Mary, the Ultimate Mother

literary/artistic analysis

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            The Virgin Mary can be thought of as one of the most influential mother figures in history. There are thousands of paintings, poems, and stories about her, and her son, Jesus Christ. The Virgin Mary is seen as the perfect mother who embodies what a true mother should be. Painters from all over the world have painted masterpieces that reflect her inner and outer beauty, and poets have tried their best to capture this with their words. Mary is a mother figure recognized by many, and her different motherly roles are portrayed through literature, poetry, hymns and art. These roles range from the nurturer and nurse, to the highest definition of a true mother; one who is always caring and gives all for her child.

            As I started research for this paper, I realized early on that there are hundreds of paintings of the Virgin Mary, from different times in history and from all over the world. Mary can be seen as the nurturing mother, the nursing mother, the mother of God, and the mother of all mothers. The way Mary is depicted varies from one country to another; her face takes on the likeness of the people who worship her. For example, the Virgin Mary that is depicted in India looks very different from the Mary depicted in France. Even though her facial features or skin color may look different, there are basic things in the portrayals of Mary that are the same.

            Mary is often depicted as a nurturing mother or a nursing mother, sometimes breastfeeding her holy son, Jesus. Images of Mary with her breast exposed represent a mother who feeds and nurtures her child with her own milk. Examples of paintings with the Virgin Mary giving her milk to the infant Jesus are by Roger Van Der Weyden (1399-1464) “Virgin and Child” , and his “Madonna and Child” (1450-1460)  and “The Virgin of the Good Milk” by El Greco (1595). In both of Roger Van Der Weyden’s paintings, the Virgin Mary is gazing down at the baby Jesus with a look of peace on her face, while he is taking milk from her breast. Roger Van Der Weyden is known for being a great fifteenth century painter, who painted many powerful religious scenes. El Greco’s painting of the virgin and child also depicts the infant Jesus at his mother’s breast. Ghaeon points out that in this painting the Virgin Mary is painted with “large dark eyes, burning with an innocent ardor which consumed all materialism in the small face” (Ghaeon 180). Mary is shown as a mother who is full of innocence, a quality that connects her to the baby Jesus. The image of a mother breastfeeding creates a scene that represents the physical aspect of being a mother. A mother breastfeeds her child to nourish him and that nourishment gives the child life.

Andrea Mantegna (1465-70) painted “Madonna with Sleeping Child”; in this painting, the baby Jesus is swaddled in cloth, asleep in the Virgin Mary’s arms. Mary is holding the baby Jesus close to her bosom and has another cloth around her body. This painting shows Mary as a nurturing mother; the baby Jesus is cuddled in a fetal position close to her heart.  This scene is another example of a natural action between a mother and her child; it is a familiar picture that can be seen throughout time. The mother is tenderly holding her child close to her heart, the place where she most feels her love for her child.

            One of the most important roles of Mary is that she is the mother of God. Paintings can be found with angels surrounding the holy family, lights from the heavens, and Jesus as a light himself. The Italian painting “The Holy Night” (1530), by Antonio Allegri shows Mary as the mother of God. Allegri is known for his use of light, shadow, and darkness. The baby Jesus is radiant, and the Virgin above him is praising her newborn son, the son of God. Cynthia Pearl Maus observes, “When looking at the baby alone, He seems merely a normal child under strong illumination. But if you will study the picture closely you will see that the baby is the source of light that floods the face of Mary, and reveals other parts of the painting” (Maus 31). The infant Jesus is clearly the main focus of the painting and he glows with a holy light. The infant is not only the light of his mother’s world but also the light of the entire world. “The Virgin’s Joy” by Matthias Grunewald (1510-1515) is quite similar to Allegri’s “The Holy Night” because the baby Jesus is glowing in a heavenly light, and Mary looks as though she is admiring and praising him.

