For centuries, the Virgin Mary has been the most visible woman in history. She has been the subject of countless works of art, music, literature, and theology, and many great architectural monuments have been erected in her name. In
our own century, she remains the woman whose face has appeared most frequently on the cover of Time magazine, an ambiguous comment on women's achievement, recognition, and historical visibility. As both a religious and cultural figure, she represents an ideal paradigm, one whose characteristics have been defined largely by men to be practiced by women. Mary's chastity, modesty, humility, and obedience have been held up as a model to Christian and non-Christian women alike, yet the aspect that most distinguishes her– perpetual virginity before, during, and after giving birth– renders it impossible for any living woman to meet this standard of perfection.
Biology as Destiny
Perhaps nowhere has Mary's influence on secular culture been greater than in defining the mother-child relationship. This is due no doubt to the extensive depiction of the image known familiarly as Madonna and Child in Christian art, where Mary is portrayed as a lovely and loving young mother to the infant Jesus. While primarily a visual image circulated in paintings, sculpture, and printed form, the theme of Madonna and Child has been the subject of religious dramas, poetry, sermons, and musical compositions. The predominant representation of Mary as a nurturing parent has helped to foster a collective identification of womanhood with motherhood.
Conversely, societal dependence on women for reproduction of the species has encouraged people to view the Madonna primarily through her biological role as mother rather than her theologically valid status as virgin. Cloistered nuns identified not only with Mary's virginity, but also with her motherhood–defining themselves as spiritual mothers sharing in the care and rearing of the Christ child. The destiny of women not bound for convents was marriage, the purpose of which, as understood by church and society, was to produce children. The production of children–whether to work in the fields, perform trades, inherit wealth, or nurse aging parents–was essential to society's well-being, and it was in this realm that women's contributions were perceived.
Childless women were considered cursed, and infertility was grounds for divorce. Barren women prayed to the Madonna to help them conceive, just as pregnant women asked her for a safe delivery, and mothers for the continued health of a child. Mary's gentle, forgiving persona made her more approachable and less intimidating to both sexes, but her maternal experience forged an especial bond with women, who could draw upon their experiences of pregnancy, birth, and nurturing to deepen their spiritual empathy with the Virgin Mary.
Depictions of the Madonna as a gentle, caring mother gave comfort and a sense of purpose to women who were ful-filling their Christian and civic duty through motherhood. Madonna and Child imagery also reinforced patriarchal values that confined women to the domestic sphere, projecting a model of appropriate female behavior that was as much social as religious. This interweaving of religious and secular spheres gave rise to the expression Secular Madonna to indicate a strong projection of values and expectations onto ordinary women, based on the selfless love of the Virgin Mary.
The Angel of the House
In reality, the Secular Madonna was based less on the Biblical figure of Mary than on male fantasies of female submission. The characteristics of the Secular Madonna included ceaseless sacrifice for the welfare of others, ungrudging service to the needs of all around her, self-denial to the point of erasure, constant devotion to home and family, and a docile, uncomplaining disposition. This indulged the child's natural narcissism and desire to be the center of the mother's existence, if not the entire home's. Needless to say, the true Secular Madonna hardly existed outside of fairy tales, fiction, and artworks, but that did not stop her impact from being felt by flesh-and-blood women. Though present from the time of Patient Griselda–the submissive victim of spousal abuse in Boccaccio's Decameron and Chaucer's "Clerk's Tale" in the Canterbury Tales –the Secular Madonna
reached her zenith of cultural influence in the nineteenth century, when she was bolstered by the idealism of the Romantic movement and the earnestness of the Victorian era. Her children were sentimentalized as innocent creatures whose moral and civic development rested on their mother's guidance, and whose defects and deviations stemmed from faulty parenting.
Visual and literary portraits of female goodness as based in maternal solicitude and sacrifice furthered transmission of Western cultural messages. From innocent peasants to long-suffering maidens to angelic wives, artists portrayed women as paragons of virtue, more ethereal than earthly. Nor was the fantasy restricted to male artists; the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron produced dozens of images of models representing the Virgin Mary and portraits of women exemplifying her ideal of universal goodness and maternal devotion. Though little-known today, Coventry Patmore's immensely popular and influential poem The Angel ofthe House glorified the status of wife and mother. Published in installments from 1854 to 1863, it followed the progress of the wedded bliss of its heroine, Honoria, based on Patmore's first wife Emily Andrews, who bore six children and died young in 1862.
