THE WOMAN IN ART
Hamilton Reed Armstrong
The following article is taken from an audiotape of the talk by the author and recorded by the Daughters of St. Paul. It has been edited for publication. An adaptation of this talk appeared in Faith and Moral Reasoning and Contemporary American Life, Sister Madonna Murphy, CSC, Editor, The Cambridge Center for the Study of Faith and Culture
Philosophers relate art to beauty and the making of beautiful objects. For Plato, beauty is the "splendor of truth"; for Augustine it is "the splendor of order"; but perhaps the most succinct definition along this line of classical thought is that of Joseph Pieper, who sees beauty as "the glow of the true and the good that flows from every ordered state of being." This equating of art and beauty is the norm that most of us have been brought up to accept. This is a true and valid approach to the subject.
There is, however, another side to art, which one might well label "psychological" in the deepest sense of the word. Whereas the philosopher rightly sees art as intrinsically tied to the true and the good, psychologically speaking, art is a manifestation of an elemental or mythic understanding of reality that deals with man's most profound aspirations and dreads using an imaginative language all its own. The distinguished art historian René Huyghé believes that: Art is for the story of human societies what the dreams of an individual are for the psychiatrist, and this applies particularly where art seems to have taken a wrong road, or even seems entirely to have left the rails...[Art] looks into life's very heart and lays bare its unconscious secrets...it contains the most honest confessions...that have within them the least element of calculation and must therefore be accounted exceptionally sincere. The soul of an age as here revealed no longer wears a mask; it seeks and discloses itself with that prophetic knowledge that is to be found both with the highly sensitive and the possessed. (Hans Sedlemayer, Art in Crisis, London: Hollis & Carter, 1954).
If a culture does indeed reveal itself in its art, its sharpest image will be found in the way it portrays a civilization's most pivotal member--woman. For it is, to a large extent, the vision of woman in art that mirrors man's ultimate view of reality.
Who is woman, and how has she been rendered in art through the ages? Among the many strange ideas circulating today is the "woman as goddess" notion, wherein she is worshipped as mother earth, divine wisdom, or the great whore. For Christians, however, the embodiment of woman is not a deified earth but a real human person --Mary, the mother of Jesus. She is not a goddess but the handmaid of God. Her power is neither innate nor destructive but the channel of salvation. Her humble submission to God's will revokes the rebellion of Eve, the first woman.
The oldest known representation of woman, indeed of any human, is the Willendorf Venus shown in Figure 1. This five-and-one-half-inch stone figure is 20,000 to 30,000 years old and represents the mysterious generative forces of both the individual woman and nature. This is Gaia (Mother Earth) for the pre-classical Greeks, the Maja Mudra (Great Mother) of the Hindus, the all encompassing Earth Goddess. She has great swelling breasts and a giant belly but no face, no Imago Dei (image of God), no rational soul. Neither has she any hands. She can neither think nor produce; she can only reproduce.
The primitive paleolithic (early Stone Age) religion of generation that produced this figure was carried into neolithic Europe and Britain and is exemplified by Stonehenge, (Figure 2) a quintessential example of a temple dedicated to the Earth Mother. A round temple (tholos) has always been associated with the feminine principle (discussed later) even in later ages. This primitive pagan religion (the word pagan, incidentally, comes from the Latin paganus meaning country dweller) is based on nature's cycle of birth, growth, and decay: death in the winter and rebirth in the spring. It follows the 365-day sun cycle (considered the male deity) and the 28-day moon cycle (considered the female deity). Eclipses are especially sacred events for pagans because they unite the male and female sky deities in a celestial embrace, a sacred sexual event. Hence the astronomical link at Stonehenge.
Because paganism is based on sacred sex and fertility, it often involves orgies and child sacrifice to ensure the continuation of nature's cycle. (Blood fertilizes the ground and is the offering.) The eschatology of pagan religions is cyclical in nature and leads to their belief in reincarnation, to wit: plant dead granddad in the autumn, and since he doesn't come back up in the spring, he must come back as someone or something else. Hippies, wiccans, and assorted neopagans still go to Stonehenge at the summer solstice to indulge their fantasies in honor of the great Earth Mother.
