Reflections on Madonna and Child at the Met

At the Met today, I was moved in a new way by depictions of Mary and Jesus, especially those of Mary mourning Jesus’ death. The paintings and sculptures of Mary holding and cradling the baby Jesus made me think of our son Satya; her grief made me imagine a parent’s worst fate – seeing his dead body. The emotion of the sacred images struck me in a visceral way, different from the appreciation I’ve always had.

I look at Satya toddling around the apartment or playground, and I think, twenty years from now I’ll watch him walking across a room and I’ll remember him like this. When Mary holds Jesus’ dead body does she remember the chubby, squirming baby reaching for the Magi’s gifts or tugging at her cloak? When Chris and I carry Satya now, we invariably remember that when he was born, he was tiny enough to fit in the crooks of our arms. There’s something so unexpectedly tactile about watching, feeling, and experiencing Satya grow – every inch, every muscle. Mary must marvel the same way as Jesus’ body grows and develops. So she must endure unfathomable pain as his lifeless body spills across her lap. This is what Christ’s humanity entails – not just his suffering, but Mary’s, too.

There’s a tragic juxtaposition between the themes of the most common depictions of Mary and Jesus together – Madonna and bouncing, lively Child, and the Pietà – Mother cradling adult, dead Son. Does Mary have an inkling of this future when she’s cuddling the baby Jesus? Is this among the things she “keeps and ponders in her heart”? Her haunted gaze, directed out toward the viewer, in Caravaggio’s Holy Family certainly suggests as much.

For Mary, does the Pietà obliterate or sanctify the joy of Madonna and Child? The lifetime of shared moments between Mother and Son, all the small intimacies and shared rituals – Mary feeding Jesus his first meal of solid food; the last time she nursed him; her pride at his first steps – all those  moments must collide in Mary’s mind as she holds Jesus’ body in her lap one last time.


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