A French painter, Pascal Adolphe Jean Dagnan-Bouveret (1885) paints a different image of Mary as the mother of God in “The Madonna of the Shop”. Maus comments, “In this picture Mary’s child lies sleeping in his mother’s arms, while the glory of his presence shines through her robe and streams past her wistful, passive face. Mary is not happy. Her sweet, girlish mouth has a touch of sadness.” In her face we see “foreboding, the telltale signal of approaching pain [the death of her son]” (Maus 85). This painting of Mary is later than those discussed previously, and the artist paints the scene realistically, showing an average young girl with her child. This makes a connection to the natural feelings that Mary has about her own son. She wonders what his life will be and how she would be able to stop any pain. The English painter Frederick Goodall (1822-1904) painted “Mater Purissima”, which translated means “The Mother of Our Lord.” This is another painting that shows Mary as the mother of God. This scene is also a representation of the presentation of Christ in the temple. Maus writes, “In her hands she carries two turtledoves or young pigeons, the sacrifice prescribed for one too poor to bring a lamb. But in the dreaming eyes she bends upon them there is no thought of the simplicity or poverty of her offering. She is not thinking of this as she holds the young birds close to her bosom” (Maus 300). The doves are a symbol of purity, and a symbol of Jesus. Mary is presenting the doves, which are a symbol of her son; she is giving Jesus to the world as a sign of her love for us, her children.

            Poetry is another artistic way of describing Mary as mother. An Italian poet Giovanni Dominici (1356-1419) wrote “Mother Most Powerful,” a poem about Mary as the mother of all mothers:

That thou so often held him in thin arms

So often pressed his infant lips to thine,

And in thy bosom warded off the harms

That came with flesh e’en to the Child Divine


That thou couldst clothe him, feed him, cheek to cheek,

In dreams and waking at thine ear has known

His first lisped ‘Mother,’ watch his soft hand seek

Thine aid with glances cast on Thee alone- (Maus 45)


In this poem, Dominici describes Mary as being a protector by warding off “the harms.” He describes her doing motherly tasks, such as clothing her child, feeding him, and embracing him.

A German hymn, translated by Samuel T. Coleridge (1772-1834), “The Virgin’s Cradle Hymn” imagines Mary singing to the baby Jesus. Samuel T. Coleridge wrote many poems and other literary works, which include “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” He was originally from England, but traveled throughout his life. This included a trip to Germany where he studied the language and translated German works. The hymn represents Mary as a loving, caring, and compassionate mother:

Sleep, sweet babe, my cares beguiling

Mother sits beside Thee smiling;

Sleep, my darling, tenderly!

If thou sleep not, mother mourneth;

Singing at her wheel she turneth;

Come soft slumber balmily (Maus 161)

In this poem the Virgin Mary is working hard to put her child to sleep and doing the daily work in the form of spinning. The spinning wheel can be looked at as a symbol of the world turning. The mother works hard to keep her world working, spinning, by doing the things that will benefit her and her family. The line “If thou sleep not, mother mourneth,” describes a feeling that many mothers have when they are not able to put their child to bed.

A poem by Mary Sinton Leitch (1876-1954) describes Mary as a mother and goes on to refer to the crucifixion of Jesus, although the poem describes him as an infant:

Mary, Mother Mary,

Crooned her babe to rest.

Fair he was and fragrant

As the rose upon her breast.

Soft she hushed her darling

And watched his eyelids close;

She strained him to her bosom

Forgetful of the rose.

A cry scarce broke his slumber,

But Mary lay till morn

Grieving that her baby’s brow

Was pierced by a thorn. (Maus160)


This poem includes images as Mary as a nursing or nurturing mother. Mary is trying to comfort the baby Jesus in this poem, so he can rest in peaceful sleep. She also comforts him because he will be hurt later in his life, pierced by the crown of thorns and crucified. This poem has three references to a rose. The baby Jesus is referred to as a rose, because a rose is beautiful and delicate in nature. Mary pulls Jesus closer to her bosom, never minding the thorns that will pierce her, too. The rose and thorns the poem speaks about are thorns in the crown Jesus was made to wear before his crucifixion. The poem represents Mary’s unconditional love for Jesus and her maternal desire to protect him.