A new vision of woman was born when the first city dwellers, such as the Sumerians, separated the uniative and generative functions of sex. Figure 3 shows Inanna, the prostitute goddess of desire, no longer the nurturing mother. She wears the crescent moon, symbol of the feminine principle, on her head. It both controls her and gives her power. She is the forerunner of Aphrodite/Venus, the quintessential goddess of love and sexual pleasure.
The ancient Greeks, the inventors of rational philosophy, were the first to accord genuine humanity to woman. Figure 4
shows a Kore (young woman) figure from the 5th century B.C. She has a human face, an imago Dei, and is fully clothed, as were virtually all figures of women in classical Greek art. It was not until 100 years later during the Hellenistic decline, that nude cult figures of Aphrodite began to appear.
In fact, it was the classical Greeks who raised woman to the pinnacle of anthropomorphic perfection. Wisdom, Pallas Athena, seen in Figure 5, a copy of Phidias's immortal work from Athens (now lost), embodies the highest aspiration of mankind. Wisdom, the noblest attribute of the created order, springs fully clothed and armed from the head, or better said, the mind, of the god Zeus. This is not the sex object of prehistory; this is fully formed woman. Note that wisdom is expressed in virtually all Western languages in the feminine gender or as a feminine attribute (e.g., sophia, sapientia, sabiduria, sagesse).
Once woman was established in her rightful place as man's equal--i.e., with an intellect and will of her own--the stage was set for
dynamic tension between the sexes. Figure 6, which is taken from a 5th century B.C. Grecian urn, shows Athena (wisdom) doing battle with the Titan Enceladus. This Titan, or force of nature, appears as the embodiment of male violence and sexual aggression. On his shield, Enceladus bears the triskelion, a universal symbol of male prowess. According to Hesiod, the codifier of Greek mythology, Enceladus was buried beneath the volcano of Mount Etna, and his passion continues to erupt. The volcano is a fairly obvious symbol of overflowing male sexuality and violence.
The male-female tension in this figure is striking and has profound implications for our ultimate view of reality. The concepts of male and female represent an eternal and unchanging truth--namely, that the differences between male and female are real, that they are grounded in nature, and that they are expressed in works of art.
Now it is self-evident as well as scientifically demonstrable that men and women have distinct modes of comprehension and expression. Anatomically, the human brain consists of two interconnecting lobes. The left lobe is considered male, and in fact is used more frequently by males; it controls the right side of the body. The right lobe is considered female, and, again, is used more frequently by women and controls the left side of the body. This fact is based on psychological evidence from C.G. Jung, Robert Ornstein, and others, from experiments with modern PET (positron emission tomography) scanning, and from conclusive anthropological evidence. Not only do male and female modes of thinking differ, but they can be translated as male and female "principles," as shown below:
Subsumed under the masculine principle
Subsumed under the Feminine Principle
WORD -- (communicated by) --
These different modes of cognition and communication (principles) are compatible and complementary and denote inclinations, not incontrovertible and mutually exclusive ways of thinking, especially at the individual level. Both men and women, after all, have both brain lobes and can and do use both, but not with the same frequency or to the same extent.
This duality of principle is fundamental to Oriental philosophy and is expressed as yin (the feminine) and yang (the masculine), enclosed in a hermetically sealed circle. In both Judaism and Christianity, the male and the female principles also have great symbolic significance. Figure 7 shows the twin pillars called Jachin (on stage right, reader's left) and Boaz (on stage left, reader's right) that stood before the Holy of Holies in Solomon's Temple. According to ancient tradition they represent the active male (Jachin) and passive female (Boaz) principles in dynamic tension. The active, male principle is God, and the passive, receptive principle is God's creation, principally humanity. These male and female principles are two distinct, separate, interacting realities; they are not fused, as asserted by Oriental monistic theory, which says that all is one. In other words, according to Judeo-Christian Tradition, God and His creation interact, but they remain separate realities; one is not absorbed into the other.
Note that the pillars are separate and apart, not joined. These pillars or some analogous representation of dyadic reciprocity occur throughout all iconography from the earliest cultures to the present. The relative position of these pillars is significant, with the active male principle placed in the dominant position (stage right). Now if the artist reverses the positions of the pillars, and makes the female principle active--i.e., by placing it stage right, God becomes the goddess. Such a reversal can be seen in some Renaissance works and is again surfacing, as we shall see, in examples of 20th century art. This is one concrete way in which the viewer can "read" a work of art.
