now shifts from Him to the relationship of Mary with her child. We see this in Grunewald’s The Virgin and Child[Fig.4] that is a part of the Isenheim Alterpiece (c.1512-16). It strikes the audience with its optimism and beauty. There are angels in the background, further back there are mountains and at the top there is God the Father seated on his heavenly throne shining light onto Madonna and her child. What is brilliant is throughout all this the virgin’s only concern is her child. There is pure joy on her face as her child smiles back at her. It is a bond that will endure all pain and suffering. The Madonna was already considered the perfect mother during the Byzantine period but it is in these late Gothic and Early Renaissance portrayals that it really takes shape.
The motherhood of the Virgin becomes more and more pronounced in certain stylizations and forms which first appeared in the Byzantine period and then started to develop during the Late Gothic period. The most popular image was that of the Christ Child seated on Mary’s lap with his right hand lifted, signalling salvation. This however was not very naturalistic. The eleousa, ‘virgin of tenderness’ [Fig.5] is comparatively much more human because it shows the bond between Mary and her son. Here Christ’s right cheek touches Mary’s left cheek while his arm goes round the back of her neck. The Glykophilousa[Fig.6] too is such an image, used both in painting and sculpture, where one hand of the child caresses his mother's chin. Although stiff at first, it started to become more and more naturalistic and became what we see in Dieric Bouts’s Virgin and Child (1455-60)[Fig.7].
Virgo Lactans [Fig.8], breastfeeding Virgin, was another such image that that became popular in the fifteenth century. This was more human than the devout images of the Christ already as the Lord even on his mother’s lap. Breastfeeding may be seen as the profound duty of a mother to her child. The act of breastfeeding has throughout history signified love, comfort and motherhood. It has been an image of calmness even without a religious context as we see in Egon Schiele’s Calming Mother[Fig.9].
[Fig.8]Virgin and Child. 1475-99. Master of the Saint Ursula Legend. Netherlandish.
Standing Madonna with child balanced on her protruding hip such as The Virgin of Jeanne d’Devreux (14th Century)[Fig.10] became a widely popular image with multiple artists recreating it in multiple ways. The Christ child is definitely much more playful and completely naked. This way he is represented as human rather than a divine icon. What stands out is the interest that Mary shows towards her child. The bond is visible and her devotion to her child is felt by the audience. Even when sitting, Mary’s interest in her child has grown from being duty-bound to pure love as we see in Claus de Werve’s Virgin and child (c.1415-17)[Fig.11]. These images provoked piety in the way it portrayed love in between the child and the mother. Unlike in byzantine icons Mary didn’t look at the audience anymore. She was consumed in her devotion to Christ. She was here more of a mother than before.
In Byzantine iconography Christ was above human feelings. The image of Christus Triumphans, the triumphant Christ who didn’t feel pain, developed over time and gave way to a new image that seemed to feel the sorrows of humans and was more understanding, relatable and approachable. Since Christ started to be depicted in more human ways, this enabled Mary’s pain to be depicted more naturalistically. The image of Christ develops to look like an actual child rather than a miniature representation of a full grown man in case of Madonna and Child images while in the Lamentation he feels more pain. The idea of Christ develops from being a constant figure of divinity, unfeeling of human emotions, to a progressive narrative– starting at birth as a child and dying as the figure that is Jesus Christ. Changing Christ’s image in the mother and child invariably changes the audience’s perspective of how Mary sees her son in the Lamentations and therefore the pietas.
This is evident in the Rottgen Pieta (c.1300-25)[Fig.12]. In this wooden sculpture from Germany, Mary’s foreknowledge of the resurrection in the presence of Christ’s visible and gaping wound and tormented body is immaterial. She as a mother just saw her child crucified and now holds him in her arms. She may know that he will live again but right then she was holding a dead son. She, as a mother, was bound to feel sorrow and anger. She was bound to doubt any information that she had of him coming back to life. As long as he was dead she would feel the pain because her son had felt it.
