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Leasing The Lesser Lamentation (Part Two)

June 15, 2013


Alfred: I will take a moment here to include a few thoughts on Marian art. At one point almost every major artist rendered a version of the Madonna (in various mediums, but am primarily referencing painting). From the late 19th century to today there has been substantial decrease of this subject in art. Gauguin’s Nativity (1896) is a remarkable and controversial depiction of the St. Luke narrative.


In this the Madonna is the painter’s young Tahitian wife (who was indeed pregnant at the time). In most depictions Mary is composed, reserved, without a care in the world, holding the infant Christ, adorned in beauty. Gauguin’s Mary is a world away from that Hallmark portrayal. She is sweaty, exhausted, half nude. Since Gauguin’s island wife was the model, we can safely conclude that Gauguin himself (unseen) is the father of Christ. Therefore, Gauguin has implied a portrayal of himself as God. Of course this is not visible so it is the scene at hand on which we concentrate.  

The most compelling detail of your Mary is her feverish brow. It is this which sets it apart from the staleness of traditional iconography. Yes, in the physical, pictorial realm it is a gesture, but an epically telling one. Your Madonna is also in a sate of exhaustion, but, unlike Gauguin’s Madonna, this state is not from labor and child birth.  Rather, it is the proclamation of her Magnificat, delivered earlier, which seems to have drained her. It is not her role as mere mother, but her prophetic and sacramental role, along with the implications of that prophecy, which have rendered her physically and emotionally susceptible to that enveloping, earthly desert state.

In both works, we discover a Mary who is fully human woman. Gauguin reveals her humanity as Mother. Clearly, in choosing his native lover as Mary, Gauguin rejects the idea of a virginal birth. However, he does not reject the sacramentality of the child’s eventual martyrdom (i.e. the death spirit as midwife holding the child). Mary, her legs spread apart after having delivered the child has produced blood. Her own blood foretells His blood.

In your icon, I find the connection between Mother and Son to be a psychological one (an area icons rarely have the courage to venture into). Surely, the historical Jesus retained personality traits gifted him by his Mother and if tradition is correct, in stating that Joseph died while Jesus was still a teen, then Mary had to have been a considerable influence on Jesus’ personality. The humanity of your Mary is in her prophetic role. Some may erroneously find  that contradictory. However, we must recall that the prophets were considered off, and outcasts. We tend, in embedded theology, to place the prophets on a pedestal, forgetting just how cantankerous and contentious the prophets were (i.e. Samuel). At first Joseph probably (and understandably) thought Mary deranged. Later, many thought Jesus deranged. This outcast quality is the bond I find between your Mary and Jesus. it is there, dripping down her sweaty brow.Yours is not Mary the Queen of heaven, Mother to Christ the King. Yours is Mary the prophet, mother to Jesus the prophet. Gauguin’s mother and child are just that: mother and child.

Two years before Gauguin painted his Nativity,  the painter Edward Munch began a series of works of his Madonna. These works were produced from 1892-1895 and include both oil on canvases and lithographs. Munch’s Madonna is unquestionably erotic and mystical. This is even more apparent in the lithograph (below): sex and death.The death-like figure bodes the the mystical experience as an orgasmic one. Despite the overt eroticism, Munch does not in any way repudiate Madonna as Virgin: Quite the reverse. It is the mystical state which we, in our limitations, find analogous to that which we identify as the erotic experience. Mary is also a martyr of sorts. I find Munch’s Madonna to be a quintessential, contemporary example of Her as Our Lady of Sorrows. In that sword, piercing her heart (a psychological martyrdom) she reaches a divine, comely summit.

Munch Madonna 1894 Munch Madonna  litho


In my own Marian works, The Annunciation and Our Lady, my aimed approach was a mystical one. In The Annunciation, she is a girl, blossoming into the state of Woman. This visitation, from the angelic host, is her transcendental hour. The flowers, robe, and visitor are monochromatic and diaphanous. In Our Lady, Mary is in her post-life state. She is almost mermaid-like and Debussian. Looking at these in retrospect, I find my Mary in identifying dialogue with with the Mary of L. Thiel Hewlings, Edward Munch, and Paul Gauguin. Although little is said about the Mother of Christ in scripture, she transcended the sacred text in a life so epic, so impactive that no one person can have the last word on her.

L Thiel: Alf, words escape me.

Alfred: L, that might be apt. There is much useful symbology to model in Mary. She is the most hidden of the New Testament figures and yet, after her Son’s, hers is the voice which has extended through the ages.  We only hear Mary for any duration during the Magnficat, modeled after Hannah’s proclamation in 1 Samuel. I had a class in that book during grad school. Several (female) students were drawn to Hannah’s prayer. Curiously, one of the students was possibly the most vehemently anti-Mary spokesperson  in seminary. I see several reasons for that.