These same two free-standing pillars (with nothing on top), which repeatedly appear in tradition, can be seen in the 3rd century papal tombs in the Roman catacomb of St. Callixtus, (Figure 8) where they again represent God and His creation. For the Jew and the Christian, as stated above, the Father Who is in heaven is a unique and unified reality distinct from His creation, which He created ex nihilo (out of nothing). Creation subsequently subsists in its own right as an autonomous but contingent reality. Yet human souls seek the transcendent, yearn for the ultimate "other." And God, the active male principle, recruits man to an intimate union with Him. How then can these two separate realities, God and creation, be brought together?
Figure 9 should help to unravel the mystery. God and creation, symbolically depicted as the twin pillars Jachin and Boaz, are united at the top as in an Oriental wedding with a shawl or canopy. The fruit of this union, originating from mutual love and self-surrender, is Jesus Christ, true God and true man. The metaphor of divine espousal, as the present Holy Father John Paul II has constantly repeated, runs all through the Bible. It is the theme of Solomon's song. It is reiterated by Ezekiel and Isaiah: "No longer shall men call thee forsaken, or thy land desolate; thou shall be called my beloved and thy land a home....Gladly as a man takes home the maiden of his choice...gladly the Lord shall greet thee as the bride- groom his bride" (Isaiah 62:4,5).
Christ in the Gospel refers to Himself as the bridegroom and spouse of Holy Mother Church. This paradigm is repeated in the total self-giving of both the man and the woman in fruitful marriage.
The divine hierogamos (marriage) of God with his creation is represented in the icons of the Eastern Church. The Ukrainian
Catholic icon in Figure l0 depicts the Annunciation. The angel comes as a representative of the Creator; the Virgin Mary stands in for mankind. As the Virgin responds with her fiat ("let it be done"), the Word (God) is made flesh, and all who come to believe in Him will have life eternal. Rev. Joseph Fessio, S.J., in his book, The Church and Women (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989, p. 184; quoted with permission), explains:
"The mediation of Mary in the Church. In the act of redemption, this Creator-creation relationship is raised to a new order. That nothingness out of which all creation came is raised to the level of personality in Mary, whose virginity and whose "nothingness" express the perfection of all material creation raised to the personal. God speaks s second word- a word of grace and redemption- not this time into the void of non-being, but into the personal emptiness, the receptivity of the purest virgin. Mary, who is symbol of all creation, becomes at that moment the symbol of the Church as bride of Christ. God becomes man and specifically male, not arbitrarily, but because God so created the real symbolic world of man and woman precisely to provide for Himself a language in which He can speak to us. The male Christ therefore represents and is the presence of God the Father (whose perfect image He is) in the midst of maternal creation and maternal Church, which is Mary."
Taking a closer look at the icon we see that the two towers joined by the shawl are symbolically the same as the pillars in Figure 10. The tower on stage right (viewer's left), representing God, is usually painted in gold. The tower on stage left (viewer's right) represents creation and is usually painted in silver. Note that the creation tower contains two pillars to represent male and female within creation. This is an important point because in anthropology it is axiomatic that virtually all peoples consider the right hand as male and the left hand as female (see "The Pre-eminence of the Right Hand," by Robert Hertz, in Right and Left, Rodney Needham, ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973). The angel, in representation of God, carries a baton (baton de comandemant), symbol of the power and authority of God's strong right (male) arm. Mary, in representation of creation, holds out her right (male) hand, indicating that she "knows not" the right hand, meaning the male pillar within the tower--i.e., she "knows not man." There is, however, a veil, universal symbol in religious art, drawn back from these male and female pillars within creation to indicate that we are in the presence of a great mystery. As the Holy Spirit descends from above (stage right) and enters Mary, she holds in her left (female) hand the spindle containing the thread of life. This is the same symbolic thread that the mythical Ariadne used to save Theseus from the perils of the Labyrinth after he slew the Minotaur, but here it is raised to a new, supernatural level. The thread offered by Mary can save us from the pit of eternal ruin. Mary is an intercessor between God and man, between God and His creation, but she is not a goddess, not divine. She represents us, all creation.
