Art, Travel & Life in Italy & Europe

Motherhood in Art through the ages

March 8th is International Women’s Day, and to celebrate this year, we’re looking at images of motherhood in Italian art through the ages, the subject of an exhibition in Parma that opens today and runs through June 28, 2015. 170 works from prehistory to last year in every medium make up this exhibit about the sacred and “mysterious” status of maternity.

Gino Severini, Maternità, 1916, Museo dell'Accademia Etrusca, Cortona

Gino Severini, Maternità, 1916, Museo dell’Accademia Etrusca, Cortona

The show in Parma surveys maternity in four main themes, which we can see through a sampling of the images included here. First is mother goddess in the prehistoric and antique periods, like this example from the archaeological museum of Cagliari, or the Bust of Proserpina from the 2nd century BCE. These images focus on fertility, and maternity in this way represents a constant relationship between humanity and the divine.

Dea Madre, IV millennio a.C., Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Cagliari

Dea Madre, IV millennio a.C., Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Cagliari

Busto di Proserpina, 160-150 a.C., Museo Civico Fiorelli, Lucera

Busto di Proserpina, 160-150 a.C., Museo Civico Fiorelli, Lucera

Moving on to the Middle Ages, maternity is most often represented in the figure of the Virgin Mary, seen in Byzantine icons and masterpieces of panel painting. In works from this period, Mary plays a reassuring role, one of protrectress, as we see in the Madonna della Misericordia by Bartolo di Fredi from 1364.

Bartolo di Fredi, Madonna della misericordia, 1364, Museo Diocesano, Pienza

Bartolo di Fredi, Madonna della misericordia, 1364, Museo Diocesano, Pienza

There is not much representation of intimate motherhood at this time, although we do sometimes see the “Virgin Lactans” or nursing. A painting by Alessandro Moretto in the style of Titian from the 16th century is, nonetheless, a touching and quite intimate scene.

 Alessandro Moretto, Madonna con Bambino, XVI secolo, Musei di Strada Nuova, Genova

Alessandro Moretto, Madonna con Bambino, XVI secolo, Musei di Strada Nuova, Genova

It is not until the 19th century that we start to see an understanding of maternity that is familiar to us in modern Western society. Gino Severini’s 1916 Maternity is a far cry from the akward Virgin Lactans, in fact – a real breast feeds a real, swathed baby in this case. Francesco Hayez’s family portrait showing Countess Teresa Zumali Marsili with her son Giuseppe, in 1833, is also a relatively credible picture of infancy (if only for that minute that the child sat still).

 Francesco Hayez, Ritratto della contessa Teresa Zumali Marsili con il figlio Giuseppe, 1833, Museo Civico, Lodi Francesco Hayez, Ritratto della contessa Teresa Zumali Marsili con il figlio Giuseppe, 1833, Museo Civico, Lodi

Francesco Hayez, Ritratto della contessa Teresa Zumali Marsili con il figlio Giuseppe, 1833, Museo Civico, Lodi

A particularly touching image from this period, I think, is Raffaele Borella, Le madri, 1918 – a rare image of mature motherhood.

Raffaele Borella, Le madri, 1918, Collezione Intesa Sanpaolo

Raffaele Borella, Le madri, 1918, Collezione Intesa Sanpaolo

The exhibit moves us up the present day with an interrogation of the new female archetype in modern society and art, in which the woman is no longer a sacred or domestic mother but a much more complex, emancipated figure. Works by Mimmo Rotella, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Max Kuatty, Bill Viola and Mat Collishaw address this while making reference to the past. Bill Viola’s 2002 Emergence is a video still from a work commissioned by the Getty that represents a man emerging from a fountain, which in composition and style refers to Renaissance images of deposition and resurrection.

Bill Viola, Emergence, 2002, courtesy the artist

Bill Viola, Emergence, 2002, courtesy the artist

The most recent image in the show, from 2014, is by Mat Collishaw: Black Mirror is a work created for the Borghese Gallery in Rome that “mirrors” a painting by Caravaggio of Mary, Elizabeth and the Christ Child enclosed in an ornate black glass frame.

Mat Collishaw, Black Mirror - Leo Minor, 2014, courtesy the artist,1/9

Mat Collishaw, Black Mirror – Leo Minor, 2014, courtesy the artist,1/9

The show demonstrates how, throughout history, the role of the woman, specifically as mother, has inspired artists who represent this essential part of every human life.

Just for a joke: My colleague Leo Cardini at Flod depicted all our staff as figures in famous paintings. He made me into an unwilling mother by Raphael.

Me as upset Madonna and child

Me as upset Madonna and child

Visitor Information

Mater, percorsi simbolici sulla maternità
Parma, Palazzo del Governature (piazza G. Garibaldi 2)
www.mostramaterparma.it

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By: arttrav

Alexandra Korey aka ArtTrav is a Florence-based art historian and arts marketing consultant.