In October I had the opportunity to travel to the Louvre Museum on a free day I had from a conference I was attending in Leuven, Belgium. I went predisposed to consider images of the Madonna as I had been thinking about her representations in art for some time. In my own painting, I have been developing a version of the Annunciation that depicts Mary as a teenage girl reading a pregnancy test. Her fear and consternation, coupled by the shock of the event of learning of her pregnancy strikes me as a more accessible telling of the true vulnerability and risk of the unwed child Mary than classic depictions of Mary as a reclining queenly figure quietly receiving the angel’s message. I likewise had been working on a wood burnt figure of a Black Madonna as a study in both icon making and also understanding the tradition of Black Madonnas found throughout Eastern Europe.
I am deeply aware that representing this figure is a culturally laden task because the Madonna speaks both to some of the deepest spiritual needs and inclinations of many faithful Christians world over, just as she is almost shorthand for division among Christian communities. Her presentation is tremendously political as it is received by fans and critics simultaneously as at once championing women (and the divine within women) and also condemning real women whose maternity and bodies can never be as morally or physically pristine as Mary’s. Mary’s skin, clothing, age, gesturing, posture, gaze, and more speak volumes about the social location of her patrons and creators as well as the manner in which the viewer is being invited to receive her.
As a theologian, a feminist, and a person drawn to making art as an exercise in both prayer and study, I have been drawn to make and study images of Mary throughout my life. What is more, I was reared in a Christian religious tradition that neither venerates nor comments on Mary as a particularly significant figure theologically (and, would tend toward her negative assessment when pressed), so I approach these figures with a native understanding of critical attitudes toward Mary, even as I work, teach, and worship as an adult within the Roman Catholic Church.
As such, my perennial interest in Marian images was piqued recently when I encountered a painted panel at Kent State University’s Center of Visual Arts, which depicted Mary loosely as a figure in a style intended to suggest stained glass in a church or cathedral. The image was surrounded by text that mockingly parodied the Ave Maria, repeating over and again, “Hail Mary, full of cum, look at what your church has done.” The work was situated amidst other painted panels, admittedly less memorable to me, but the common theme among them seemed to be advocacy or protest expressions. I understood the Mary panel to exist within the visual rhetoric of protest art, even while it was unclear to me what the precise critique was to which the work was giving voice. With no clear direction in the work itself, I assumed a sweeping critique of Catholic teaching with particular reference to sex and the body since the words in the piece used vulgar sexual language to elicit feelings of scandal and revulsion.
The work did elicit feelings of revulsion in me but those feelings were not directed toward the Church and its failures. The feelings, which I sat with for some time to try to understand, seemed more oriented toward the hard use of Mary’s image, as well as the graphic sexual language that struck me as assaultive toward Mary, and by extension, toward women or women’s bodies generally. Whether knowingly or unknowingly, the artist of this work had identified one of the key, historical polemical uses of Mary in the theological literature, when her part in the story was weaponized to demonstrate the inferiority or inadequacy of one’s opponents. Mary’s body, her genitals, her bowels, and her blood were often evoked by Medieval critics of Christianity in the great polemics between the three Abrahamic traditions to demonstrate how impossible Christian belief was. For, God would never get near a women’s filthy intestines or bloody passage! Yet, Christians themselves used the same charges against their opponents, accusing “heretical” Christians of being like women in various ways, accusing Jewish men of bleeding as menstruant women, and so on. The take away, then, is that likeness or association with woman’s body, and especially women’s sexual organs, is indicative of moral or social inferiority. Then as today, acting like a girl, throwing like a girl, crying like a girl, driving like a woman, being hysterical like a girl, and so on, were common criticisms of religious life and belief along with other aspects of human life.
The window at Kent participated in this discourse, but, perhaps unwittingly furthered the unintended message that a woman’s body, “full of cum” is metonymous for disgust and violation, even when, or perhaps especially when that fullness is imposed on her body, as the Annunciation story suggests (for, it is not called the Query, or the Asking). Vulnerable people in vulnerable bodies often identify with Mary because they understand that historical Mary was also poor and at great physical risk. Popular, grassroots sentiment and identification with Mary is in large measure why Mary actually ascended to theological prominence in the 6th century. Un-nuanced critiques of her body that suggest blame and shame may as such fail to understand the corrective potential of Mary as a tool operating favorably for the poor and vulnerable within the power dynamics of the Church.
