Pregnancy in Art
By Rachel Geschwind
In the history of art, the subject of pregnancy was largely avoided,
specifically in our Western European cultural heritage. Not only were the state
of pregnancy and the event of birth viewed as grotesque, and unsuitable for
depiction, but the pains of childbirth itself was used to represent the idea of
female weakness. The naked female body was often the subject of debasement, and
it symbolized the fact that, through Eve and the cursed childbirth pains,
humanity exists in a state of sinfulness and punishment. However, one unique
exception remained: the Virgin Mary.
Contrary to our "modern" society, in the Middle Ages Mary was not the
saccharine-sweet plaster figurine sometimes seen in our contemporary churches.
In the Medieval and Renaissance periods, she was perceived as a flesh-and-blood
person, and her body was celebrated. Medieval art historian Amy Neff states that
though we may find it amusing or absurd, learned theologians discussed such
questions as whether or not Mary menstruated. In many early scenes of the
Crucifixion, Mary is shown swooning, a physical gesture used to symbolize her
childbirth and maternity. In Mary’s case, her sufferings, like Christ’s, held a
positive goal. In these scenes, the viewer is invited to imitate Mary’s piety,
her sorrow, her compassion, and her willingness to give birth.
In the seventeenth century, scenes of unveiled interiors began to appear in
art more frequently, all of which always held some sort of connotation to Mary’s
conception, pregnancy, or Christ’s birth. This is due largely in part to new
medical discoveries of female anatomy, and the discovery that women held a role
in creation. From ancient times, the woman had always been viewed as merely the
fertile, or unfertile, soil in which the seed fell. This discovery became a
large fascination with its audience, for female anatomy revealed a mystery of
chambers and caves which seemed to point to the secret of their origins.
It was during this time that the state of pregnancy represented a special
receptivity that was revered, for women, in their special condition, were
growing and hopeful. The Virgin Mary was the ideal, for it was her acceptance of
the Divine that brought forth the entire nation of Christianity, and in her
pregnant state, she represented the perfect imitation and reproduction. This is
why the Virgin Mary was regularly compared to the flawless mirror, for she
reflects the Divine without stain.
In our own Christian faith, we can turn back to the true image of the Virgin
Mary, whose body is flesh and blood, but yet accepted the Divine, for it was
through Mary that Jesus Christ was born. By celebrating the Virgin Mary as a
flesh-and-blood woman, we can then enter into the true mystery of Christ, who is
Himself both truly Man and truly Divine. Maybe then, through the meditation on
the pregnancy of the Virgin, we may then uplift the state of pregnancy to
understand is as the vehicle for our own holy state, for we are born of our
parents, but created by God.