Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

A successful contemporary Hodegetria sculpture

June 26th, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

Continued from Cathedral’s Hodegetria sculpture

Let’s take a look at this sculpture and try and answer the two questions I proposed in the last post. The first question addressed the success of the image as a faithful presentation of the Virgin Hodegetria type. The second question –more difficult– asked if the image shows a world that has been restored –does it offer us the hope of divinization?

While gazing at us Mary holds up her baby for us to see. He sits on her right arm while she holds him steady with her left hand. Her left arm and hand act as a visual arrow pointing to the child. The child is shown as the savior of the world –the redeemer– for his arms are outstretched as they will be on the cross, the Christian symbol of redemption. Divinity and holiness are indicated by the traditional halos. The red cross inscribed on the child’s halo makes his identity and sacrificial role clear. The artist has skillfully manipulated the elements of art (line, shape, form, value/tone, color, texture, and space) to indicate the close relationship between mother and child. Notice that the lightest value in the color scheme –the white of the child’s robe and the shoulder veil of the mother–  forms a common ground or field. Squint and you will see what I mean.

Notice also that the artist uses a principle of design, movement, to unify the child with his mother. The movement begins at the child’s right hand, moves across to his left hand, up the veil on the mother’s left side, around and down the head, terminating near the child’s head at the mother’s collar. The halos, not by accident, overlap. The heads of the two incline inward, toward each other. Yes, this image successfully depicts the Hodegetria type Mother of God icon.

But does the image show us a redeemed world? Does it hold out for us the hope of an eschatological perfection? Is Mary represented as she now is in heaven? All Christian liturgical art must represent the world in glory as it will be after the Second Coming of Christ because that is our Christian hope. A world represented as it is, in a fallen state, does not offer us hope but leaves us stuck where we are, without hope.

Let’s see. Notice that Mary’s robe is lined with precious gold while the outer surface is a gorgeous brilliant blue; sacred colors. The gold echoes the gold of her halo. The three colors in this work are intense red, intense yellow and intense blue.  Those three colors are equally spaced on the traditional color wheel. A design that limits itself to three colors equal distant from each other on the wheel is often employed by artists to indicate harmony, balance, well-being and perfection; heavenly peace and serenity.  Also, Mary’s day-to-day clothes were probably relatively rough in texture compared to what we see here. These appear soft, shimmering and comfortably flowing. The significance of the decorative band of Mary’s robe is not lost on us. We see golden lilies which are Mary’s flower of purity and the traditional flower symbolizing the resurrection; resurrection to a life of divinization. The human images here are not realistic but stylized or abstracted to indicate grace and a spiritual otherworldliness. Mary’s glance is a peaceful gaze and not an anxious glare. Her pose is a graceful sway.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners!


Book suggestions:

Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy by Dennis R. McNamara, (Hillenbrand Books)

Art in Focus by Gene A. Mittler, (Glencoe/McGraw-Hill). This is the best textbook for an introduction to understanding art history, art appreciation and art criticism. It is written for high school students but is terrific for any audience. If you always wanted to learn the basics this is the book for you. The 2000 edition is the one I used with my classes just before I retired but I had used all the earlier editions since it first came out. I have not looked at the 2006 edition. (Get the teacher wrap-around version if available it has even more good information.)

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3 Responses to “A successful contemporary Hodegetria sculpture”

  1. Nerina says:

    Another informative and well done post, Bernie. I think I’m starting to get a handle on it now.

    A question: do you think those involved in the choosing of the SHC statue considered any of the criteria you have outlined here and in previous posts? Do you think there was any discussion of the historic use of iconography in general or in Hodegetria in particular? From my very untrained view, it would seem not.

  2. Bernie says:

    Nerina: I have no idea as to the process that went into the commissioning or selection of that sculpture but I doubt it had anything to do with tradition. It appears to fit perfectly into the prevailing bias in this diocese in favor of the profane. The common and the ordinary, according to this approach, is where God is found –if there is a God. Mary is depicted as an ordinary young woman and her baby as any one’s baby, nothing to indicate the sacred. Young women –especially single mom’s– are encouraged through the image to see themselves as Mary (there would have to be an element of feminism in the work, wouldn’t there?). The image is realistic which is the preferred style of the liberals or progressives –that or a deformed expressionism (ugliness). The sculpture is life size and totally approachable –no barriers between the viewer and the image. That’s another characteristic you hear babbled about, how approachable everyone and everything should be in the liturgy. Awe, wonder, holiness, and hierarchy are all despised. Familiarity is worshiped. This, of course, flies in the face of human nature and of the Incarnation. It certainly removes all hope of our ultimate deification which is not really a part of the thinking of folks of that persausion, anyway. The woman and her baby in the cathedral image are stuck in this world. Those who commission such works only believe in this life, this world. They offer us no hope.

  3. Nerina says:

    “They offer us no hope.”

    Bernie, this statement applies to many things in our diocese – but especially to the state of our liturgy. Our worship is bereft of hope.

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