Considering this work and discussing it as I had on a number of occasions, I went to the Louvre with a particular eye to Marian images. On my obligatory stop by the Mona Lisa I found myself considering Veronese’s opposing image of the Wedding Feast. This massive painting covers and entire wall from floor to ceiling and represents an elite wedding party. There are masterfully rendered over one hundred figures in high fashion. For even a viewer accustomed to the standard $20,000 – $30,000 wedding of the present day, this work immediately reads as a high-end event. Rich people are having a good time. They are partying, even a little crassly at points, animals are frolicking at their feet, and no one seems to want for anything. Known personalities pepper Veronese’s painting, so I imagine the effect to a common person of the day the same as would be to a contemporary viewer if those same figures were populated with the faces of known celebrities. There is an obvious feeling of affluence, luxury, and abundance in this work. Curiously the composition places at the center of the painting a Jesus looking head on at the viewer and a Mary whose seeming purpose is only to be present, since the biblical rendering places her by Jesus’s side, pestering him to make more wine. At this event, one gets the sense that Jesus’s sole purpose at the event is to perform cool parlor tricks at the behest of the elite.
Biblical scholarship on the wedding feast examines this story both as a foreshadowing of the pouring out of Jesus’s blood as well as an event in which Jesus demonstrates his identification with the poor. Mary’s role in that story reads as a concerned woman, understanding the poverty of the hosts, nudging her son to do what he can to make this wedding a celebration. An even more basic midrash on the story could argue that the guests need the wine to make the water potable, so Mary is nudging Jesus not actually for wine but for water. Perhaps Veronese was critical of his own wedding party, for Jesus may be there at first blush to keep the wine flowing. Yet, the composition foreshadows the last supper, suggesting that in the midst of the merriment, the guests do not understand what is happening. This misunderstanding of the role and function of Jesus at the wedding stands as its own critique of the Renaissance Church, rife with excess, richness, elitism, and corruption. It is here that Mary is rendered a mere function of the Church, stripped of her prophetic power as the vulnerable whose bodies ultimately make it possible for there to be a true encounter with God. Veronese reduces her significance in this work accordingly.
Yet, down the hall, one finds a third telling in Leonardo’s Virgin with St. Anne. Brilliantly restored with a rich and vibrant color palate, this unusual composition places Mary on her mother’s lap, while playing with the baby Jesus to her left. Eerie and otherworldly, the work bears the typical marks of the master. What struck me most, however, was the radical theological revisioning potential of the composition. The first this one notices is that the composition of the holy family is absent Joseph. The second and more profound insight is that the work is pyramidal in structure, suggesting a Trinitarian relationship between the figures. This Trinitarian composition, then, places Anne in the place of Creator/Parent (i.e., Father); Mary is situated as the Incarnate Son; and Jesus is playfully off to the side as the Spirit. It would be difficult from reading the painting alone to determine whether this was explicitly Leonardo’s intent. What strikes the viewer as a third and very significant innovation in the composition of the Holy Family, however, is the aspect on each of the faces. Anne has a serene calm, as though she sees all and embraces it lovingly. Jesus plays, lacking the seriousness of typical renderings as well as missing the usual papal gesturing in his hand. It is Mary who looks pained as she reaches toward her child awkwardly perched on her mother’s lap. She is cumbersome and pitiful. Then, one realizes this image may well be a Pieta. The crucified one is actually Mary, who is constituted by love yet powerless to stop what is to come. She reaches for her beloved in vain, even while she is held and supported by a parent whose benign and knowing gaze she cannot see. This Mary perhaps captures the best and most humane version of the story of the Mother of Jesus, human, enfleshed, and suffering even as her love opens new possibilities of healing human relationships.
This Advent – for those who observe this season – I invite you to consider the role and function of Mary. Do a deep dive into her historical reality. Think about the images you may have seen of Mary and ask yourself what they look like, who made them, and for what purpose. And celebrate Mary, who in Christian thought represents one of the richest places for us to ask the perennial and painful questions abut who’s in and who’s out, why, and how to do it better.
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie’s most recent book is Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.