A priest I know said: “Jesus did not say adore me, he said follow me.” The Church, in making a Mary an object of perfected adoration, has unwittingly transformed her, to a degree, into a museum piece. She is so prettified that she becomes an impossible model. Possibly the most useful of Mary’s symbolic incarnations is the Our Lady of Sorrows. That manifestation is scriptural ( ‘And a sword shall pierce your heart’). However, that is a side of her we tend to blanket. We do not want to see it. I am going to give two examples here that I have witnessed. I had donated two Marian paintings to a Catholic facility. One of these was a colorful painting of Mary. The second was a painting of Our Lady of Sorrows, done primarily in blues. Now that painting was not as good as the other one. When the facility hung the canvases, the Sorrow painting was the one most visible to newcomers because of the wall it was hung on. A member of the community switched them. I didn’t mind because I thought the other canvas was better. However, the lady that switched them told me; “I ha to switch your paintings around because I just don’t want to be reminded that Mary had sorrow in her heart.”

The second example: A number of people were intensely pushing for Mother Teresa’s canonization. That is, until some of Teresa’s diaries were published and it was revealed that she suffered depression. A number of groups who had previously pushed for Teresa as saint were now saying she was not worthy of sainthood.  Now, whether or not she constitutes the contemporary idea of sainthood is not pertinent to my point here (nipping that in the bud before it gets started). It was her humanity, that fact that she suffered depression that offended this “disaffected laity” as you refer to them (and btw, that tag is depressingly astute).They don’t want models, they want plaster to adore. However, here is an example of the hierarchy having more wisdom than the laity. The hierarch, in proceeding with the process anyway, have essentially said” For those of you complaining, we are ignoring because you have no idea what a saint truly is.”

This seems a paradox.Many resist the Marian image because it is said to an impossible role model. Yet, we don’t model her at all. We pedestal her. In the example of Teresa, we have  found resistance because some want her to be an impossible role model. Indeed, it is a paradox. I am going to point out that the most impassioned critics (that I have personally heard) of Teresa’s canonization are women. Why do I make this point in both cases? Because, in regards to Mary,  it goes back to the hysterical proposal to throw out the model because of abuses, both real and imaginatively exaggerated, both intended and unintended. Again, I will point out that the Christ figure has been abused even more than his mother.  Yet, far less suggest we throw the Jesus model out. That reveals a level of misogyny, even from women.

I am going to indulge in another example here. I was helping out in an RCIA class one year. A woman, a cradle Catholic, said: “I am upset with the Church for telling me, and all women, that we can’t have an abortion if we want one.” Later, the subject of the priesthood came up. This same woman said: “I am totally against women in the priesthood and allowing priests to marry. Some traditions are worth keeping.”  Yet again, I was privy to these contradictions amongst the laity, towards the role of women (both in and out of the Church) and towards the priesthood. One had, this person was of a very modern mindset. On the other hand, she was grounded in the tradition of plasticity, or the Hallmark tradition (as I prefer to call it).

Getting back to the model of Mary: Let us put aside that she was both virgin and mother. That is the stuff of dogma and we can leave that to the higher theologians. Instead, let us psychologically look at this tellingly subdued personality, who remains so vivd, primarily in silence, that we are still discussing and debating her. In her delivery of the Magnificat, Mary reveals herself to be prophetic. In giving birth to the Christ child in the Christmas cave she becomes the central figure of the First Church. I will interject something at this point. In my graduate work I read a commentary by a Feminist Protestant theologian. She related how she walked into her parish and saw a nativity set. Up front was Joseph, the child, male angels, male shepherds, the wise men. Far in the back was little Mary, just having delivered, way behind all the males, on her knees, praying. This commentator was understandably aghast at the lowly significance that was afforded this woman, the Mother of Christ. After that, this feminist theologian began to rethink her own attitudes about the image.

Pressing ahead: we see Mary at the temple dedicating her child, being forewarned of her own sorrowful heart.

In the Garden of Agony, Christ implored his Father:”If possible, let this chalice of my passion pass from me.” Yes, Christ was afraid of death, or at least of dying. We do unfathomable harm in trivializing this, or in dehumanizing Christ. Despite his mental  torment,  Christ obeyed his Father. Christ gives us a model here. Earlier, at the Wedding at Cana, we find Christ, likewise, giving us a model in obeying his Mother. Mary asks Christ to begin his ministry at that wedding. In the narrative, by turning the water into wine, Christ essentially takes the first step to his own, impending martyrdom. He resists his Mother’s request, but obeys her and concedes.

