Even More Faces of Mary
BY Simcha Fisher
| Posted 6/9/11 at 8:00 AM
I kind of like the new statue of Mary in the Our Lady of Angels Cathedral in L.A. From the pictures I’ve seen
it looks like a competent and interesting work of art, and I find it much more appealing than some of the other images that Steven Greydanus posted in The Many Faces of Mary. This type
in particular always gives me the willies, and, TO ME, doesn’t resemble the Mother of God I know any more than a ham sandwich does: It’s a perfectly pleasant and appealing thing, in its way—but would you go to it for help? Maybe for help with skin care.
However, the key phrase is “TO ME.” These things are incredibly subjective, being based on personal taste (which itself is constructed out of a million baffling threads) and personal spirituality, which, of course, varies widely and legitimately from person to person. So there’s no point in protesting that Ms. Fischer (people who are mad at me always misspell my name) hates beauty and God and apple pie because I think of the work above as Our Lady of Maybelline. That’s what it does TO ME. If it does something good for you, then be my guest.
However, since I know Steven—or should I call him STEPHEN—can take it, I’m going to pick on him for these lines:
What’s going on in the LA cathedral strikes me not as a blending of cultures, but a radical break from all previous Marian iconography. It looks less to me like any conceivable Mary than some New Age goddess or icon of the Feminine As Such. It is as much or more Pocahontas, Joan of Arc, valkyrie, priestess, Amazon, you name it, as the Mother of God.
Not so fast, Mr. Graydonis! A radical break from all previous Marian iconography? Nah. You don’t have to like it, but it’s nothing new. The main thing we know about Mary’s looks is that we don’t know what she looks like—and so it’s been common, until recently, to depict her in clothing contemporaneous with the artist. Greydanus covered that, saying, “[D]espite vast diversity of cultures, styles and traditions, there is still something recognizable about Mary from culture to culture, tradition to tradition,” and illustrated his point nicely, showing Mary in a kimono, in a Mexican robe, in a Russian headdress, and so on.
But it’s also been common to represent Mary in different attitudes, depending on what the times demand. Several readers abhorred the proud, “self-absorbed,” perhaps haughty bearing in this new sculpture, identifying that as what makes the sculpture un-Marian. Well, feast your eyes on this:
AIEEEE! I don’t know what else to say about this bizarre and famous work of art (Fouquet, Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim, 1452)—which, yes, was commissioned for a church (although it now hangs in a gallery). Look at that prissy face! Look at that shaved forehead! No veil, no humble docility, no generous outpouring of succor for the downtrodden—just a gaudy crown, a worrisome lack of melanin, and a downright alarming pair of gravity-defying anatomical impossibilities, which Baby Jesus appears to regard with understandable mistrust.
And how would you describe her attitude and her posture? I think she’s conveying the idea, “Don’t you pee on my ermine, boy!”
Tell me, how is this painting more Marian than the much-maligned statue in L.A.? Oh, and just for an extra zing to the theological cuckooery on display here, the model for this Virgin appears to have been the mistress of Charles VII. Say what you want about the multi-ethnic blend of the L.A. sculpture, at least Monica Lewinsky didn’t pose for it. And what is the deal with the blue and red angels? Are they made out of Jell-o, or what?
Or how about this:
The Virgin of Paris from Notre Dame Cathedral, early 1300’s. Sure, you can tell it’s Mary because of the baby and the crown. But beyond her costume, what can you show me that looks Marian in her face or posture? Would the L.A. statue be perfectly acceptable if she had a sour face and double chin like this Notre Dame Madonna, but someone stuck a crown on her head?
Here’s another celebrated Marian painting (Parmigianini, The Madonna with the Long Neck, 1535, also commissioned for a church, which depicts a beautiful, wealthy, very oddly-proportioned young woman—with none of the features which the harumphing readers have so far listed as indisputably Marian:
Pretty lady holds a baby = mother of God? If there’s anything else specifically Marian about this lady, I don’t see it.
Art is weird—always has been, always will be. Just as in personal taste and personal piety, a thousand tangled threads make up the artist’s intentions. I believe that people protested when they first saw the paintings I’ve shown above—and maybe they were right! Just because something’s executed skillfully, that doesn’t mean the artist has done something good. I’m not saying there’s no such thing as a bad portrayal of Mary. My point is that a Mary that strikes us as odd is not necessarily a “radical break”—unless we can say that artists have been making radical breaks routinely since Marian iconography began.
I like the sculpture because it reminds us that Mary was very young when she bore Christ; that she was virginal, hard-working, and simple. Maybe her posture depicts the moment she received the Holy Spirit when Christ was conceived. No, it’s not what we’re used to seeing. And as I said, you don’t have to like it! But condemning it as something new and unacceptable just isn’t historically sound.
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