Advent in Art 07: Munch's Madonna

Lance Pearce
Sunday, 9 December 2007

Lance Pearce, Sunday 9 December,  Second Sunday in Advent

edward munch - madonna

click for larger image

Edvard Munch        Madonna

‘Madonna’ is a lithograph by the Norwegian artist, Edvard Munch, who produced numerous versions of it between 1895 and 1902. In the 1890s Munch exhibited the Frieze of Life; a series of paintings which addressed the timeless themes of love, sex and death. One of the central motifs in this series was the oil painting Madonna. In turn, this image was reinterpreted by Munch as a series of lithographs. Our Madonna image is one of those prints.

In this print there is an adult female, a foetus and a border containing travelling spermatozoa. The female nude occupies the greater proportion of space, and so, dominates the print. She is surrendering to a sexual experience; caught up in the ecstasies of coitus. The secondary figure is a wretched looking, small foetus suspended at the lower left with crossed, thin arms and large, frightened eyes. The print is framed with a blood red border containing moving, long tailed spermatozoa.
The two figures in the print are in striking opposition to each other. We see the nude female, from head to hips. Except for the halo, this figure is far from the traditional interpretation of Jesus’ mother. Her tilted head and closed eyes suggest a woman yielding to sensual abandon. Also, her defencelessness is emphasised by her arms, one raised behind her head, and the other behind her back. This posture, and the use of light, works to emphasise her face, breasts and torso.

Further to the erotic theme, the woman is surrounded by a red border containing spermatozoa which acts to suggest the theme of conception. So, this is a sexual experience resulting in conception. The woman is seen by the man who is her partner – and furthermore, the viewer of the work is cast as this lover. Thus, the religious icon is transformed into a sexual one.

The foetus hovers at the lower left enclosed in an ominous, black surrounding. In contrast to the woman, its arms rest across its chest; perhaps indicating self comfort, protection or the crossed arms of the dead. The foetus looks fruitlessly toward its mother with a frightened and reproachful facial expression. Its woeful appearance and isolation is the most disturbing aspect of the work. Furthermore, art writers see a reference to death in this skeletal foetus. So, existing side by side is the woman - a fertility image (the moment of conception) and the foetus; an image of death.

It is well documented that Munch had a melancholic and depressive personality. Here he seems preoccupied with the human condition as being merely an endless cycle of birth, life and death. In Madonna we see the ‘commingling of life and death’ (Berman, P., 2006). Birth begins life, which leads inevitably to death, with seemingly an absence of meaning.

Different theories have been posited regarding the meaning of the dark swirling lines surrounding the Madonna. One theory states that these lines pertain to the artist’s negative opinion of women - one side of Munch’s deeply conflicted view of Woman. The Madonna’s immediate surroundings; the black and blue swirling lines are an aura-like background. If this is the Madonna’s psychic emanations; then these colours, in particular black symbolising a sinister presence, point to the Madonna as possessing an ominous malevolence. So, we have Madonna as Woman, as powerful creature; creating life and, by implication, causing death.

Alternatively, the Madonna may be exhausted by, or in an immersive stage of orgasm, and is symbolically enclosed in a vibrating column or container. But this shaft may also be seen as a receptacle and thus may be viewed as a womb or birthing place. Furthermore, the numerous lines may indicate birth contraction. In fact, it may be both, as the basic emblem suggests conception and birth concurrently, or male and female characteristics in one form (Ravenal, Carol, M., 1989, p. 386).

If this Madonna is viewed as the Virgin Mary, this image may be linked to the historical challenge to the doctrine of Jesus’ virgin birth. This challenge hinges on the seemingly paradoxical idea of the sexually experienced virgin – sounds weird, but it is only a dilemma of language. The central point here is confusion over the meaning of virgo or parthenos, or the corresponding Hebrew word betulah, which were sometimes used to describe virginity, but more commonly meant “girl” or “unmarried female” (Blank, H, 2007).      

