Pregnancy in Art


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.