Another truly orthodox vision of Mary, the Theotokos (God bearer) is depicted in the icon in Figure 11, from the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople. Christ's divine head covers and dominates the human heart of Mary. She bears a cross on her head as well as on her shoulders, indicating that she is holy of both mind and body. She is dressed in blue, the color of the sky and water (for purity). Her child, Jesus, wears the golden robes of high priesthood, and His face is not that of a helpless infant but that of the divine wisdom incarnate. Mary holds a linen in her left (female) hand, to signify the linens in which her divine child was wrapped both in birth and in death. This icon contains a deep and complete message of the salvific mission of Christ and the importance of Mary in redemption.
As one moves from Byzantine iconography in the East to Roman art further West, a new emphasis becomes apparent: the focus on individuality. Presumably this is the legacy of the Roman republic's insistence on individual rights and responsibilities.In the 12th century Catalan (Spanish) depiction of the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth (Figure 12), although the symbolic Byzantine composition is maintained, both Mary and Elizabeth are clearly defined individuals. Note that their faces and body language are distinct and different rather than archetypes.
The Romanesque sculpture of Virgin and Child shown in Figure 13, again from 12th century Catalonia, is archetypal of theVirgin as Sede Sapientia, seat of wisdom. She is seated on a throne presenting her divine child, the Wisdom of God, to the world. This portrayal of the virgin dominated Western art for the next 200 years. Note that Mary does not look tenderly at her child but stares wistfully and apprehensively into the future, to a day when He will be crucified and her own heart will be pierced with a sword. The pensive and sorrowing Virgin marked a departure from the flat, restrained formal image of Mary in Byzantine art.
Moving into and through the 13th century, Mary had been raised to Queen of Creation, the flowering of womanhood. Perhaps the best known Gothic portrayal of her perceived in this way is the Virgin of Paris (Figure 14). Sculpted around 1305, this figure is a spiritual manifestation of the
feminine principle incarnate in Mary. The feminine "S" curve of the body, made famous by Praxiteles's Knidian Aphrodite in the 4th century B.C., sets the tone of the piece, but here there is no hint of sensuality. Beneath the flowing robes there is no bulging of flesh. Mary's eyes (windows of the soul) are large, and her mouth (door to the body) is small. In her right hand she holds the Christ child, dressed in His priestly robes, Who in turn holds the world in His hand. In Mary's left (female) hand is the lily, symbol of purity; she is both Virgin and Mother. On her head she wears the crown as Queen of Creation. This new image of Mary coincided with Scholastic philosophy, the flowering of reason.
This period is considered by many to represent the very peak of Christendom, and between 1140 and 1280 some 80 cathedrals were built to the honor of Mary in France alone. The most beautiful of these must surely be the Cathedral of Chartres (Figure 15). At this shrine to the Queen of Heaven and Earth, the entire theology of the church is laid out in stone and in glass. The two towers, God and creation,
stand stage right and stage left. Between them is the Rose Window, (Figure 16) befitting Mary as the Rose of Creation. She is, inthe words of Dante: "La rosa en che il Verbo divino/carne se fece" ("the rose in which the Word was made flesh") (Paradiso XXIII). Through Mary, mediatrix of all graces, one enters into the sanctuary where Christ Himself is offered up daily at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Henry Adams, not a Roman Catholic, looked up the the Rose Window of Chartres and exclaimed: "[It is] a jewel so gorgeous that no earthly majesty could bear comparison....Never in 700 yearshas one looked up at this Rose without feeling it to be Our Lady's promise of Paradise" (Mont Saint Michel and Chartres, London: Constable, 1950).
This same period also produced one of the most beautiful manuscript illuminations ever done, the Coronation of the Virgin from the Très Riche Heures of Jean Duc de Berry (Figure 17). Mary Queen of Angels is presented by her minions to Christ, Who in the name of the most Holy Trinity will place the crown proffered by the angelic host on her head. It was she who, through her humility, replaced Lucifer, who had fallen in his pride and resentment when told of the future Queenship of Mary. The church militant is in the lower left corner, and the church triumphant swirls upward in a homogeneous mass to the right of the action. Note that even within the mass of the blessed, each individual retains his or her own personality. The background of the heavenly scene is not leafed in gold, as in the Eastern tradition,but is covered with ground lapis lazuli (ultramarine blue, a semiprecious gemstone), which was equally if not more expensive at the time. However, the figures are more humanized in these works than in the preceding periods.
