Lady Madonna


Among the paintings and prints in the Edvard Munch collection on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is a rendition of his famous Madonna. I first saw a reproduction of this piece in a discussion of Christian art. The question, of course, was whether it could be considered Christian art or not. Munch was not known for creating religious-themed art. Angst was his more natural home. While not the only Madonna to pose naked, Munch predated the aging pop star by a fair number of decades, and named this piece after an icon of Catholic orthodoxy. The problem is the female body. Religion in the western world has pretty much always had difficulty dealing with embodiment. My generation grew up with Charlton Heston and any number of bare-chested, sculpted idols of manhood playing such characters as Tarzan, Ben-Hur, and Moses. Moses? Yes, even Cecil B. DeMille knew the draw of having a biblical hero bathed by a bunch of young, Egyptian women. We are used to seeing Jesus nearly naked on the cross—but Mary?

The issues tied to embodiment, although they effect every person who has a body, fall more heavily upon females. While there is little agreement as to the why, the excuse is often given that “man” is in the image of God and “woman” is derivative. In actual fact it seems more likely to me that men prefer an easy excuse for bad behavior. Biology sends a pretty strong reproductive message to most males, but, in the human realm at least, the larger burden rests with the females. By blaming the victims the male hierarchy—undeniable in the case of the church, as in many religions—insists that the female body is the problem. Males perform as God intended, thank you. But the reasoning is all backward here. Munch, if he intended this to be the Madonna, is problematizing the discourse.

Art, like holy writ, is open to interpretation. Munch did not explain his enigmatic Madonna, but like Leonardo da Vinci, lets the silent woman speak for herself. Scholars have long noted the multiplicity of Marys in Jesus’ life. At some points the Gospel writers leave a little too much inference up to the reader. It is pretty clear that Jesus had no trouble with women. But he was a singular visionary in a time when cheap blame was easily found. So Edvard Munch may have been following in the footsteps of the master when he portrayed the Madonna who accuses the world of double-dealing and false standards. It is an arresting artwork, and not for prurient reasons. What is being exposed here is a soul. She may be called the blessed virgin or the mother of God, but her gender is still castigated even by those who mouth such holy epithets. We may never know who Munch intended this to be, but we know she is every woman who has been repressed by the religion of men, yearning to be free.


New York City can wear you out, spiritually. I suppose that’s why so many people go there, to face the challenge. Thanks to Target, Friday evenings the Museum of Modern Art gives out free tickets for its world-class collection. We knew that Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night was there, and had planned on seeing it sometime. Well, Friday of spring break offered an opportunity, so last night, with several hundred, maybe a few thousand, others, we made our way to MOMA. We arrived around 5 p.m. and found the line literally around the block. It wasn’t as cold as it had been, so we braved the hour to wait our turn. Yes, it was worth it. As my wife noted, it was very good to see so many people wanting to see art. Manhattan offers many, many other diversions for a Friday night, but hundreds opted for art. I had long anticipated this. Since my school days I’d seen replications of many of the paintings in the museum, and it was inspiring to be packed in so close with so many people wanting to be close to art. Hoping, somehow, to commune with the emotion in us all seeking such profound expression.


It was a little difficult to commune, however, with so many other religious seekers. This is a religious experience, to touch the soul of another. Standing inches away from The Starry Night, I could almost feel the desperate, longing hands of van Gogh stroking out a manic sky, surreal and ethereal. I could almost hear the echo of his spirit. Were it not for the many crowding next to the painting to be photographed with it. Fellow spiritual seekers, I hope. Van Gogh was a troubled soul, as we all know. How many artists take their own lives after reaching out to touch what so few of us even dare. A sadness so profound as he climbed down that mountain. The starry night is the photograph of a suffering soul.


Then there was Edvard Munch’s classic, The Scream. On a limited engagement at MOMA, facing, just across the hall, van Gogh’s Starry Night. Was there ever such depth of soul in such close proximity? It was there that I began to question the faith that I had hoped impelled the countless masses yearning to observe free. MOMA allows photographs, and cameras, cell phones, and iPads were ubiquitous. To reach The Scream was to endure a crunch of strangers’ bodies pressing you forward, cell phones held aloft, illicit flashes popping, worried looking docents. I was anticipating another spiritual moment when I heard a woman say that she had to get close for a picture. “This is going to be my status!” she cried. So this is modern spiritually, the life splayed on Facebook, bragging about bagging Munch. Yes, Edvard, I am screaming too.