 After a few brief  glimpses of her, we find her some thirty years later at the scene of her son’s execution.In Christ’ instruction to “behold your son”, Mary’s status now evolves in her becoming mother to John. We can see this also as being directed towards us (in the place of John).  In looking at the context of this narrative vignette (as opposed to merely the content) we see that,  Yes, we need Mother. The benefit in this maternal metaphor is boundlessly expansive. Mary, in becoming our Mother, becomes the guardian Lioness protector:

“She is… a sanctuary of solace and primal remembrance of the Divine Mother… in turns devout and revolutionary, tender and unapologetic… she cajoles, informs, and seduces us into our birthright as children of a Divine Being who loves us with wild abandon. Even when she was disappeared… half erased, by the thus and dictators of the world, she wore for us her shirt of arrows… We saw her colors and her flowers, her roses, morning glories, lilies, bluebells, marigolds appear at the side of the darkest roads, despite being told she was gone and never existed to begin with… She is the quintessential Mother who does not, will not leave her children behind… She will warm us when we are too cold, cool us down when we are too hot-in emotion, in mind, in judgment, in the creative elite of the soul… She will tell us to be friendly, but never tame…They try to silence her rich bloodline with us-or else we must agree to bind her down into a small and hand-able form. They diminish her: she is made into the quiescent good girl in phony opposition to having another woman, The Magdalene, be the less quiescent bad girl. These are distortions of holy women’s origins and gifts. Untie them both, please…  The future of the world depends on the full restoration of the Sacred Feminine in all its tenderness, passion, divine ferocity,and surrendered persistence. ” [1]

[1] Estes, Clarissa Pinkola. Untie the Strong Woman: Blessed Mother’s Immaculate Love for the Wild Soul. Boulder, Sounds True. 2011

The last time we see Mary is on the day of Pentecost, ushering in the birth of the Church. She is there with the male clergy. She is one of them. She is now Mother, disciple, and priest herself. Of course we have more traditions, which stem from the Protoevangelium of James and, later, the Quran. Although both were instrumental in artistic depictions of the Marian myth, I am sticking strictly with examples from the canonical New Testament. Some believe the “Woman clothed in the Sun” from The Apocalypse is a specific reference to Mary. Some reject that. I personally and theologically accept that as Marian. However, I will refrain from including it here, even if I do find some of these traditions helpful.Despite the vague canonical sketch of her, Mary was so unique  that she has emerged and transcended biblical confinement. Why? Because we need a mother in Our Holy Family. Without her, we are incomplete,  family is incomplete. That is, of course, symbolic. People get caught in the sophomoric concern of  historicity. That is irrelevant, but how we approach, model and identify with Mary reveals how we approach, live out and identify Woman in the liturgical, sacramental and everyday life.

I am going to wrap this by taking it a step further this in a sensitive arena. I have, at different times, been to Episcopal churches. There was a period in which an Episcopal priest was attempting to talk me into converting from Catholicism to his church, in order to be a priest. At his invitation I did attend a few serves and engaged in theological discussion. The subject of women priests came up. I too feel sensitive in this area and mourn exclusion of the feminine voice in the priesthood. However, the subject switched to Mary. This priest resisted the imagery, reiterating that tiresome and unfair complaint that she becomes dangerously close to being a goddess. Yes, I acknowledge the abuses. However, paranoia over that, also reveals our resistance to the idea of God as feminine. By rejecting Mary, due to that (perhaps) well intended but ultimately misogynistic paranoia, we quite possibly may succumb to the risk of dangerously rejecting Sophia.

L Thiel: Very good points, Alf. I see you are wading your way through like a true seeker, and the art is a feast of the multitudes. Your sharing the disparity in the understanding of the feminine “person” in the Godhood is welcomed. I believe … well, if Mary were permitted the opportunity to be heard on SPIR, she might write something fairly simple, and yet, sensually rich. I experience her as Angel, One in the Elect. The whole business of the sainthood is, for me, unconstitutional … as God of Man and, as Man in Humanity. Now, like I said, if Miriam were to write something here, I think it might go something like this:

Be thou as it may, mine heart shine forth to many,

As many are Mother in the Heart of Love.

Thanks for the abundant sharing, Alfred.

Peace and Love

Alfred: Thank you, L. Peace & love

One Comment
  1. opheliart permalink

    One other I’d like to add, Alf. It is of supreme importance in this Season, to come into understanding on what it means to be Spiritually Born (that Becoming: ascending heart to mind). And if those calling themselves catholic church experience Mary as their Angel, well then … MARK 10.9.
    *The Book of Revelation has much insight on this.

    Peace and Love

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