The Overshadowed: Edvard Munch’s Madonna

I find Munch’s “Madonna” fascinating and frightening, the way I would expect the “overshadowing” of the Holy Spirit to affect a person. Beatified sexuality (note the red halo). Sadly his stylistically innovative print of this image, employing both woodcut and lithograph (a self taught printmaker, Munch made numerous varied prints of this and many of his other images), cheapens the power of the image with a puerile, Hot Topic kind of scatology, reminiscent of some of Serrano’s less compelling work, grasping for “disturbing”, but laying hold on nothing but the laghable blasphemes of a twelve-year-old.

Both are quite a bit different from this image I captured several years ago at St. Mary’s around the corner from my house in Idaho which, to me anyway, seemed to capture both the attraction and un-thankful barrenness of the ideal of Our Lady’s perpetual virginity.


14 comments on “The Overshadowed: Edvard Munch’s Madonna

  1. Matt Yonke says:

    Unthankful barrenness? Do expound.

  2. Well I happen to particularly like that statue. I think part of the problem with that photograph is the snow she’s wearing like a color.

    I am bothered by the Munch pictures, not because I don’t think there wasn’t anything sensual or erotic about the overshadowing of the Most High but because in the Bible marital sex is always spoken of in euphamisms, where as adulterous sex is always explicit. And that image seems too much like the descriptions of sex in Ezekiel, and not enough like the ones in the Song of Songs. She should have a more expressive face, and less exposed (or exposed such) breast. More like, say, the Extacy of St. Teresa.

    I admit to also being confused about your description of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary. But I think I probably come at this a bit differently than most Catholics do, so I might just be missing what you are seeing.

  3. Matt Yonke says:

    I suppose I’m bothered by the exposing of Our Lady’s bosom for the same reason I would object to the exposing of my earthly mother’s bosom. It’s simply not appropriate. There’s nothing anti-incarnational about it.

    But, though I await the explanation of our esteemed host, I might try to anticipate his meaning.

    Mary’s perpetual virginity, aside from its being a constant teaching of the Church, is in no way thankless toward the gift of marriage. It’s merely paradoxical in a way very similar to the paradox of the incarnation.

    Christ is both man and God without compromising either. Mary is both mother and virgin without compromising either. Her humanity, and thereby her existence as a sexual creature, is wholly recognized, but her case being special as it obviously was, she didn’t desire equality with other marriages as a thing to be grasped.

    She humbled herself, taking the form of a handmaid, and dedicated herself wholly to her true spouse, the Holy Spirit, and to her Father and her Son.

    There is nothing in Mary’s virginity that bucks against human sexuality or derides it as impure. Quite to the contrary, her virginity lifts both motherhood and virginity to a new plain where they are both celebrated and praised.

    I think there might be, in the protestant objection to the perpetual virginity of the Theotokos, a testament to the disconnection protestants often foster between sex and childbearing.

    Not saying you do, Ben, just saying the latent tendency seems to be there.

  4. thanks for the thoughts, matts. i’ll get back to yous over the weekend.

  5. A couple more thoughts:

    I think, following Yonke’s point above, that my frustration can be summed up by asking what we would think of the picture if it were “The Conception of Bennett Carnahan” (or “The Conception of Ophelia Carnahan”). (I’m sorry to use that sort of language, but that really is what the painting is depicting, just not your wife or mother, but Jesus’ mother.)

    Some things are just too beautiful and private to be depicted.

    That said, I don’t think your point was exactly on the picture, but rather than he captures the passion and activity of Mary in a way that traditional art does not. I think I agree, but I think I’d trace the problem to Aristotle, and his goofy ideas about female sexuality.

    As a bit of an aside:

    The Wikipedia page on the painting says:

    Ms. Sigrun Rafter, an art historian at the Oslo National Gallery suggests that Munch intended to represent Mary in the life-making act of intercourse, with the sanctity and sensuality of the union captured by Munch. The usual golden halo of Mary has been replaced with a red halo symbolizing the love and pain duality. The viewers viewpoint is that of the man with her.

    so I’m relatively confident that I reading the picture correctly.