With the advent of the Christian humanism of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic (13th-14th century), human feelings and emotions began to assume greater importance, particularly in the religious art of Italy. The iconography of the Annunciation painted by Simon Martini (Figure 18) in 1339 remains totally orthodox and traditional--i.e., gold background, Mary on stage left; angel on stage right. However, both Mary and the Angel Gabriel have individual personalities and are expressing obvious emotion, almost as if the artist were present in the scene. Here the Virgin seems to be totally overwhelmed by events as interpreted by the artist.
Fra Angelico's version of the Annunciation, (Figure 19) the encounter takes on an incredible delicacy. In their facial expressions and their body language, both the angel in supplication andMary in response are the epitome of humility and graciousness. Needless to say, the iconography is totally correct since Fra Angelico was a saint as well as a genius. God, heavenly male, in the upper stage right corner, descends through the angel, his messenger, to fill the heart of Mary, who crosses her hands in perfect submission. The fruit of this union, Jesus Christ, true God and true man, is depicted at the top of the column at the center. The two realities of God and creation are depicted by the two separate panels, yet they come together in the center as in the Incarnation when God became man.
The high Renaissance (ca. 1500), however, began a paradigm shift in the depiction of Mary. With the influx of Neoplatonic philosophy, at the court of Cosimo di Medici, Mary ceased to be the Byzantine Theotokos or the Romanesque Sede Sapientia, or even just Mary of Nazareth. All at once the ideal woman became the Venus Celeste, the heavenly Venus, still painted as Mary but in fact the esoteric object of sublimated erotic frenzy. Heavenly bliss could now be achieved through erotic splendor, through ever more rarefied experiences of beauty. Therefore, the very beautiful Madonna by Raphael shown in
(Figure 20) is a painting of the most beautiful woman(Figure 21) that the artist could find. Thus, painters such as the "divine" Raphael, the "divine" Leonardo, and the "divine" Michelangelo replaced the priests and sacraments of the Church as mediators between God and man. Note that the infant Jesus no longer wears the priestly robes but is exposed naked to represent the incipient divine potential of man. Showing the "divine" child completely naked, with genitals exposed, as a cupid or Eros, is a deliberate act in keeping with Neoplatonic thought.
Perhaps the most curious piece of Renaissance art is Leonardo da Vinci's sketch of the Virgin with her mother, St. Anne, and the Infants Jesus and John the Baptist (Figure 22). First, this is an odd combination of biblical figures in one painting. Second, the faces of the Virgin and St. Anne appear to be on the same level, denoting equal importance, and they appear to be the same age. In fact, they are a mirror image of each other, and might even be twins except that Mary (stage right) is all sweetness and light, while Anne (stage left) has a dark and sinister mien, called the facia nigra in the Renaissance. Further, both heads appear to emerge from one body. Now look at the two children. They also appear to be twins except that the Christ child (stage right) is open-faced and noble, while the so-called Baptist (stage left) is languid and sullen. The dark woman points heavenward as if blackmailing Mary to recognize and redeem the "Baptist,"--i.e., the evil or dark side of humanity. In other words, redemption must be total, and even evil must be taken back and joined with the good. This painting incorporates the Neoplatonic doctrine: coincidencia oppositorum or concordia discors--i.e., the cabalistic fusion of opposites, good and evil; both come from and must return to the same source.
In contrast, the van Eyk portrayal of Our Lady in Figure 23 (Northern Dutch Renaissance) is loaded with orthodox theological design. A gentle and pious Flemish Mary holds the Christ child in her arms, but behind the mother and child, two angels hold a drapery, or veil, to show that this is no ordinary mother and child. Hanging from mary's hands are the linens of the cave of Bethlehem and of the tomb. Before her is the fountain of living water of eternal life. Mary in Christian art is intimately tied to this mystery of salvation.
