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The image of sanctity

 L’immagine della santità  DCM-010
06 November 2021

From Mary to Mother Teresa

Are there significant figures of women in modern art? Images of saints, especially female ones, are often associated with virtuous, symbol-laden depictions. Yet Pope Francis has named eight women saints who have “shaken up” the Church and the world. Cardinal Ravasi, speaking on Vatican Radio in 2016, says, “It is not a matter of adorning ourselves, so to speak, with a female presence in the Church. We want a women’s judgment, an objective judgment”. In this sense, images of saints become spaces which exist both physically and psychologically in modern art. Susan Sonntag speaks of “spaces of communication”.

Of all the saints, Mary is the “most powerful woman in the world”. From Michelangelo to Leonardo and Raphael, she has been represented in all her ambivalence. In Caravaggio’s Madonna and Child with St Anne (of the Palafrenieri), although it is not Mary who crushes the serpent’s head, Mary is the “midwife” who gently forces her son to crush the serpent by placing her foot on his. “Queen of Heaven or Housewife?” is how the Kunstmuseum Basel presented Mary in the exhibition entitled “Archaeology of Salvation”. Throughout the emancipation movements of the 20th century, the depiction of the Virgin Mary was portrayed as a paradox to be fought. In 1968, Catholic theologian Mary Daly spoke of a “conflict between the Christian concept of women as persons, made in the image of God, and the notion of inferior beings”, an argument that is also reflected in iconography. In Andy Warhol’s works, Mary is the “modern Madonna”; in Maurice Denis’s she is depicted as a natural being and in Eugène Carrière’s as an elemental symbol of emotion. This is not profanation, because we see in the images a human becoming.

Although we often don’t know what they looked like, saints inspire artists around the world. Sculptor Karlheinz Oswald, to cite just one example, shows Hildegard of Bingen in 1998 with an open neck and a worn, pierced veil to allude to her transgressive approach to liturgical traditions.

In a marble sculpture by Melchiorre Cafà depicting America’s first saint, Saint Rose of Lima, the artist seeks to place in the image the act of dying: Rose at the moment of transition from life to death. This corresponded to the paradox of the active passivity of the saint who wanted to dissolve. Art creates spaces in which the unrepresentable cannot simply be seen, but encountered.

One photograph shows Therese of Lisieux dressed as Saint Joan of Arc. In classical Christian iconography, Teresa of Ávila is depicted in the brown habit of the Discalced Carmelites wearing a white choral robe and a black veil with a book and a pen, holding a heart with the monogram of Christ and on her hand the dove of the Holy Spirit. However, one of the most significant representations is Bernini’s marble statue in Santa Maria della Vittoria, which shows her in the mystical ecstasy of transverberation. Artist Christian Deckerts takes it a step further and uses a singular image. A soccer ball is painted in the corner of the room. Teresa herself compared her relationship with God to a game of soccer, offering herself to the Child Jesus as a small toy, a ball of no value that he could throw on the ground, hit with his foot, puncture if he could. The saints take images from the world to describe their encounter with God.

Edith Stein is represented in paintings and sculptures too. Paul Nagel created a sculpture for St Peter's Basilica that seems more real in its abstract form in white marble. It is not perfect beauty, not martyrdom, but her real presence that creates relationship.

To conclude this series of great women who have shaped the world and the Church, one cannot leave out Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Agim Sulaj, a famous Albanian painter, has tried to create an iconographic representation in which the Rosary of the Saint comes out of the picture and enters our real space. Mother Teresa can be touched but at the same time she has an aura of intangibility.

This means that modern images of saints are not concerned with a woman’s function in the church, as this is ultimately determined by men. Nor is it about the typical qualities of saints and using them for the church beginning from an ideal woman. It is about recognizing the reality of woman, taking the cry and the power, accepting it, and looking at it and being questioned by it. It is a rational and contemplative process in which metaphysics, that is, the essence of woman is combined with phenomenology. It is an inverted and revolutionary approach that the Pope himself demands and exemplifies and that manifests itself in modern art. They look at their reality and the becoming of the church in the world and encounter the Church herself in it.

by Yvonne Dohna Schlobitten