By Molly DeLuca
One of the longest-standing debates in the history of the Catholic Church stems from disagreement among its members as to how religious art should function in the Church's devotion to, and understanding of, God. Does religious art effectively promote theological teachings and bring the faithful into a closer relationship with God, or is religious art an ostentatious display of secular wealth that hinders the church's ability to serve people in need of food, shelter, or opportunity? This paper will explore the extent to which religious artwork can convey tenets of Catholic theology through an analysis of Gustave Dore's "The Madonna," a sculptural depiction of the Blessed Mother and child Jesus. "The Madonna" contains layers of theological symbolism that express the mystery of Jesus's incarnation and the role that the Blessed Mother, Mary, plays in the life of the Church.
Through his rendering of the child Jesus, Dore successfully conveys the mystery of the Incarnation, the Catholic doctrine that asserts that Jesus existed as both totally God and totally man during his time on Earth. The Vatican II constitution, "Gaudium et Spes" summarizes the theological doctrine on the nature of Jesus's unique humanity and divinity, saying, "For by His incarnation the Son of God has united Himself in some fashion with every man. He worked with human hands, He thought with a human mind, acted by human choice and loved with a human heart. Born of the Virgin Mary, He has truly been made one of us, like us in all things except sin" (Pope Pius XI 22). Jesus totally and truly assumed a human form when he came to Earth. Dore weaves these tenets of the incarnation into his rendering of the child Jesus. Dore's Jesus has the anatomy of a small human child, from his small limbs that are dwarfed by those of his human mother, to patches of baby fat on his arms, to his belly button. Physically, Dore's Jesus indistinguishable from the millions of human children that lived before him and the millions that would be born after. Furthermore, the Dore's Jesus does not merely look like a human child but is formed from the same bronze as Mary, his human mother. Similarly, when Jesus came to Earth, he did not only look like a human but assumed totally a human form. The Catechism of the Catholic Church asserts the true humanity of Jesus, saying, "The unique and altogether singular event of the Incarnation of the Son of God does not mean that Jesus Christ is part God and part man, nor does it imply that he is the result of a confused mixture of the divine and the human. He became truly man while remaining truly God" (CCC 464). By forming the child Jesus from the same substance as Mary, Dore reinforces the idea that Jesus came into the world, fully man, from the womb of his human mother Mary. In this sculpture, the choice of bronze as a medium also carries significance because bronze is a metal alloy, consisting of copper, tin, aluminum, nickel, and other metal/metalloid substances. The impure and inconsistent nature of bronze is symbolic of the limitations and weaknesses of the human form. Even though Jesus retained his divine nature and moral perfection, he was not immune to the emotional and physical toils that plague the human race.
The crucifixion marks the most significant intersection of Christ's mortal and divine identities. From a human perspective, Jesus had to endure intense pain, suffering, and humiliation. In addition to the physical agony of crucifixion, Jesus was subjected to total degradation and public humiliation, forced to process through the streets of Jerusalem wearing a crown of thorns, ridiculed by the crowd, having soldiers gamble over his garments. Furthermore, Jesus in his humanity was fully capable of feeling pain and fear; the Gospel of Matthew writes that, on the night before his death, Jesus "began to feel sorrow and distress" (Matthew 26:36-46) and prayed, saying, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me" (Matthew 26:36-46). Christ's crucifixion encapsulates multiple dimensions of human physical and emotional suffering, and, in his human state, Jesus experienced fully this agony.
And yet, the crucifixion was also the vehicle for Jesus's greatest act of divinity - his triumph over sin and evil by which he made heaven a reality for all humanity. The crucifixion is a particularly poignant illustration of the mystery of the incarnation because of its immense significance, both for Christ's humanity and for his divinity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes this juxtaposition of Jesus's humanity and divinity in the crucifixion, saying, "Jesus, the Son of God, also himself suffered the death that is part of the human condition. Yet, despite his anguish as he faced death, he accepted it in an act of complete and free submission to his Father's will. The obedience of Jesus has transformed the curse of death into a blessing" (CCC 1009). Thus, the crucifixion lies at the heart of the mystery of the Incarnation; because of his divine nature, Christ's mortal anguish brought about potential redemption and eternal life for all humankind. Through overt prefigurement of Christ's death on the cross, Dore's "The Madonna" captures this immense significance of the crucifixion in the overall mystery of Christ's Incarnation.
Perhaps the most striking attribute of Dore's "The Madonna" is the positioning of the child Jesus. Mary holds Jesus with one hand underneath each armpit, and Jesus lies back against her chest with arms outstretched, wrists limp, eyes closed, and his head lolling to the side. In short, the positioning of Dore's Jesus intentionally prefigures Christ's crucifixion; this prominent allusion to the death and crucifixion of Jesus Christ draws observers' minds to reflect on the paschal mystery of Christ's resurrection and serves as a reminder that Christ was not an ordinary child. Rather, as God, he always possessed an understanding of his divine identity and his extraordinary purpose. Dore's helpless child Jesus serves as a reminder of Christ's own human weakness, and yet, through his human suffering, Christ carried out the more powerful act of saving love in human history.