Equally telling were the fates assigned to women who failed to embody the attributes of the Secular Madonna. Any sign of carnality was treated as a harbinger of evil, with punishment befalling both the woman and her child, either socially, through poverty and ostracism, or symbolically, through illness or deformity. Works about seduced maidens such as Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891), in which Tess's illegitimate baby dies, and Augustus Egg's Pastand Present (1858), a triptych depicting an unfaithful wife who ends up a homeless suicide, portrayed the dire consequences for women who strayed from the path of perfection.
Not surprisingly, a double-standard operated for male philanderers, with no similar restrictions placed on their behavior nor such stern repercussions.
Then, as now, standards for women were set so high as to engender levels of stress that affected sensitive children, or frustrations that led to suppressed resentment or outright rejection of the children themselves. Just as the Virgin Mary's miraculous purity, freedom from sin and sex, and perpetual virginity make it impossible for any living woman to match her ideal, so today's generation of women–told by the media that fulfillment lies in balancing marriage, child rearing, community involvement, and a successful career, all while retaining a desirable weight–are doomed from the start to fall short of their goals.
The New World Madonna
Less virulent than the British form though no less sentimental, the American concept of the Secular Madonna was no less effective in shaping global attitudes toward women, regardless of ethnicity or religious affiliation. This variant was rooted in the image of mother and child, often to the exclusion of the father, as attested to by the works of Mary Cassatt, whose success as an artist was due largely to her talented treatment of suitable female subjects. Men were restricted to the role of family provider, their nurturing instincts eclipsed by the mother's, and regarded as suspect. (The stern father was a remnant of pre-Enlightenment notions of parenting, when child rearing centered on discipline and correction.)
Coinciding with the era of European colonization of Asia, Africa, and the Americas, the notion of the Secular Madonna spread worldwide and became a social force whose influence was felt independently of race, religion, or nationality. Immigrants to the New World assimilated sex roles as well as social mores, while missionaries encouraged non-Western societies to adopt Western conventions of gender as well as creed. Rarely was the influence mutual. Traditional African societies regarded motherhood as a domestic duty that bene-fited the entire community, valuing women's contributions more than Western societies. In Asian gerontocracies, mothers were expected to sacrifice their welfare for their children's, and adult children to fulfill responsibilities for their parents. Western values rejected such a quid pro quo– maternal sacrifice was an end in itself, unrewarded by filial obligations.
Scenes of idyllic childhood are found in the works of American women artists such as photographer Gertrude Käsebier, illustrator Bessie Pease Gutmann, and author Laura Ingalls Wilder. Children, too, were romanticized as angelic creatures, innocent, sweet-smelling, and as bound to their mother as she was to them. Despite their lack of haloes, a spiritual bond was believed to exist between mothers and offspring, much as Mary's relation to Jesus had transcended the limits of biology. Indeed, in a period of animosity toward Catholics–who primarily made up the lower-class immigrant population of the mid-nineteenth century–the lack of haloes and other ostentatious symbols of religion made such images more palatable to a primarily Protestant middle-class audience in a proudly secular nation.
The broad appeal of Madonna imagery detached from overt signs of religion has fostered its endurance to the present day, often in subtle ways that go unrecognized by mainstream audiences. Its firm adoption by the media, particulary as a marketing strategy, furthers the message not only that women are primarily mothers and caregivers but also that their physical, emotional, and psychological well-being is expressed through family nurturing. From commercials that encourage guilt on the part of mothers who fail to give enough (of themselves, as well as of the product in question) to television programs and films that feature gender stereo-types only superficially modernized for the new millennium (both benign, as in The Simpsons cartoon series, and insidious, as in the film Fatal Attraction ), we are saturated with expectations of female behavior derived from a 2,000-year-old Jewish maiden named Mary.
This generational transmission, however secularized, is due in part to the intrinsic role played by children in defining the Secular Madonna, perpetuating the fantasy of a perfect (and perfectly) loving mother. As long as children are encouraged to see themselves as central to the mother's existence, and mothers are conditioned to place family needs above their own, future generations will continue to accept the notion of a woman's natural inclination to selfless love. Both mothers and offspring are complicit in the acceptance and perpetuation of the myth of the Secular Madonna, with its uneasy mix of historical desires, biological roles, psychological needs, and deeply rooted cultural expectations for both men and women.
See also: Gendering; Madonna, Orthodox; Madonna, Religious; Mothering and Motherhood; Victorian Art.
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Melissa R. Katz