Kathe Kollwitz’s Pieta[Fig.13] at the Neue Wache, Berlin, Germany is a modern example of such imagery. In this the faces half visible and show only grief and pain. The figure of the mother seems destitute, the loss of her son is the loss of everything. She is not even holding her son anymore apart from his right with her left, gently, with full knowledge that he won’t feel it, the life has left this body and what is left is just a shell. A reminder of what was. His limp body lying on her lap- her drapes drooping on him. It is as if the body of the son is dissolving in that of the mother. They began as one body, lived lives separately and now again are one- as they were before his birth. But this time the pain is unbearable. This is not a return to a past. A mother has lost her child. Who the mother or the child truly are doesn’t matter, they represent the pain of every mother who has ever lost a child. We are left speechless in front of her grief-stricken form.
The story of Mary and Christ is probably the grandest tragedy ever visualized. A mother conceiving a child only to lose him to the cruelty of man. The pieta is the communication of emotions. The lamentation is the narration of the story. The Christ on Mary’s lap, away from the many people surrounding them and lamenting the death of Christ, is the triumph of humanity over the idea of sublime divinity. Looking at a pieta we are left to imagine what is going on around them. What is the scene in which they are set in the imagination of the artist? It doesn’t matter. The two figures are by themselves complete in the eyes of the audience. It’s a mother and her child. The mother and child in Christianity is the Virgin Mary carrying baby Christ. But the mother and child is already a part of a greater narrative of Christ’s life and his ultimate death. So they are never truly optimistic but show a more positive time in the life of the Son of God. The foreshadowing of his inevitable death is ever present. This makes the pieta a much more complete image, that of the end- it completes the story that began with the mother and child. The two images, during the gothic period, changed to become more concentrated on the virgin and her relationship with her child. In these two instances there seems to be an absence of a greater narrative apart from slight implications through symbols that forsooth the coming of the end. The pomegranate was used commonly as a symbol of resurrection. The foreshadowing is always present. In Botticelli’s the Madonna of the Book[Fig.14] we see the crown of thorns around child Christ’s left hand. The calm and pious face of Mary may be the look of foreknowledge. In Bellini’s works there is a piety of Mary towards Christ. It is as if Mary worships her child and knows what cruelty he will have to face [Fig.15]. She is aware of her duty. The foreshadowing of Christ’s death is in the form of Christ child laying as if lifeless on her lap and covering with his hand the spot where he will eventually receive his wound. Mary’s foreknowledge is not a constant in all works across the spectrum. There were various heterogeneous interpretations of this aspect of the story among different artists. Even in a single artist’s works we see a variety of depictions, some implying Mary knew of Christ’s inevitable death and resurrection and others simply put her in shock at the scene of his death or crucifixion. In Grunewald’s depiction of Mary’s pain changes from painting to painting. In The Little Crucifixion (c.1520)[Fig.16] and Christ on the Cross with Three marries, St John the Evangelist and St Longinus (c.1505-10)[Fig.17] Mary seems to be mourning the death but is not taken to shock. This may be because although she feels Christ’s pain which is portrayed effectively and empathetically, she seems to have prior knowledge of his resurrection. In his centrepiece of the Isenheim Altarpiece however, Mary faints with grief at the sight of Christ’s tormented body on the Cross.
We are able to submerge ourselves in Mary’s love and joy at Christ’s birth and consequently her love and sorrow, even hints of anger at his death. In these moments, whether she knew what the future held didn’t matter. She was a mother first and she would feel her child’s pain. In Segna di Buonaventura’s The Crucifixion (c. 1315)[Fig.18] the Virgin looks away in pain as all others look up at crucified Christ. In Botticelli’s The Lamentation (C. 1490-1500)[Fig.19] Virgin faints with dead Christ on her lap. This is unlike all of his previous works where there is a grandness and piousness that transcends humanity. Another such work of his is the Pieta (1445-1510)[Fig.20]. This is more dramatic as if a play on a stage. Here too Mary faints with pain.
Slowly the clarity of Christ’s wounds began to fade as the Classical values of painting were renewed during the Renaissance. As we see in Bronzino’s The Deposition (1540-1545)[Fig.21] Christ’s face seems calm, his body exceptionally clean and unharmed yet lifeless. Mary is not at ease with her son’s death but yet she is not as perturbed as a mother ought to be. The calmness of Christ’s face seems to engross all other emotions and flow out of the painting into the viewer as if to this is not the end. The humanist approach to Christ and Mary didn’t change completely or return to Pre-Gothic trends but were re-evaluated. Even then, whether it is a religious representation or a nonreligious one, a ‘mother and child’ seems to be one of the most accepted images around the world.