A further step in the Northern tradition is Rembrandt's Holy Family, painted in 1645. (Figure 24) Because Calvinism proscribed
graven images, Rembrandt portrayed the Holy Family using the figures and scenes of daily life around him. The only visual hint that this is not an ordinary family of burghers is the presence of angels above the crib. This is not to say that this picture is not a valid portrayal of Mary or indeed even of the nobility of woman. It is only one means of showing the ever-changing representation of Mary and woman through the ages.
In fact, the 17th century Northern painters produced some of the noblest images of woman qua woman ever rendered in paint. The portrait of Marchesa Balbi by Anthony Van Dyke shown in Figure 25 is a prime example. The dignity and serenity of this woman are overpowering. It would be hard for a man to say "no" to her, and if she dropped her glove, I most certainly would pick it up. In the same vein, note the extraordinariness of the same qualities
in Vermeer's exquisite picture, Woman Holding a Balance (Figure 26), which is basically a simple study of everyday life.
In Spain, the archetype of woman has been and hopefully will remain the Imaculata (Mary, under the title of Immaculate Conception). Despite their occasional lapses into sensuality, the Spanish are legendary for their devotion to the Mother of God. In El Greco's Assumption the Virgin (Figure 27) Mary is seen amidst a swirl of saints, angels, and light. This portrayal is a typical Spanish mystic vision in the tradition of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. Note how Mary stands on the crescent moon in domination of it, in contrast to the pagan goddesses Kali and Inanna who wore the crescent on their heads and thus were dominated by it. Even now in the late 20th century
Spanish devotion to the Blessed Mother remains a living tradition, as exemplified by the Nuestra Senora de los Dolores (Figure 28). This carved image was recently commissioned as an object of devotion for Holy Week processions.
While Mary remained the feminine archetype for Spaniards, Latins, and many Eastern Europeans, in Western Europe there was a major shift around the time of the French Revolution, and a new image of woman emerged. In 1792 the Cathedral Church of Notre Dame in Paris was desecrated, and a nude prostitute was placed on a huge mound of dirt which replaced the altar. She was Dame Nature, Mother Nature, la deese de la Raison, the goddess of reason. In Gericault's painting of Marianne (Figure 29), the new vision of woman, she is shown as Liberty Leading the People. Whether she is
called liberty or reason, she wears the red phrygian bonnet, symbol of ancient, pagan orgiastic rituals. The removal of the altar symbolized the destruction of "superstitious faith" and the revolt against all authority in the name of reason, as well as, hatred of the Church, and self restraint. There was a rebirth of the pleasure principle, which must be allowed full reign. Faith was destroyed and replaced by the goddess of reason; reason, which should rule passion, now was equal to passion. The idea of virtue was twisted to mean that no one could tell anyone else what to do.
From this point forward, the Virgin Mary was finished as the feminine ideal in most Western culture and by 1809 had been replaced among the intelligentsia by Gaia (Dame Nature), the earth goddess of desire and death. In Figure 30 she is painted by Otto Rung as Aurora to herald the dawn of a new age of freedom, unshackled from the old age of faith.
Other renditions of the new woman quickly followed. Poet and painter William Blake ("Tiger, Tiger burning bright") produced The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun (The Virgin Mary) as taken from the book of Revelation (the Apocalypse) (Figure 31). However, this woman is not clothed with the sun but with a giant red heart. Instead of repulsing the dragon, as in the Biblical account, she is welcoming him into her arms. The terminology of the work is distinctly Christian, but the religious message certainly is not. Rather
this piece celebrates the fusion of opposites, god and evil, the cabalistic apokatastasis Blake wrote of in his treatise, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (recall the earlier discussion of the notion of the fusion of good and evil; the woman is embracing evil, hell).
Nevertheless, just because the Virgin Mary was discarded as the ideal of femininity and replaced by fallen, flesh-and-blood woman does not mean that all ensuing depictions of the feminine ideal descended into perversity. Consider, for example, Renoir's Bather (Figure 32), painted at the turn of this century. It is the romantic ideal, filled with the fin de siècle goodness and
hope that characterized the art of that time. This pretty pink lady is the embodiment of innocent charm, an absolute delight to the eye, a paean to all that is good in nature. the painting also gives the viewer an emotional lift, as most impressionist paintings were meant to do.