            The Virgin Mary stands is an important mother figure, and by the fourteenth century, Jesus and God begin to be described in feminine terms as well. There are many literary works that use feminine imagery to describe God or Jesus as a mother. The process of giving birth is often related to God, along with nursing, and other maternal activities.

             For example Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) wrote in A Revelation of Divine Love: “We are brought back and fulfilled by the mercy and grace of our sweet, kind, and ever-loving Mother Jesus; the attributes of motherhood; Jesus, our true mother, feeds us not with milk but with himself, opening his side to us, and calling out all our love” (Julian of Norwich 169). Jesus died to save his people. At Mass Christians take the body and blood of Christ through the form of bread and wine in order to receive salvation. Like a mother Jesus sacrifices for his children. Julian makes the point that Jesus feeds his people with love, like a mother nourishes her own child and gives love. Like a mother, God is seen as a comforter, offering refuge: “Because of his tender love for all those who are to be saved our good Lord comforts us at once and sweetly, as if to say, ‘It is true that sin is the cause of all this pain; but it is all going to be all right; it is all going to be all right; everything is going to be right’” (Julian of Norwich 104). The repetition of “it is all right, everything is going to be right” is something a mother might say to her child in hopes of comforting him. Even if a person sins, there are ways to repent. Like a mother, God will always forgive.

            Giving birth is associated with women, but the image of God giving birth is also found in the Bible: “Job 38:8 speaks of the sea as leaping ‘tumultuous from the womb.’ Out of that all encompassing womb God has given birth not only to all human beings, but to the whole magnificent natural creation as well” (Mollenkott 16). The womb is the beginning of life. For the beginning of the world, as we know it, all living things come from the womb of the creator. Mollenkott also points out, “Jesus spoke of the Holy Spirit as mother in John 3:6: ‘What is born of the flesh is flesh, what is born of the Spirit is spirit.’ To be born of the flesh is to emerge from a human mother; to be born of the spirit is to emerge from the divine Mother” (Mollenkott 18). Being born of the flesh means birth as we know it. The unknown for many is the origin of the spirit. If the spirit exists, it must have been created at some point, and therefore has to have been born. The spirit is born from God.

            There is also an image of God as a nursing mother: “Isaiah 49:15 ‘Does woman forget her baby at the breast, /or fail to cherish the son of her womb? Yet even it these forget, I will never forget you’” (Mollenkott 20). A mother can never forget her child, as God can never forget his people. When a mother nurses she is tending to her child and expressing her devotion. God does the same when he looks over and watches his children. There are also hymns that depict God as the nursing mother, “the earliest recorded Greek Christian hymns,” or this one credited to Clement:

These thy little ones

Draw for their nourishment

With infancy’s lips

Filling their souls

With spiritual savor

From breasts of the Word (Mollenkott 22)

This hymn tells people to fill their hearts with the nourishment of the word (the Bible). The image of a little one drawing milk for nourishment is connected with breastfeeding. The breast is symbolically the word, which brings salvation.

There are many more examples of God as a mother figure. The image I think best fits God appears in Isaiah 66:13-14, for Yahweh promises, ‘Like a son comforted by his mother …I will comfort you,” (Mollenkott 28). Like a mother God makes a divine promise to his people that he will comfort and care for them, loving his people as a mother loves her child.

The Virgin Mary, Jesus, and God have been depicted in paintings, poetry, hymns, and other forms of artistic expression as good mothers. Julian of Norwich defines a good mother, and this is also the basic imagery of Mary, Jesus, and God: “In essence motherhood means love and kindness, wisdom, knowledge, goodness… A kind and loving mother who understands and knows the needs of her child will look after it tenderly just because it is the nature of a mother to do so” (Julian of Norwich 170). Mothers are loving, gentle, all knowing, and kind by nature. They want to nurture their children, and protect them. The Virgin Mary, God and Jesus all do the same when it comes to their children, mankind.