Sunday, 3 April 2011

Our Lady is definitely not blonde

That excellent Catholic journalist, Christopher Howse writes in Saturday's Daily Telegraph about Mary the Mother of God and how she has been perceived and portrayed by artists and poets. He quotes the from a poem called "Icon" by contemporary poet and talented artist, Lynn Roberts:

    "She is a dark/scared girl in dusty djellabah and veil,/with dirty feet."


Picture: The Daily Telegraph
Our Lady as portrayed by poet Lynn Roberts

I like the realism of this type of portrayal; it shows beauty, honesty and a certain level of basic human goodness. I much prefer this sort of treatment over the conventional blonde haired virgin so beloved of the western world. Those who commission the creation of  statues and those who carry them out seem oblivious to the fact that Mary was a Jewish peasant girl; dark hair, sallow skin and slightly more obvious features than we are used to seeing on our "English Rose" version. I recall the story of how, once Lourdes began to develop as a place of pilgrimage, the church placed a statue of Our Lady in the niche at the Grotto, exactly where she had appeared. This statue caused St Bernadette some angst as, according to her (and she should know), it bore no relation to the vision she had seen. When Our Lady appeared at Lourdes she appeared as a Pyrenean lass, short and stocky but outstandingly beautiful. Let's face it, the niche is only around five feet or less in height, there is no way that the conventional Virgin could have fitted into it. The present statue is, I guess, about four feet in height.

I also like the fact that, wherever you go in the world, Our Lady is featured as a native of the particular country you may be in. In Japan, Our Lady of Akita is most definitely Japanese, the same applies in China and I am sure that Africa is well endowed with genuine Black Madonnas. But here in Europe and, indeed in the USA, Canada and Australia/New Zealand, we are only familiar with Mary's "European" features and I long for an image that I can more easily relate to. What, I wonder, caused Renaissance artists to portray her as a blonde? Was it a form of racism, a reaction against the Jewish race? If so it was very short sighted; I find a Jewish maiden concept utterly charming and we in the Western world should now be mature enough to cope with such things. Perhaps we could see more statues and carvings that are true to the original or, at the very least, our interpretation of how that very young and scared maid from Nazareth must have looked.

Lynn Roberts is a very gifted artist and also has a range of botanical illustrations in her portfolio. I hope that she receives some commissions from the Catholic Church in the future, we need to bring some integrity into the contemporary art within our churches.

      Tall, blonde and lissome? That is not how Our Lady of Lourdes looked!


  1. I think that for some Italian renaissance artists the rarity of blonde hair constituted its attrsctiveness/beauty. Mary is beautiful and so must have beautiful hair. Apart from symmetry, most ideas of beauty seem to be culturally conditioned.

  2. You said that, wherever you go, Our Lady is portrayed as a native of that particular country, etc. Then what is the problem with
    her being portrayed w/ European features? And
    blonde hair? Could it be that you are actually the one being racist? If it's okay for her to have "non- European" features, then it's also okay for her to have European ones. We all see her as our own mother. By the way, "European features" are widely varied.

  3. I don't think the BVM having blonde hair is part of classic art so much as it is part of Catholic kitsch—the mass-produced statues and rather childish illustrations that still infect our bookstores (even my nice leatherbound New American Bible). However, I do agree with Patricius that the idea is culturally conditioned, not bound by any modern compulsion to research.

    I also like Roberts' portrait— ethnically accurate and yet beautiful in the way really beautiful women transcend ethnic parameters.

  4. I would like to have a nice image/statue of a very swarthy, Semitic looking peasant Mary. Even the pic here seems Eurofied.

    The Suffering Servant's mom probably wasn't much of a looker either.

    The beauty she has is what God made her to be. That is not the same as external beauty.

  5. As much as I love this blog, I must say, I differ quite strongly. True, Our Lady was of a definite ethnicity, but what was it exactly? Some argue that she was of a group of Jews that had spent some time in Spain (which would give her Celtic ancestry); Ruth certainly provided African ancestry, albeit distantly, and there were likely mixtures of many sorts, so who knows what she looked like.

    According to the Mystical City of God, which has been approved, she was dark, well-proportioned bodily, and drop-dead gorgeous with an aquiline profile. Personally, I am of this opinion, though unlike that mystic, I don't think her nose was aquiline, as Our Lady of Częstochowa and Our Lady of Guadalupe don't have aquiline noses.

    However, when the Virgin appears to people of varying cultures, she has assumed in some degree the appearance of that people (e.g., Akita and Guadalupe) Ergo, I don't see a problem with her being painted blonde anymore than I see a problem with her having black skin or oriental features.

    And as Fra Angelico is one of my favourites (who dares call him kitsch?), I'm not tossing out my blonde Mary of the Annunciation anytime soon. Alas, I also can't say I care too much for the picture at the head of this post, but then 'de gustibus non disputandum est.' If I have learned one good thing from Hermann Hesse, one should not criticise another's devotional art when it truly procures devotion...even if it's kitsch :)

  6. Jacobitess- thanks for your comment but you seem to be contradicting yourself. You say you don't agree but then you state that you do think that Our Lady was dark etc.

    I do agree that her features and height vary according to which country she appears in; therefore, at Akita she is Japanese and so on.

  7. Our Cathedral has the most hideous statue of Our Lady I've ever seen. She doesn't have blonde hair, or any colour hair, she is just just plain block stone. I don't know what her face is like, as her head is flung back (presumably looking at God). So you can't see her face unless you're hanging from the roof. From a standing position all that can be seen of it is her chin and up her nostrils. I long for a beautiful blonde mMdonna!

  8. I'm after picking up a statue of our lady and baby Jesus in a charity shop or lady has a pink dress on and a blue you know like type of a top long top and she's a gold crown on her head and hair is blonde and no cover over her head