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.