Mothers in Art, Through the Ages

What do all these images of motherhood say about us?

On a backpacking trip through Europe, my friend, weary of being dragged from museum to church and back again, complained, “Do we really have to go and see another Madonna and Child?”

The question has stuck with me ever since. Why is the history of art so replete with this representation of motherhood? Are all Madonna and Childs alike? What are we expected to gain from this proliferation of Marys?

Very few truths can apply to all people of all ages, at any time throughout human history, but everyone has a mother.

This month, we celebrate mothers. In a belated response to my travel companion, here’s a look at some Mother and Child imagery through the ages, each with a vastly different take on motherhood.

Madonna and Child by Cimabue, c. 1280

Throughout the Middle Ages, the image of the Mother and Child was meticulously designed and codified to establish a hierarchy, command respect, and inspire devotion. There is little room for emotion here. This is mother as matriarch.

Mother and Child, 1508, by Albrecht Dürer.

By the Renaissance, things are warming up a bit. Mary goes from rigid regent to young, tender mother. Here she is captured by the German master Dürer, providing physical sustenance and emotional affection to her adorable baby as she smiles lovingly down at him. This is mother as nurturer.

Virgin and Child by Elisabetta Sirani, c. 1663.

In Baroque art, which dominated in the 17th-century Europe, Mother Mary becomes a person we can even identify with. In this painting by Elisabetta Sirani, she snuggles up to her son, who playfully crowns her with a floral wreath. This is mother as playmate.

The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child, 1926. Max Ernst.

All mothers are multi-taskers, so why should Mary be any different? In addition to affection-giver, food-provider and role-model, she must also discipline her brood. In this 20th-century painting by the German Surrealist Max Ernst, Mary is doing just that.  Note how Jesus’ halo falls to the ground as his mother spanks his tender white bottom, leaving it rosy pink.

So the next time you think that all Madonna and Childs are alike, think – and look – again. And take a moment to salute all mothers everywhere, for the multi-faceted roles they play in so many lives.