Published: Mar. 17, 2018
At: Serpent’s Den
So, some friends linked to this article the other day and I had some thoughts. Fair warning, if you liked this article, you probably won’t like my response, because quite frankly, this article was repulsive.
On Facebook yesterday, a number of Catholic friends were sharing around an image of Mary the Mother of Jesus, modeled after the famous Polish icon, Our Lady of Czestochowa. While the art style may not be to everyone’s taste, what I liked about the image was that Mary is presented as strong, cool – possibly staring down an opponent, certainly keeping her thoughts to herself, while holding her baby close. All we see of the face of baby Jesus is that he is looking up at his mother and protector. It’s an expression I wish I could emulate, any time I feel I need to take a stand to protect my family. And insofar as I have a devotion to Mary as Mother, there is reassurance in knowing that she might be facing down my enemies, too.
Starts out reasonable enough: nothing to speak of in the first paragraph.
Mary of Nazareth bore her child into uncertain political and economic circumstances, a poor young woman in a marginalized group oppressed by Imperial powers. That she had to travel long miles while pregnant to register for Augustus’ census is a reminder of the cruelty and heartlessness of such imperial regimes, the disdain for the poor, for mothers and children. The indifference to families unless they are “good Roman families” such as Augustus liked to praise.
Okay, this is where things start to move in a bad direction. I do not like the sight of the scare quotes around “good Roman Families,” or the accusation of indifference of ‘other kind of families.’ This is insinuation, so responding to it would necessarily involve interpretation (which is why I don’t like insinuation tactics: people can always claim you’re reading too much into it, or that they didn’t mean what you thought they meant). I have ideas of what she meant, based on the rest of the essay and based on my knowledge of my own society, but since she doesn’t actually come out and say it, I’ll let it pass lest I get bogged down in fighting suppositions. Trust me, there are plenty of more solid targets to come.
All I will say is that we’re definitely getting a bad vibe so far.
She bore her child in a stable, and shortly after had to flee as a refugee from state-sanctioned violence, into a foreign land. She may have saved her child, but what about all the other babies who were killed? This might be one of the things Mary pondered in her heart: why the others couldn’t have been saved. Why she was singled out. What would it feel like, returning to Nazareth and raising a child among women whose sons of the same age had been slaughtered?
Small issue: the slaughter of the innocents took place in Bethlehem, not Nazareth. I would also point out that Egypt was not exactly a foreign land, being part of the same Empire and with a large Jewish population of its own, but that’s a quibble. In any case, I really wish she wouldn’t try to impose modern political categories onto the Roman Empire.
It makes sense to portray Mary, at this point in her young life, as angry or defensive. If Jesus could fly into a rage and kick over tables because of economic injustice, why shouldn’t his mother be able to rage against the injustice of a violent regime? Maybe it was a family trait.
The crime that enraged Our Lord to the point of violence was not economic injustice but sacrilege: He was angry that the sellers were using the Temple as a marketplace. He’s very clear on that point: “‘Take these things hence, and make not the house of my Father a house of traffic.’ And his disciples remembered, that it was written: The zeal of thy house hath eaten me up.” (John 2:16-17). Your re-interpretation is another troubling tonal sign.
I’m all in favor of an angry Mary, if done well and reverently. One of my favorite pieces of religious art is M. Bouguereau’s Pieta, which shows a tearful Mary clutching the dead Christ to her chest while staring accusingly at the viewer.
But the commentary on this image, mostly from males of a more conservative background, was hugely negative. She doesn’t look meek was the most common response. Or, she doesn’t look humble, she doesn’t look loving. Even: her neckline is immodest. Or, worst of all, she looks like a whore.
I couldn’t find the image in question (the link she provided no longer worked and a subsequent search was unsuccessful), so I can’t tell how appropriate this criticism is. For our purposes, though, it doesn’t really matter. People like what they like, and it may be that people thought the image was inappropriate. Since it’s the internet I’m sure some people probably overreacted or were crass about it, but you’ll excuse me if I don’t absolutely take your word for it, as you’ve already shown a degree of prejudice and will be showing much more before we’re done.
Forget about the fact that in the history of art we often see Mary with her breast completely bare, nursing Jesus. Or even squirting milk into the mouth of a male saint. Yes, that’s right. St. Bernard of Clairvaux had a vision in which Mary appeared, lactating, and squirted milk from her breast into his mouth: thus, the story goes, he acquired his great eloquence. Okay, Bernard.
Here’s the problem, though; the images of Mary nurturing Christ and the Saints from her breasts come from a very different cultural context: one that had a different view of sexuality and the body. The same image coming out of our culture might have connotations that it would not coming out of just about any previous culture.
Again, the image that prompted this essay may be a perfectly acceptable and reverent image of Our Lady, or it may not, or it may be one that people may disagree over. But one’s reaction to a modern image will necessarily be different from one’s reaction to a historical image simply because it is using a different cultural language. It is the responsibility of the artist to understand and work with that (e.g. a swastika would have vastly different connotations in an image made in modern Europe than it would in one made in medieval India).
Forget about the fact that we have images of Jesus in which he is more like a judgmental Apollo than gentle Messiah. Why is it acceptable to portray different facets of Jesus, but not of Mary? If Mary is indeed supposed to be “queen of heaven” and the “woman clothed with the sun” who strikes at the serpent, we should see her fierce side, too. She herself sang the revolutionary Magnificat, rejoicing in the casting down of the mighty from their thrones.
There is also a problem with this: though, as I say, I’m up for an angry Madonna, there are certain conceptual issues with it. Mary’s role in salvation history is not that of judge. She bears Christ to the world, which by its very nature implies a gentler, kindlier mission. There simply is no basis for comparing her with Christ in the final judgment. Though again, Our Lady of Victory as a stern queen, or bearing the sword, or other powerful images are fairly common depictions of her in religious art, ones I’ve never heard anyone not-Protestant complain of.
The description of the Magnificat as ‘revolutionary’ is highly unfortunate, turning what is a religious exultation into a political one. That, frankly, seems to be a major problem with the essay as a whole.
The men who object to Mary’s representation as other than the meek, pink-and-white maiden of countless kitschy holy cards seem to be objecting not out of an adherence to Biblical accuracy or artistic tradition. They’re objecting because this is not “their” Mary, the Mary they are willing to venerate. Theirs is an idealized image of the feminine, not even a real woman anymore, but an airy Platonic ideal. Pure, meek, humble.
And you plunge right down the straw man slope: you are first setting up a false dichotomy, that either you like this particular image or all you want is “the meek, pink-and-white maiden of kitschy holy cards.” Somehow, I doubt all the men who objected to this image also had the same objections to Our Lady of Victory presiding over Lepanto, or to the aforementioned Pieta, or to the stern, Queenly images of Mary from the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
Then you start ascribing them motives, which you have no rational basis to do (why do you need to deduce anything beyond the reasons they cited?) and which seem to correspond more to your own personal prejudices than to anything you could reasonably deduce from what you’ve described: that men are only willing to venerate an “idealized, meek, and humble” Mary who presents an airy, idealized image of the feminine (by the way, what’s with women objecting to idealized femininity?).
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