  6. Abra says:

    I prefer the 2nd Munch minus the dorky border.

    I do have a not-very-intellectual comment/question, though. Wouldn’t the big difference be the fact that art is a depiction and not a reality? No one in their right mind would be ok with Mary (or any mother) revealing her nakedness publicly.

    I also have to say, there is a vast difference in being explicit (Song of Solomon, anyone?) and being obscene. Like all things, isn’t there both an appropriate and inappropriate way to portray the rapturous event in question?

  7. Abra says:


    * literally* revealing her nakedness publicly.

    (Our Consequences of Conception make it difficult to carry out a train of thought. )

    Personally, I would have no problem with a tasteful, beautiful, appropriate, nude painting of my mom, my grandmothers or myself, as long as it was not obscene. God made womens’ bodies beautiful and it is a testament to Him. I’m partial to charcoal art, by the way.

  8. Abra,

    I think I more or less agree.

    Since people were naked prior to the fall, there is nothing essentially wrong with nakedness, or depictions of nudity. Following JPII, I think I would say that the problem with nakedness is that the immodest pose is a pose which invites an objectification. We see the person no longer as a person to receive as a gift, but as a thing to be exploited. So, at least in principal, I wouldn’t have a problem with a proper nude picture.

    That said, there also seems to be something private about sexuality.

    A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed. Thy plants are an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits; camphire, with spikenard, spikenard and saffron; calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense; myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices: A fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon. Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits. I am come into my garden, my sister, my spouse: I have gathered my myrrh with my spice; I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey; I have drunk my wine with my milk: eat, O friends; drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved.


    Drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well. Should your springs be scattered abroad, streams of water in the streets? Let them be for yourself alone, and not for strangers with you. Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love. Why should you be intoxicated, my son, with a forbidden woman and embrace the bosom of an adulteress?

    Or think of the passages in Ezekiel that talk about Israel’s nakedness being displayed before all nations.

    Anyway, concerns like this give me pause, though it may be that the reason there is a difference between going about naked and a (proper) naked picture is precisely that it is possible to have a naked picture without making everything too public.

    Regarding the two pictures in question, I would simply say that they do not in fact preserve Mary’s modesty. It’s too muck like having a stranger gawk at a passionate kiss.

    I think also that part of why the picture of the statue outside St. Mary’s appears so cold is that it’s a marble statue, and so appears hard compared to the color and motion of the paintings. And, like I said above, Aristotle said that men are form and thus action, while women are matter and passivity. Till relatively recently people even believed that the mother contributed no more to a child than the soil does to a seed. The man plants everything, and she nourishes. But of course all that’s just simple nonsense. The depiction of sexuality in the Song of Songs has the woman as active as the man, and half the genetic material, and all of the pre-natal nourishment, comes from the mother. Much Christian piety has been tainted by Aristotle’s silly understanding of sexuality, so it wouldn’t surprise me if much Marian art is similarly infected. But certianly there is a place for calm passivity, both for the man, and for the woman.

    That was probably way off track. In summary, with a few niggling differences I more or less agree with Abra. But I think that (as Ben said) the Munch painting does not, as a matter of fact, fit the proper categories.

  9. Remy says:

    Thanks for the Munch, Ben. And that’s a totally sweet picture.

  10. I like that statue too. I have taken countless pictures of it. This is, for some reason I can’t put my finger on, one of my favorites. In fact, I really didn’t mean to put it at odds with the Munch paintings in a “these are warm and incarnational, this is cold and gnostic” sort of way at all. I really just wanted an excuse to post that photo, and this seemed to be a good place to put it. And while I do think they form a fascinating contrast to each other, I wasn’t really interested in critiquing the doctrine of perpetual virginity so much as wondering what an erotic imaging of Mary might add to our understanding of what it means to be Theotokos, primarily because her assumed perpetual virginity is so heavily emphasized that the sexual aspect of her motherhood is largely ignored (except in the use of abstract terms like “Theotokos”).

