The Mother Of God Through The Ages

by Dish Staff

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The Economist‘s E.W. recently visited “Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea”, a new exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC. How depictions of Jesus’ mother changed over time:

Pre-Renaissance Mary is represented as queenly: ennobled, enthroned, surrounded by angels and engulfed in celestial light. In the late Middle Ages she becomes more approachable, appearing more often in the garb of an unassuming peasant. The humanist conception of Mary gained further traction in the Renaissance: she is less empress of heaven, more mother—sewing, nursing and playing with the infant Jesus. It is a representation that is crucial to the doctrine of Jesus’s “authentic humanity”:

Mary is his link to human nature and earthly experience. Engaged in these quintessentially female activities, she also provides the archetype of Christian womanhood.

But even in the most unadorned depictions of Madonna and child, the halo is omnipresent. She is no ordinary woman, but that impossible ideal compared with which all other women must ever fall short: the perfect mother and the perfect virgin.

During the Counter-Reformation, Mary is returned to her seat of power. Catholic artists, responding to the Protestant minimisation of her part in humanity’s salvation, re-emphasised her position as mother of God. She also takes on a growing role of her own in the lives of the faithful, as the supreme intercessor between her son and those who worship him. What is remarkable, across all these depictions, is that Mary almost never gazes at the viewer. Her eyes are invariably downcast, suggesting solemnity, a soul turned inward, and the tragic foreknowledge of her son’s fate. The exhibition describes this look as expressive of her humility, though another word for it would be submissive; it evokes the age-old notion that a woman’s direct gaze is impure.

(Detail from Botticelli’s “Madonna and Child,” circa 1475-85, via Wikimedia Commons)