The Loge by Mary Cassatt (Figure 33) is another example of the gentle and optimistic world view in turn-of-the-century France. The eagerness, shyness, and coqueterie in the faces of these two girls are delicious. Only a woman of Cassatt's genius could have
caught such feminine charm in two young girls. But French impressionism was a beautiful blossom in the autumn of Western culture, and the winds of change that began to rise at the revolution were continuing to blow.
The prominent French impressionist Paul Gaugin typified the change that had begun in 1789. On the island paradise of Tahiti, a place of easy sex and indolent living, thousands of miles from his abandoned wife and children, Gaugin painted hauntingly beautiful but disturbing pictures of women, such as his 1892 Paru na te varua ino, meaning "words of the devil" (Figure 34). Notice the
masked, sinister figure in the background. Behind Tahiti's idyllic culture of free and easy sexual indulgence was a class of diabolical overlords, who offered human sacrifice and murdered at random to maintain their ascendent position.
Because Northern Europe had been deprived of the image of Mary since the 1517 Reformation, their view of the ideal woman was bound to deteriorate more quickly. Eduard Munch, obviously overwhelmed by his subject, painted the
strange vision of woman shown in Figure 35, which he titled Madonna. Mark the little man huddled in the lower left corner.
What we now call modern art started with Picasso. The watershed piece shown in Figure 36, Demoiselles de Avignon, presented in 1907, was Picasso's first major cubist ouvre. Hailed by such prominent critics as Leo Steinberg as the beginning of abstract art, this
painting is nothing more than a thinly veiled statement of Picasso's desire for, dread of, and ultimate loathing for women. The figure on the left (stage right, as active principle), stepping forth from a local red background (symbolic of passion), wears a mask of primitive innocence. Compositionally she forms a triad with the two central figures, who, with their frank frontal nudity and dead-eyed faces, display not only candid eroticism but also the passive despair of the joyless. The two figures on the right (stage left, the passive principle) are compositionally removed from the triad but are tentatively joined from below by what appears to be a red watermelon and a cluster of grapes. Note the obvious reversal of Christian iconography. The active principle is no longer the God of creation but human passion. The crescent symbol is here embodied in the melon; as discussed earlier, it is an archetype of femininity and sexuality (the goddesses Inanna and Kali), just as the grapes portray fertility. The faces of the grossly distorted women on the right (stage left) are covered with bestial masks. For Picasso desire and dread were linked in sex, and sex for Picasso was the god in his groin. Picasso himself declared this painting to be a catharsis and liberation from bourgeois morality and even told Andre Malraux (author and French Minister of Culture) that the painting was a personal form of exorcism.
The deformation of woman in art continued throughout the 20th century. Francis Bacon is considered by many to be one of the most powerful painters of our time. In his remarkable 1954 Nude Torso (Figure 37), the head, face, imago Dei, has been removed altogether. But people without faces are not people.
This painting is really about the power of the body, the feminine principle unshackled from the dictates of reason. Bacon, an avowed homosexual, is extolling the power of the female body because it is a manifestation of Gaia (Mother Nature) and the irrational libidinous forces of human desire.
The return to Gaia in art also appears in modern sculpture. Figure 38 shows an interesting piece done recently by Igor Mitoaj. The title is Eros Alato, the winged Eros, or the triumph of sexual desire. This female torso represents the apotheosis of the feminine principle of Mother Earth. This is Gaia raised up to replace God, as shown by the shape of the navel, which is a cube, the alchemical symbol of earth. The artist knows what he is doing even if you, the viewer, do not. The imagination of man has now come full circle, and the blind irrational forces of nature represented 30,000 years ago in the Willendorf Venus have once again staked out their claim for man's allegiance.
We are now back to the outright worship of nature. Figure 39 is from a recent New Age catalog from a health food store. In many ways it is similar to the beautiful van Eyk painting discussed earlier, in which Mary stood with the Christ child before the veil and baptismal font. This is not Mary, however; according to the artist it is the Celtic goddess Belthane, and the iconography is totally reversed. Notice the trees to the left and right, marked with the "J" and the "B" for Jachin and Boaz. Not only have the classic ancient pillars been transformed into trees, but their position is reversed. Boaz, the feminine principle (in this case, darkness), now has the dominant position. The woman's wild and unruly hair signifies her abandon. On her head are the horns, reminiscent of Hathor, the Egyptian fertility goddess. In her hands is the book of Tara, or secret knowledge. From the crescent moon (incipient feminine) at the bottom of the picture flow the waters of life, depicting not baptism but the occult forces of nature. This painting is an unholy icon intended for the worship of Gaia, the great Earth Mother.