Dore's sculptural rendering of Mary also conveys important theological truths about the Blessed Mother's identity. Through her perfect faith and obedience, Mary played an essential role in the incarnation of Jesus. She also serves as a model of motherhood and offers intercessions to the Father on behalf of the Church on Earth. In "The Madonna," Dore incorporates these unique elements of Mary's identity within his rendering of the Blessed Mother.
In allowing herself to be made the mother of Christ, Mary demonstrated exceptional faith, courage, and selflessness, handing herself totally over to the will of God. Through this immense faith in God's purpose for her life, Mary allowed herself to be the vehicle that enabled God's son to come to Earth. In Dore's "The Madonna," Mary holds the child Jesus in front of herself; this causes the eye of the observer to be initially drawn to Jesus. Gradually, however, the Blessed Mother's integral role in the sculpture becomes clear. Structurally, Mary physically supports the child Jesus, who is lifted up to eye level by Mary's arms. Likewise, Mary played an essential role in providing Jesus with nourishment, love, and protection when he was just a helpless infant. Dore's Mary also serves as a frame for the child Jesus; her body surrounds Christ on all sides and her gaze, face tilted towards her son, eyes downcast, draws observers' eyes, once again, to Jesus. Mary's cloak drapes around the child Jesus's body, serving as a further reminder of the Blessed Mother's intimate connection to the life of Jesus Christ. Just as Mary played an essential role in the Incarnation of God's son, so too, Dore's Mary supports, frames, and clothes the helpless child Jesus.
Catholic theology reveres Mary as the ultimate model of motherhood. Dore's Mary encapsulates this maternal identity. Mary tenderly holds her son against her chest, his head resting gently against her shoulder. Mary's check rests on the side of Jesus's face, her eyes cast down, gazing upon her son. While this positioning of the Blessed Mother projects her total love and devotion for Jesus, Mary's unsmiling mouth and closed eyes also convey a sense of the sorrow that Mary will ultimately feel as she holds her dead son in her arms after his crucifixion. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, that, at Jesus's crucifixion, Mary, "stood, in keeping with the divine plan, enduring with her only begotten Son the intensity of his suffering, joining herself with his sacrifice in her mother's heart, and lovingly consenting to the immolation of this victim, born of her" (964). Dore's Madonna captures the extreme dichotomy between Mary's total loving adoration for her son and the heartbreaking sorrow that she felt during his suffering and death.
Finally, the Church understands Mary to be the "mother of the church," offering intercessions to the Father and her Son on behalf of all members of the church. Dore's "The Madonna," also illustrates this relationship between the Blessed Mother and the Church. The Church on Earth is understood to be the Body of Christ, its members charged with acting as physical manifestations of Christ's selfless love in the world today. Dore conveys Mary's role as an intercessor on behalf of the Church (the body of Christ) through the same details that serve to characterize her relationship with her son. The structural support that Mary provides to the child Jesus signifies both her integral role in raising God's son from helpless infancy to adulthood, as well as the role that she plays interceding on behalf of the faithful in order to strengthen their relationship with the father. Mary's downcast gaze, loving yet sorrowful, is prompted both by the painful suffering that her son will endure, as well as the maternal love and sorrow that the Blessed Mother feels upon seeing the pain and suffering that exist on Earth. Dore's rendering of Jesus symbolizes both Christ, the Son of God who came to Earth and was born of the Virgin Mary, and Christ, the body of the Church. As such, "The Madonna" encapsulates Mary's relationship with her son and her relationship with the Church on Earth.
Through "The Madonna," Gustave Dore, articulates theological dogmas about the Incarnation and the Blessed Mother's role in the life of the Catholic Church. In doing so, Dore demonstrates that religious art can be used to promote a more true understanding of the Church's teachings among the faithful. However, it is important to note that, Dore's "The Madonna" effectively conveys these religious teachings through very humble media. Although "The Madonna" contains such rich meaning and symbolism, the physical structure itself is composed of bronze, not gold or silver, and stands humbly, unadorned by precious stones or other expensive materials. Herein, I believe, lies the crux of the debate over the proper function of religious art in the Church. Religious art can effectively be used to promote the teachings of the Church and bring the minds of the faithful into a deeper understanding of God's role in the world. As such, it absolutely has a role to play in the Church today. However, as Dore's "The Madonna" demonstrates, extremely meaningful and symbolic art does not require excessive wealth. The true value of religious art lies in the thought and craftsmanship that go into producing pieces of art that can communicate religious ideas and teachings, not in the dollar value of the materials used to produce the art.
Dore's "The Madonna," provides a useful lens for assessing the role that religious art can play in effectively expressing theological teachings. Brimming with nuanced symbolism, Dore's rendering of the Blessed Mother and child conveys the Catholic Church's teachings on the mystery of Christ's Incarnation and the role that the Blessed Mother plays in the life of the Church. Furthermore, the value of Dore's sculpture as a vehicle for theological instruction does not lie in the monetary value of the materials used to construct it; rather, it is the careful craftsmanship and thoughtful attention to detail that allow the art to convey religious meaning. Thus, meaningful religious art can be constructed without expensive materials that would siphon resources away from the Church's missions of charity. Production of, and appreciation for, religious art has a worthy and appropriate place in the Church's mission to spread the teachings of Christ and does not necessarily conflict with the Church's commitment to aiding people who are in need.