Images of the Virgin Mary: a fleet-footed online tour of the collections

The present series, to which a new text will be added every two weeks, takes what may seem a rather contemporary approach: works of art are presented from the point of view of the person portrayed—the Virgin Mary.
We would like to provide a gentle note of reminder: sympathetic identification with the protagonist was the original purpose of precious votive paintings, long before such works came to be exhibited in museums in the 19th century.

On Stage

Peter Paul Rubens, Ildefonso Altar: The Holy Family Beneath an Apple Tree (exterior of side wings), c. 1630/32, KHM, Gemäldegalerie, Inv. no. GG 698

I could think of no better place to be than right here: my creator, a philosopher and cultivated man of the world, has set a grand stage for our appearance.

Speaking of backdrops: my support could once be folded down the middle; you can still see the crease.


We sit beneath the tree of paradise.


A thicket of leaves, branches, and twigs forms a natural baldachin below which Zechariah, Elizabeth, and John also shelter. The two hares in the lower right corner—they look somewhat like furry rabbits—find fresh green and cool water. Their role in this scene is to symbolise the fertility of us all.

I wear weighty garments draped three and four times over one another. You can only surmise that my body is beneath them, and its posture, limbs, and joints.


My right breast is exposed.


I glance out from dark eyes at little John, who self-assuredly and cheerily stretches towards us his hands clasped in prayer. Elizabeth, his mother and my sister, accompanies him gently forward. Look at our outstretched fingers: they give our children maternal stability despite all their exuberance.

Behind us stands Joseph; today he looks youthful. Almost like my grown son in fact; it seems I have strayed into fantasy, excuse me.

Back to the naked facts:

My son ignores the nourishment I offer him—John and his family are, for the moment, more interesting. Jesus has become distant from me, in his thoughts and wishes. But still I hold him with a slightly firm grip. My left arm I have placed beneath his soft body, my right arm holds him steady from behind, he leans back his plump body and embraces me by the nape of my neck. I like to feel the tips of his small fingers upon my skin. With his other hand my son leans upon a small branch. Zechariah takes care that the delicate twig does not break, and so ensures my son’s balance. And the apples allude to redemption from sin.

written by written by Cäcilia Bischoff, translated by Joshua Stein on 8.3.2018 in #Marienbilder
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