In the ancient world, marriage and its sexual completion were what socially and linguistically altered a girl into a woman, a virgin into a wife. However, premarital sex and pregnancies did occur in this era, meaning that parthenia, the condition of being a parthenos (girl/virgin), could and sometimes did describe sexually experienced women and even some who had given birth (Blank, H, 2007).       

This seeming paradox is the basis of a Greek mythological literary tradition. Many of Greece’s heroes and heroines, including Helen of Troy, were depicted as parthenios, the “sons of virgins.” In Helen’s story, her father Zeus (a god) captivated her mother, Leda (human), while taking the form of a swan. Apparently some of the Greek hoi polloi used this recurring allegory to label a disadvantageous premarital pregnancy a hieros gamos, a sexual encounter between a human and a god. If this cover up was accepted, the status of a woman and her child would be relatively undamaged within their community and the mother could even be taken as a wife. The elements of these tales exist in the story of the most famous parthenios of them all, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is described as being a divinely fathered son of a virgin, his human father induced to marry Mary by the knowledge that the baby born was of divine origin (Blank, H, 2007).     


Berman, P., Heller R., Prelinger, E., Yarborough, T., McShine, E., Munch, E., Edvard Munch: The Modern Life of the Soul, Museum of Modern Art, New York, N.Y.

Blank, H., Virgin: The Untouched History, Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, London, UK

Ravenal, Carol, M., Three Faces of Mother: Madonna, Martyr, Medusa in the Art of Edvard Munch, The Journal of Psychohistory 13/4

Slatkin, W., Maternity and Sexuality in the 1890s, Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 1, No. 1, (Spring-Summer, 1980), pp. 13-19

The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 46

Wylie, Mavis L., PhD and Wylie, Harold, W., Jr., MD, The Creative Relationship of Internal and External Determinates in the Life of an Artist, Annual of Psychoanalysis, 17 (1989), pp. 73-128

Reflective activities

Although archetypal, the Madonna depicted is not the standard femme fatale (or fatal woman) of literature and art; the femme fatale who is sexually seductive, drawing her lover into dangerous and deadly situations.

Instead, Madonna positions Woman as the powerful, central figure in the conception and birth process. Additionally, the deathly looking foetus highlights the inevitability of death, in the context of the life process. This artwork situates ‘Maternity in the broader context of the life cycle. Birth sets into motion the inevitable march toward death, an inescapable, if morbid, interpretation of existence’ (Slatkin, W.). 
What thoughts do you have about death, be it the death of someone close, or your own death? What particular concerns or fears do you have? Make a list.

Are there steps you can take to help lessen your fears? What might these look like?

Spend some time contemplating the foetus in the bottom left corner. What meaning does it have for you that this baby is not in the Madonna’s womb? How do you interpret the expression of the foetus? How do you feel when you look at it?

How does the way the foetus is presented offer a more complex understanding of Jesus’ relationship with his mother?

Consider the twelve year old Jesus who went AWOL by staying behind in the temple, after all the others left for home after a Passover festival. His distraught mum and dad hurried back searching all over for him, and when they found him, he reproved them:
“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (NIV, Luke 2 v 42)

Can Jesus’ reply be interpreted as an uncaring disregard for his parent’s feelings? How else might this event be interpreted?

(Further readings on the ‘Jesus and his mother’ topic: John 2: 4, Mark 3: 31-35, Luke 14: 26)

How do you interpret the facial expression and posture of the Madonna? Is she sad? Haughty? Reserved? Enraptured? Self-absorbed? Sexy?

Notice the red halo atop the voluptuous Madonna’s head. For Munch, red symbolised passion and life. 

Take time to reflect on your own mother’s life. Picture a time when she was young and alive to more possibilities. What might they have included? Can you see yourself as the best possibility she hoped for at the time?

Take pencil or pen. Depict yourself as you ordinarily see yourself in relation to your mother. Choose a different medium. Depict yourself as if you were thoroughly and specifically chosen and welcomed.

How could you carry this perspective into ordinary life?