Its mid-Feb; the time between the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on Feb 11 and the Women’s day on Mar 8 seemed like a good window to share this story that has been on my mind for a while now. (Note: this story does not talk about the artist, Madonna.)
In 2018, my travels meant that the time I would spent walking the corridors of museums was similar to the time I would spent exploring the city streets. So when I decided to travel to some parts of Europe, it was obvious that I would be spending a lot of the time in some of the most beautiful museums in the world.
A thought struck me: Will I be looking at or for something specific? A decision was made: I want to look for different representations of Madonna. This was a decision made on impulse; no conscious reasoning had gone into it.
As can be expected in European art, I saw very many paintings and sculptures depicting Madonna. But here in a few pictures I will share how my journey with Madonna turned out.
The Madonna and Child in Majesty surrounded by Angels, a work of Cimabue circa 1280, was displayed in one of the very first rooms I visited at the Louvre, Paris. The minimum use of gold, showing the deviation from the byzantine style of art, was a transition period in the art world at the time.
Melancholy of the classical style of painting, applied to a painting of mother and child, took me by surprise. This was very counter-intuitive to the intimate emotions one normally attaches with mother and child. This painting made for a confusing start to this exploration.
Virgin and Child (Madonna of Humility) by Mantegna, circa 1490 (above). An early Renaissance painting.
I was at a museum in Padua, Italy. It was the evening. I was tired and was about skip a section of the museum. But an old man at the museum insisted I see a painting and he lead me directly to this one. I wanted to ask him, “How did you know?”, but I didn’t. Instead I listened to him as he explained to me in Italian about this painting. Even though he knew I didn’t understand much, it did not discourage him.
I was taken in by the warmth of the emotions of Madonna and the child, and the effort of that kind old man.
The Virgin and Child with St. Anne by Leonardo da Vinci circa 1503 (above) at The Louvre, Paris.
This painting represented Madonna both as a mother as well as a daughter. One cannot miss the compassion and contentment that fills the composition. There is also a sense of normal, of home. Now this is a Trinity that I can get used to!
Golden Madonna, Milan Cathedral Duomo, Italy, Francesco Croce, circa 1760.
This was a striking Madonna that stood tall in one of the most important cathedrals and stood alone, without a child. While there may be many theological explanations for this, for me this was a strong representation of an independent Madonna. One which can have an identity that is independent of her child or family.
Madonna, Edvard Munch, Munch museum, Oslo, early 1890s.
The painting clearly depicted Madonna, the woman, as a sensual being. For me, this was also a representation of an inner being and its personal space that requires constant self-care. While one serves the world, one needs to nourish the self with equal sincerity.
The Duomo of Milan also has a sculpture of Madonna on one of its walls which resembles the Statue of Liberty.
The next sculpture on my list is the “Crystal-bearing Nana” from Austria (below). This sculpture was also inspired from the Statue of liberty.
Altogether, I view the the crystal sculpture in Austria as a manifestation of Madonna, which has found its way into the modern world via the popular statue in the New York city.
Duomo, Milan, Italy (left)
Crystal-bearing Nana, Niki de Saint Phalle, Swarowski kristallwelten, Wattens, Tyrol, Austria (below)
This dynamic Madonna spoke to me of achievement, confidence, visibility, acceptance, sensuality and the interrelations of sexes.
There was a sense of completion after seeing this interpretation of Madonna. Incidentally, I was also close to the end of my travels.
It was then that I realized the reason that I started on this search in the first place: I needed to know how the changing status of women in our society is reflected in one of the standard artistic depictions of women.