    A few random responses:

    – Though sex seems to be something hidden (“off scene”, sure), you are getting that from a very public literary work which, whiile seemingly euphamistic in translation, is hardly shy. In fact, you might argue that the so-called “euphamisms” are poetic, not coy. The point is to highten the beauty of what is being described, not cloak it in shadow to spare our victorian sensibilities (which even in the most bowdlerized translations it still fails to do).

    – Ecstasy of St. Theresa, yes.

    – Despite liking Chesterton’s both-and ideas about seemingly mutually exclusive extremes, I don’t see any reason to claim that Mary remained perpetually a virgin, and several off hand that indicate otherwise. Just because something would be an antinomy doesn’t make it so. Procrustes had a bed, and we have named her systematics, for what that’s worth.
    That said, I speak from an acknowledged ignorance on this subject. If you want to recommend a few articles or books on the reasons for this particular dogma, I’d be interested in taking a look at them.

    – While I don’t want to get into a nudity-in-art argument (though maybe we need to), a few quick comments about the Munch paintings themselves. I hadn’t noticed the mask-like quality of the faces. Don’t like that, for the reasons that Petersen states. Do like the warm colours of the first painting, while preferring the slightly more abstracted form of the print (again, minus that gawdawful border).

    I apologize for being so jumbled in these responses (and for getting to it after the first blush of infatuation had worn off the post). Hope you can glean something useful from them. If any of you are still reading this, a little self-assessment: is it these particular pictures that bothers you in particular, or is there no room in your conception of Mary for sexually typological imagery? Why?

  11. Greetings:
    I think the image is outstanding, It exudes a feeling of innocence, sincerity, openess pride which in effect addresses the misplaced perception in todays way of thinking that breasts equates to sexuality. Our society has so damaged the mindset of people to the extent that women event in the event of breast cancer fear the loss of feminity, ability to be loved and etc. I think the Munch’s Madonna as an outstanding work of art that could go a long way in recognizing the beauty of the female form for its artistic reality. I also agree with Abra that one should feel good about displaying a tasteful and artistic image of a loved one proudly. Afterall even with the Modanna, if you love it and what it represents, why not replicate the iamge and pose with someonr you have a personal and loving connection with? Visit and you will see when men loved their loves they often had nude artistic paintings made to celebrate their love and honor for them.

    As was stated, Art and Love in Renaissance Italy, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, offers a unique look at approximately 150 art objects and paintings, dating from around 1400 to 1550, that were created to celebrate love and marriage.

    As a Fine Art Photographer, I have been a strong advocate of proudly showcasing a loved one rather than a artistoc nude of someone with whom there is no connection.

    James Ingraham

  12. James, thanks for the thoughtful comment.

  13. Rog says:

    I am just thankful for everything Munch did.


  14. AJ Schmitz says:

    i just encountered this piece by munch and i cannot keep my eyes off of it. i google imaged it and that is how i got to your page, here. the virgin mother story/concept is not perpetual and there is nothing that explicitly states that mary was a perpetual virgin, but the human mother of god’s son. that being said, the piece depicts a very real, very beautiful woman–one that we can all comprehend. this is at the heart of the Symbolist movement that munch was a part of, to understand the essence of a thing that would otherwise be incomprehensible. this image allows the on looker to view mary as what she is: a woman. more than that, a regular person who is known for a completely incomprehensible thing. her sameness, that comes out through the image (it glows in a sort of post-coital blis, a rapurous sheen that is alive in both color and vivacity) combats the otherness that institutionalized religion has bestowed upon her. if mary were an angel, lets say, there would then be nothing special about jesus; but it is because he was born of a MORTAL woman that his works and sacrifices are so great. the munch image conveys this idea perfectly and i am glad that you are showcasing it

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s