Even More Faces of Mary

Yesterday, I was so sick (and unable to take any useful medication, like Sudafed or ibuprofen) that I was able to do exactly three things:  drink tea, type, and whine.  Out of those three came this post for the Register:  Even More Faces of Mary, in which I repeatedly misspell Steven Greydanus’ name, because it seemed really, really funny at the time.

Follow-up question for you smart people:  Why is it, do you think, that people used to routinely depict the holy family wearing the styles of the artist’s day — but now if you do that, people freak out?  When did this change, and why?  Modernist self-loathing?  Mistrust of contemporary art in general?  Cultural illiteracy (Rembrandt and Fra Angelico’s saints look fine to us because they’re clearly wearing old-fashioned clothes, and that supplies the necessary sense of historical space, even though it’s still off by many centuries)?  Or have people always freaked out when artists did this, and I just don’t realize it?  Or what?



  1. It could be because the clothing of centuries past is just nicer looking. Long, flowing dresses and robes lend a sense of elegance and regality to characters we view as necessarily having those qualities. Judith may not have worn a poufy dress with gold and rubies when she killed Holofernes, but it looks a lot nicer than drawstring sweats and a t-shirt (though I’m not knocking those, they’re incredibly comfortable). As nice as contemporary fashion is to us, Jesus in blue jeans and Mary in Prada just don’t really do it for me.

  2. I think we are too far removed from the original, in terms of our fashion sense. Fra Angelico’s Mary is wearing an anachronistic dress, but it’s still a dress (not to ignite THAT debate again!).
    But really, you never see Jesus wearing pants, and , clearly, in our culture he would. Actually, LOL Saints has put up some contemporary “art” of Jesus, including one with a tattoo. It’s not disrespectful at all, just tacky. Maybe that’s why we don’t do it, our fashions change so quickly, they would be out of date.

  3. I don’t have the foggiest idea about the clothes.

    However, I do know a thing or two about being sick while pregnant. I wish you said more of your symptoms. I wasn’t allowed sudafed with my last two pregnancies due to my inevitable blood pressure issues, so I took sinus buster, which is a hot pepper spray that you shoot up your nose. It’s kind of unpleasant for a minute, but it knocks out a sinus headache. And you can take as much as you want.

    I don’t know if that’s your problem, but it works like a charm for me http://www.sinusbuster.com

    • Thanks, Eileen! Yes, it was mostly sinus pain – I had three distinct headaches at once – a disk across the top of my head, a triangle under one eye, and my entire lower jaw. Will try the pepper stuff! Decaf tea just wasn’t doing the trick.

  4. Yeah, that was one thing I liked about this sculpture: she’s not wearing 21st-century clothes, she’s wearing something that, to me, just looks simple, modest, and otherworldly. (Also, we need to remember that the statue is mounted on the wall, right? It’s intended to be seen from below – so the photos taken at face level are not what the artist intended you to see.)

  5. @Kathleen, why is the blond Jesus objectionable? Do depictions of Jesus as an African or Asian cause the same reaction?

    @Christina, that was exactly what I was going to write about the cloths looking nicer…yet I know I didn’t write what you did. Kind of weird no?

  6. I don’t mind the statue. It’s different and interesting and gives you something to contemplate that more traditional statues don’t. That being said, it conveys strength more than docile submissiveness to God’s Will…so maybe that’s why it seems a bit jarring. From what I’ve seen of the LA Cathedral, it is probably harmonious with the setting and more traditionally beautiful than most of the other art that is there.

    • Yes! I loved the depiction of strength in that statue. I think that is missing from many modern depictions (I’m not talking about the older icons, which are meant to be symbolic, not representational) of Mary. A young woman would have needed great strength to face a pregnancy caused by the Holy Spirit, before she was married, and to bear the burden of being the Mother of God!

      I think some people like to think of Mary as being meek and mild, and certainly she was humbled before God and willing to do His will…but she had to have a lot of inner strength, bestowed upon her by God.

      • I love it too! That is Mary, to me, without all the ‘Mary stuff’. To me, she is strong, she gives me strenght, she has resolve…and I know that keeping resolve and obedience require much more strength than I have. I read the criticisms on the other blog (The many faces of Mary)…wow, Mary isn’t ‘Mary enough’ because she should be prettier or have bigger boobs? Boobs = holy?? Sheesh, I knew I was missing something. Maybe I’d do better if I had more up top? Pity the pear shape.
        Some of those pictures are just creepy. But that is why we have different works of art, we are moved by different things. I am moved by a very simple, open, humble depiction of Mary, whereas others are moved by, as it was noted, a 5 year old with alopecia, or disturbingly large and symmetrical implants.

  7. The more I think about this statue, the more I think that the only thing that bothers me about it is the disconnect between her facial expression and her ‘welcoming gesture’ (as described by cathedral website). She is supposed to be inviting worshippers to come in and pray as she is…but I think it would be a much more successful work of art if her eyes were opened and her mouth smiling a bit. Otherwise she looks lost in silent contemplation which is fine but then kneeling would have been a more iconographic pose. When was the last time you were welcomed to a friend’s home with their eyes shut tight? Still, it’s not terrible that it makes you think and think…I’d like to see it in person to get a sense of scale.

