The naked Madonna
by Sarah Jane Boss
from THE TABLET, 17 February 2001, p. 235; here republished with the necessary permissions.
A limewood statue of a naked Madonna and Child in an Anglican church in London has caused a furore. The sculptor sees it as expressing the Christian theme of Mary as the Second Eve. The issues are here considered by the director of the Centre for Marian Studies at the Margaret Beaufort Institute in Cambridge.
DURING the past 150 years English viewers have periodically been shocked by representations of the Madonna and Child. The Anglican theologian B. F. Westcott, visiting the Marian apparition shrine of La Salette in 1846, wrote approvingly of the new statue of Our Lady which he found there - an undemanding narrative representation of the original apparition - and contrasted it favourably with the medieval statues of the Virgin in Majesty that he had seen at Le Puy and Dijon, the latter, he said, creating "an involuntary sense of repulsion or even of disgust as if we were in the presence of some fetishworship".
In 1926-27, Jacob Epstein produced a bronze sculpture of the Virgin and Child in which he employed Indian models for the two figures in the group. Believing that Christian art had become tame, and that the awe-inspiring characteristics needed to be reinstated in sacred art, he deliberately chose models who did not conform to current European canons of beauty. Newspaper critics hated his work of this kind, describing it as "primitive" and "barbaric". In 1928, Epstein sculpted a Pietà figure to represent Night on the London Transport building in Westminster. The Daily Express thought that it showed a "prehistoric, blood-sodden cannibal intoning a horrid ritual over a dead victim".
There is therefore nothing surprising about the controversy that has arisen over a recently carved limewood statue of the Virgin and Child which now stands in St Matthew's Church, Westminster. Guy Reid, the statue's sculptor, says he intends the image to be a focus for meditation. Reid's sculpture is small - about 18in in height - and stands on a tall, square column made of soil from the churchyard. Behind the seated Madonna and Child there rises a high, flat, stone back, so that, taken as a whole, the impression is one of enthronement and elevation. The mother looks straight ahead with solemn features, her head resting on that of the child, whom she holds firmly in her hands as he, too, looks forward at the viewer. The mother's face does not conform to popular conventions of beauty, and is extremely striking. One viewer said with tears in her eyes how lovely it was to see Mary represented as a black woman, whilst a Hawaiian visitor said: "Oh, she's Polynesian!" Perhaps it is not foolish to see this Madonna as encapsulating not just everywoman but something beyond human divisions altogether.
Looking at the group straight on, the child appears naked, and the mother is seen to have bare legs and feet, and to be seated on a disc. The disc represents the moon, which has long associations in Marian art and devotion: "fair as the moon", says the Song of Songs, and the Church has for centuries applied this to Our Lady. Looking at the group in profile, the mother leans forward, presenting her son to the world. And from this angle it is clear that the woman is entirely naked, her bare legs and muscular arms being prominent. And this, or course, is what has caused the controversy.
What are the grounds on which the Mother of God might be represented entirely nude? Is it due to a modern obsession with sex? This seems unlikely, since there is nothing obviously erotic about the image. Is the artist just trying to shock? This, too, seems unlikely, since Guy Reid is a deeply devout Anglican, who, like a medieval craftsman, works in St Matthew's church tower and joins in the church's daily prayer and Sunday eucharist. He has a degree in theology, and cares deeply for the inheritance of Christian art. Reid refers his work back to that of the late-fifteenth-century German Gothic wood sculptors, whose strongly individual pieces were some of the first to be made without polychrome.
Reid says that the nakedness of his two figures signifies Christ and the Virgin as the New Adam and the New Eve. The motif of Mary as the Second Eve - in correspondence with St Paul's designation of Christ as the Second Adam - goes back at least as far as the Church Fathers of the second century. As Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden and thereby brought about the fall from grace, so Christ and Mary restore humanity to God's favour, thus rescuing their fallen ancestors. In art, the contrast and complementarity between Eve and Mary has usually been depicted with Eve naked and Mary clothed, but Reid evidently wants to show a restoration to the primal innocence of Paradise.
A further significance of the figures' nudity is a pointing to the full humanity of the Word of God incarnate. The motif of Christ's own nudity was certainly used in the Middle Ages to indicate precisely this point, as were the Virgin's bare breasts, but she was not shown entirely naked. The only exceptions to this are certain images of Mary's conception which show her naked and more or less mature - in her mother's womb.
But this emphasis on Christ's real humanity is perhaps the sculpture's weakness. For an image of the Incarnation must indicate both the humanity and the divinity of Christ. Already in Gothic sculpture a sense of the divine was beginning to be lost, and Westcott's objections to Romanesque statues of the Virgin in Majesty are surely - in part, at least - the product of a mind accustomed to seeing his Lord depicted only in his creatureliness, without suggestion of the terrifying majesty incarnated in that vulnerable body.
Reid's sculpture is set in a church that already has a large bronze Virgin and Child sculpted by Mother Concordia, and much lavishly gilded imagery, including a huge golden nativity scene for a reredos. If the eye turns between the wood of the statue and the gold, one might have a sense of timeless divinity and fragile humanity; but on its own, this Virgin and Child may not achieve the paradox that the subject requires. Only time, and the meditators, will tell.
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