The Madonna is someone who I have always been enamoured and lightly in awe of. I remember impossibly tall imposing statues of her in churches, glaring down at the worshippers as though daring them to beg for forgiveness.
I loved her because she was a woman, a woman in a world of men. Indeed, she and Mary Magdalene are pretty much the only women of consequence in the entirety of the New Testament. I did not care for Mary Magdalene, as I thought her to be weak and subservient after I heard the story about her washing Jesus’ feet and drying them with her hair. As far as I could work out The Madonna bowed to no man. I remember pouring over queenly pictures of her as she rode regally into Bethlehem, heavy with pregnancy, but even here she was better than any other woman, for she was not pregnant by a mere man, but by God.
I remember desperately want to play her in the primary school nativity play, but alas, the part went to another child who was perhaps more biologically suited to the role. No matter, at home, I could dress up as her as much as I wanted. I remember my mother had a white netted petticoat, which I would wear around my head like Mary’s head scarf. I remember being sent to Sunday school for the first time and thinking that we could do whatever we wanted, so long as it was church based. So I told the bright faced young woman in charge of the group that I wasn’t going to listen to her pretend to be a donkey going into Jerusalem, but that I was going to draw a picture of what Mary and baby Jesus might have looked like if they had been Chinese. I remember my mother was thrilled with it, but convinced me that I should give it to the little old woman across the aisle from us as she didn’t have any grandchildren and that she would love to have one of my drawings. I recall giving it to her but being too embarrassed to talk, and the next week she turned up with a book about bird watching which she presented to me with great ceremony. I wish I still knew where that book was.
The Madonna I recall always has almost a mask like expression of serenity, beauty and grace, except of course, in Bellini’s Pieta. She is both warm and motherly, but cold and queenly at the same time. I was also in love with the Finnish film about the Snow Queen, Lumikunningatar, around this age, and if I looked hard enough at some portraits of the virgin, I could see similarities between her and Satu Silvo, the actress who portrayed the Snow Queen.
The Bellini Madonna was one of my favourites. He always portrayed her with a frozen star, but lush rosy rosy cheeks, like a cherub. It is perhaps this bizarre mixture of womanliness and child-like innocence that I want to focus on in my own Madonna portraits. There is an awkwardness mixed with the pomp and ceremony surrounding her in the paintings. Everyone bows to her and is enthralled, while she sits there gazing out at the viewer, perhaps pleading for our guidance, our acceptance.