  8. We’re a detail oriented people now and perhaps a little too concerned with superficial appearances rather than “meaning.” We’ve also been introduced terms like “ethnocentrism” and “historo-centricism.” Oddly enough, even though we seem to be able to recognize when we project superficial similarities onto people from the past, we don’t recognize when we project deep cultural assumptions, which are far more insidious and usually more difficult for us to identify.

  9. Does anyone remember seeing a painting of a man in a suit and bowling hat on a crucifix in the Vatican museums? I couldn’t quite figure out if it was supposed to be Christ or if it was supposed to represent humanity crucified. It was definitely interesting, but as the man was sort of superimposed on the cross, it didn’t appear that he was suffering at all… he was sort of hovering on the cross instead of crucified.

    I think it was also the Vatican museum (but could have been the Chicago Art musuem) in which there was a video of two women greeting each other. It was called “The Visitation” and as the women greeted each other (excitedly, as you would expect at a train station or airport), the one in the red dress looked as if her belly expanded. By the end of the sequence, she was obviously pregnant. I couldn’t figure out which one was supposed to be Mary because I initially thought the more prominent figure would be Mary, but then why would she be getting visibly pregnant while Elizabeth stayed the same shape? Except for that distracting fact, it was very interesting and very relate-able. It made me think of the joy of two old friends seeing each other, wrapped up in a huge mystery way bigger than themselves. They both carried rather large purses, wore tea length well fitted dresses in bright colors. They looked like homemakers.

    Anyway, those are two modern examples… while each was well-done, I found a hard time quite getting the point.

  10. There is also a likely chance that people today are far more aware that the clothes people wore in the past are not the same as clothes today than people in the past were. In say, Michelangelo’s day, it’s quite possible that many of the common citizenry just kind of figured the Biblical figures they heard about wore the same stuff they did.

    Or I could just be wrong about how much people back then knew about their own past.

  11. We were in Kolkata, India in December 2007 and visited St. Paul’s Cathedral. We LOVED the large Nativity scene on the grounds, because only the wise men were caucasian. And Mary looked very Marian, indeed, brown skin and all.

    • That’s funny, Nancy – about the wise men. My sisters travelled to Nepal and were told that the Nepalese tradition is that the wise men were the three kings of three kingdoms that became Nepal. It’s funny that they would represent the men who actually were from their region (according to tradition) as people from really far away!!

  12. It’s all about multiculturalism. Having a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus smacks (to us moderns) of Aryan supremacy; dressing the holy family in modern clothes is like a watered-down version of this. It would *disrespect* their culture, don’t ya know? (Any respect for our own culture, is, of course, evil.)

    Besides, if we were going to replace Jesus’ historically-inaccurate linen wrappings on the cross with a modern version, we’d have to decide whether to show him in boxers or briefs. And we couldn’t have THAT, now could we? 😉

  13. @Other Christina: It was just something that happened to pop into my head, especially since I’m a university student who happens the very Renaissance-era Judith-slaying-Holofernes getup than what I see on some of my classmates. 🙂

  14. Okay Simcha, I have to answer your question. Late, since I must catch up on the all the goofing-off I missed while on vacation . . .

    In my experience, most historical biblical artwork *does not* use the fashion of that period. It looks like it does to our untrained eyes. What I usually see is the artist trying to be “historic”. The result is something that is sort of a mishmash — kind of like if you tried to make a Little House on the Prairie costume for your daughter by putting together a bunch of stuff from your own closet. Mrs. Ingalls would think it the very picture of 2011, you would think it 1883 all the way, and the rest of us would just have to politely slip out to the kitchen while the two of you argued about it.

    –> This is actually a problem for historic re-enactors. If you use a picture of a biblical scene painted 1440 to create your costume, you will not look like a lady from 1440. You will look like a lady in the Christmas Pageant in 1440. The costuming equivalent of being a kid in a pillowcase and flip-flops with a dish towel tied around his head.


  15. I just saw an article last week on a little church in southwestern Germany which is being redecorated by a grafitti artist. He is painting, among other things, a large Madonna wearing local traditional folks clothing (tracht). It’s hard to tell whether it’s just the headpiece from the tracht over an otherwise standard Madonna, which would be rather silly, or whether the entire outfit is the local traditional clothing. The entire project was controversial, but the article quotes someone from the archdiocesan architecture office saying the the image was a provocation. I kept thinking to myself, “Surely, this woman has taken an art history class.” Unlike some of the artist’s other work, I don’t find it provocative at all. Shouldn’t we be reminded that Mary is mother to each of us where we are? I concede I would probably feel differently if ishe were in jeans. Here’s the article with picturs (in German only, I am afraid) – http://www.spiegel.de/panorama/gesellschaft/0,1518,766412-2,00.html

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s