Virginal, Beautiful, Maternal: Madonna with Child

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The statue before him, [a small fifteenth century madonna with child,] standing in full light, with its intense red-and-gold decoration, was delightfully simple in feeling: the face was truly virginal, beautiful, and maternal. He’d never realized, never observed, that these three traits converged. Here it was obvious: virginal, beautiful, maternal – and with a shade of suffering that did not distort any of the three….

He walked slowly around the desk and examined it closely from every angle. It had no visible faults, nothing unnatural or exaggerated in its form, in the natural beauty of the figure, in the fall of robe, in the position of the arms, the curve of the throat, and the strange humble pride of the arch of the neck, the carriage of the head, that extraordinarily beautiful face expressing the paradoxical trinity, which seemed to him for the first time no paradox at all. Even the child in her arms pleased him, although in general he didn’t like depictions of the baby Jesus.

– Heinrich Böll, The Silent Angel (1950)

While the face of Jesus has been an object of discussion and scholarly attention, the face of the Virgin Mary warrants it as well. Böll’s description of a character encountering a statue of the Madonna with Child also describes a confrontation: the statue provides the individual with a sensuous experience of the ideal (or idea) of Woman. I believe the “paradox” is the “Myth” of Woman that Simone de Beauvoir wrote about, at length, just the year prior to Böll’s novel.

Let us not forget what art history has handed down: a paradox of Womanhood or Womanliness that is apparently no paradox at all. The day of Jesus’s birth serves as a reminder to not forget the effects of this non-paradox.

On this day of religious celebration, perhaps we could instead turn our attentions to Fernando Botero’s Madonna with Child (1965), or Henri Rousseau’s The Girl with a Doll (1904-1905).

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