Another unholy icon is shown in Figure 40, Adam and Eve, done by a feminist artist. It can be read in the same way as others of its ilk. The male and female
principles, Adam and Eve, are correctly placed, but Eve is controlled by the serpent. The veil designating the presence of a mystery is in place, but the mystery presented here is certainly not redemption. The center of the veil has been cut out to represent an absence. In contrast to the Byzantine icon in Figure 9, which showed the male and female principles joined by the shawl of marriage at the top, this figure shows them joined at the bottom by the almighty dollar bill.
The depiction of woman in art has gone from the ridiculous to the sublime and back to the ridiculous, indicating the state of our society. But our culture's view of woman, as mirrored in art, cannot be dismissed as merely ridiculous. It is immensely troubling and is echoed in every form of communication in our modern society. Woman lies at the heart of any civilization. When society regards her as a sexual object rather than the sublime ennobler of humanity, the one to whom our values are entrusted, the domesticator of male passion, civilization is hearing its death knell.
Our society's view of woman has reached a crossroads from which there may well be no return. One must remember, however that a crossroads is a point of opportunity as well. Recalling that how we depict woman reveals deep seated notions of both nature and God, we must choose. Authentic woman is neither the great whore nor the great goddess. She is the living image of Wisdom and Fair Love, at once the servant of God and the preserver of humanity.
Rather than avert our eyes from the decadent images of woman that confront us, we must work to restore the vision of woman in all her nobility and sublime virtue. By learning how to read works of art, we can recognize the dark forces that would pull us away from God and help promote the true image of woman in art, of whom there is no greater representation than Mary.
CAPTIONS of Pictures to be added
Figure 1. Willendorf Venus
Figure 2. Stonehenge at the Solstice
Figure 3. The prostitute goddess Inanna
Figure 4. Kore figure from 5th century B.C.
Figure 5. Pallas Athena by Phidias
Figure 6. Athena battling the Titan Enceladus
Figure 7. Twin pillars of Jachin and Boaz
Figure 8. Papal tomb of St. Callixtus
Figure 9. The twin pillars united by a shawl
Figure 10. Byzantine icon of the Annunciation
Figure 11. Byzantine icon of Mary - Theotokos
Figure 12. Catalan depiction of the Visitation (12th century)
Figure 13. Romanesque statue of Mary as Sede Sapientia
Figure 14. Virgin of Paris
Figure 15. Chartres Cathedral, facade
Figure 16, Rose Window of Chartres
Figure 17. Très Riches heures, Coronation of the Virgin
Figure 18. The Annunciation by Simon Martini
Figure 19. Fra Angelico's version of the Annunciation
Figure 20. A Raphael Madonna
Figure 21. Raphael's muse, La Fournarina
Figure 22 The Virgin and St. Anne, by Leonardo da Vinci
Figure 23. Portrait of Our Lady by van Eyk
Figure 24. The Holy Family by Rembrandt Figure 25. Marchesa Balbi by Van Dyke
Figure 26. Woman Holding a Balance by Vermeer
Figure 27. Assumption of the Virgin by El Greco
Figure 28. Neustra Senora de los Dolores
Figure 29. Liberty Leading the People by Gericault
Figure 30. Aurora by Otto Rung
Figure 31. Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun by Blake
Figure 32. Renoir's Woman with a Parasol
Figure 33. The Loge by Mary Cassatt
Figure 34. Words of the Devil by Gaugin
Figure 35. Madonna by Eduard Munch
Figure 36. Picasso's watershed painting, Demoiselles de Avignon
Figure 37. Nude Torso by Francis Bacon
Figure 38. The winged Eros by Igor Mitoaj
Figure 39. Belthane, a New Age image of woman
Figure 40. A Feminist Icon, the mystery of negation
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