Exploring Sacred Art: Mary and Motherhood in the Renaissance

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"Exploring sacred art" by Caleigh McCutcheon (CatholicMom.com)

Filippo Lippi [Public domain]

The Christmas season has come to a close so I thought it would be fitting to celebrate motherhood and childbirth in sacred art.

During the Italian Renaissance, one of the most popular subjects in art was the “Madonna and Child” (Mary and the baby Jesus). Madonna and Child and Scenes from the Life of St Anne was painted by Filippo Lippi, a Florentine artist in 1452. As the very long title explains, we are looking at a series of moments from St. Anne’s life, but the painting also features the popular “Madonna and Child” subject.

There are three different scenes in this artwork, but like comic books, they tell one continuous story. We begin in the upper right corner, where a man and woman stand in a doorway. They are St. Anne and St. Joachim, Mary’s parents. According to legend they first met at the Golden Gate in Jerusalem. For simplicity, the artist has changed the Golden Gate to a doorway, but people of the renaissance still would have recognized the figures.

The next scene, on the upper left, is with Anne in bed, having just given birth to Mary. At this moment, both mother and daughter are given halos, signifying their importance in the faith. A group of women travel diagonally across the painting to greet Anne and celebrate the birth, some carrying gifts. Just like today, people in the Renaissance celebrated a birth with family and friends. But at a time when childbirth was very dangerous and things could quickly turn fatal, women came up with their own form of protection and insurance.

"Exploring sacred art" by Caleigh McCutcheon (CatholicMom.com)

Image credit: By Giovanni di ser Giovanni Guidi to celebrate the birth of Lorenzo de’Medici, METMuseum.org, PD

With Anne in bed recovering, the women of her family have gathered around for a very important tradition: the first meal. After giving birth, the new mom would be given a grand first meal. It was even served on a special tray, with the hope that it would help the mom regain her strength and health. Afterword, the dish would be hung on the bedroom wall, to hopefully welcome more children in the future. The mother would also be presented with baptismal clothes, including a swaddling cloth, which Mary has already been wrapped in. It could even be why the artist chose to use a round canvas, alluding to the power and importance of the birthing tray.

In an otherwise male dominated world, this artwork depicts a beautiful female-centered experience – one that even Mary, the Mother of God, had gone through. St. Anne has given birth surrounded by other women who truly knew the danger, but also the reward, that came with childbirth. The reward, of course, is a healthy child – much like the plump baby Jesus in the center of the artwork.

The final scene in the artwork is also the most important, the artist placing it in the central of the painting: “Madonna and Child.” The artist has painted Mary as a young Renaissance woman, her hair fashionably styled under a silk kerchief. As a new mother herself, it makes sense that Mary would be looking to her own mother for guidance and strength. Women could look to this artwork for courage and strength during their pregnancy.

While gently cradling her child, Mary offers baby Jesus a pomegranate to eat. And like any child, he proudly reveals that he has managed to grab a seed. In the Renaissance the pomegranate was a well-known symbol of fertility as well as a symbol for the Passion. Jesus offering a seed to his mother, shows not only their bond, but their shared knowledge of his fate.


Copyright 2020 Caleigh McCutcheon

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About Author

Caleigh McCutcheon is the curator at the Museum of Family Prayer in North Easton, MA. She has a BA in English from Stonehill College and a MA in Art History from Glasgow University. Her Master’s thesis focused on the complexity and lasting power of the Pieta image in Christian art. She considers art to be one of the most powerful forms of prayer.

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