History, Impact today

Holy Mother And Child —The Sacred Vocation

Holy mother and child

Holy Mother And Child Relationship

Art is a powerful force capable of both expressing and influencing the values of the society in which it is created. The value of motherhood as a sacred vocation has been expressed in art throughout history in every culture. Much of that art has been religious in nature and presents an idealized depiction of the exalted holy mother and child relationship. The book Holy Motherhood: Gender, Dynasty, and Visual Culture in the Later Middle Ages, written by Elizabeth L’Estrange, a lecturer in the History of Art at the University of Birmingham in 2012 provides a historical tour of such art throughout the middle ages and presents evidence that shows just how influential art can be in creating and maintaining  social roles for women within patriarchal society.

The extent to which religion has shaped the role of motherhood cannot be underestimated. Separation of church and state is a fairly recent development. Throughout the middle ages, the land and political power of nations were dependent upon inheritance. To insure the genetic identity of royal progeny, it was necessary to cultivate a strict social environment of sexual chastity. Religious art which elevated motherhood to a sacred status served this purpose.

Scriptures of all organized religions and even mythologies elevate motherhood to an exalted state and attainment of the holy mother and child relationship to the highest social ideal. For Christianity, images of the Madonna, so chaste as to be virginal even in motherhood, was presented as the religious role model for women to emulate. For the Hindu religion, the goddess Devi-Ma represents the holy mother and child relationship. For some African religious traditions, it is represented by Yemaya, a creation goddess. Even in Buddhism, Prajnaparamita is represented as the mother of all Buddhas.

Although women were elevated to an exalted state worthy of worship and respectful adoration as a result of their power to produce life, that power has also been feared. Just as obedient women have been credited for human creation, disobedient women have been blamed for human destruction. Within the Christian tradition, Eve serves as the negative example of the consequences of female disobedience to the whole of mankind.

Another example is that of La Malinche, a Mexican princess who was given given as a slave to conquistador Hernán Cortés. She both served as a mediator and bore him a child. In native mythologies, she became a traitor responsible for the destruction of the whole Aztec Empire. Conversely, the Virgin of Guadalupe, attributed with the values of self-sacrifice is revered. Artistic depictions of her can be seen in virtually every city in Mexico.

One of the social effects of the patriarchal laws of inheritance is that a woman’s central purpose becomes her reproductive function. Artistic depictions of the holy mother and child relationship serve to maintain social awareness of, and adherence to, this value. The dangers associated with childbirth further elevates the social value of motherhood. In nearly all human societies, women about to give birth are tended to by their extended families, and the birth of a healthy baby is a cause for celebration.

The majority of artwork throughout history have upheld the idealized image of mothers as virginal and self-sacrificing. This is due in large part to the fact that those who benefited most from women’s self-sacrifice, the royal families, were among the only people that could afford to commission artwork. Today, rather than through paintings and sculptures, idealized images of mothers are transmitted through the airwaves in television commercials. Technology and clothing styles may have changed, but the social expectation of maternal chastity and self-sacrifice remains the same.

Even today, mothers whose sexual behavior casts doubt on the paternity of a child is treated with contempt. Popular television show hosts like Maury Povich and Jerry Springer reveal the results of paternity tests on national television. Live audience members hurl insults and moral judgments, and home viewers enjoy a brief sense of moral and social superiority.

In a very real sense, the lack of separation between church and state resulted in the separation of motherhood and sexuality. In response to the image of the virginal Madonna, its opposite, the whore, was born.

Despite continuous historical media bombardment of these two opposite and extreme images, in reality, mothers are just human. They do indeed sacrifice for their children and cultivate values sacred to humankind, such as patience and love. They also occasionally lose their patience. In fact, most mothers are losing patience with social expectations of exalted perfection.

Holy mother and child
Virgin and Child in an Apse, Copy after Robert Campin, Netherlands, 1480
Previous ArticleNext Article