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The Art And Myth Of A Transforming Goddess

Updated on November 27, 2012

The Art And Myth Of A Transforming Goddess

an art history journal essay by Vera Lin, 2012

The single most recurring image of western art history after the Roman period and throughout the entire Renaissance is perhaps that of Madonna and Child. It is not so surprising when the Christian church was often the most powerful patron of art, the more extravagant example being that of St. Peter’s Basilica and its adjacent Sistine Chapel (wikipedia, 2012a, para.1). Since I am not a Christian, the unusually frequent exposure to the Madonna images throughout the Art History class evokes no spirituality, but heightened curiosity. How can a single image and a story of virgin birth so dominate the western religion and civilization? What about the cosmic mother figure that comes before Mary? In this journal, I would like to travel a backward journey in my search of the first mother.

In French painter Jean Fouquet’s Virgin and Child (1450), we are shown a rather sensationalized version of Mary and Jesus in the style of early Renaissance with marble white skin, ornate rather then real. However, the earlier renditions of Mary are considerably darker, even black. There was a long tradition of Black Madonna in Europe during and before the medieval period, where Mary is depicted in dark skin (Wikipedia, 2012b). There are still, at present day, around 500 Black Madonna in Europe (Wikipedia, 2012b).

Unknown artist (664-332 B.C.). Isis Suckling Horus [Bronze]. Cairo, Egypt: Epgytian Museum.
Unknown artist (664-332 B.C.). Isis Suckling Horus [Bronze]. Cairo, Egypt: Epgytian Museum. | Source

Egyptian goddess Isis and her son Horus is the actual modal for the Madonna and Child image:

American mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell regards Egyptian goddess Isis and her son Horus as the actual modal for the Madonna and Child image, and the virgin birth as a symbolic birth of the spiritual man out of the animal man (Campbell, 1988). According to Campbell in this TV interview, the earlier civilizations of agriculture worshiped a nurturing goddess that was herself the embodiment of Earth. When the hunters and herd-gatherers invaded the agricultural civilizations, their more aggressive masculine gods, like Zeus and Yehweh replaced the agriculture goddess (Campbell, 1988).

In African Dark Mother – Oldest Divinity We Know (2001), cultural historian Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum believes that the oldest divinity the scholars have unearthed so far is a dark goddess of central and south Africa, whose following was spread by African migrants to modern day Mt Sinai and to all continents after 50,000 BCE (Birnbaum, 2001, paras. 10-13).

“During the millennium before Jesus, continuing into the first five hundred years thereafter, the major divinity of the mediterranean world appears to have been Isis of Africa, dark mother of many names. Great mother of the mediterranean, Isis inherited a long matristic tradition of Africa” (Birnbaum, 2001)

This view is echoed by feminist theologiests and modern matriachists that a “Great Goddess” precedes the Abrahamic God and is an embodiment of nature’s creation (Wikipedia, 2012c).

The black Madonna resembles images of goddess Isis that could be found in Africa, Astarte, Cybele; Inanna of west Asia and Demeter of Greece and Rome (Birnbaum, 2001, paras. 10-13).

The Virgin of Montserra (n.d.) is a Black Modonna carved out of wood in the early days of the Church in Jerusalem. Its Catalan name La Moreneta means “The little dark-skinned one” (Wikipedia, 2012d). It bears closer resemblance to the Egyptian sculptures of Isis and Horus than modern day Mary and Jesus. The similarity between Isis and Mary lies not in outer appearance alone. What they also have in common is virgin birth. While Mary is believed to be conceived by the Holy Spirit, Isis is said to fall pregnant by her magic power after lying with her dead husband Osiris. Both Mary and Isis are the protectors of the throne to their son. The Egyptian goddess headdress symbol for Isis is the throne and her name Isis literally means “the throne” (Wikipedia, 2012e). However, Isis’s role as Horus’s mother later evolved to be that of his wife by the New Kingdom period (Wikipedia, 2012e). This could perhaps equate to the popular modern day speculation of Mary Magdalene as Jesus’s wife. In this light, I look again at Jean Fouquet’s Virgin and Child (1450) with a different evaluation. The exposed full breast so foreign to the Christian modesty, and the herald of alarmingly red cupids inspire more sexual tension then pious admiration. I could almost hear Sigmund Freud’s excitement at this spectacle.


Isis and Mary portray very different association with snakes:

In Isis Suckling Horus (664-332 B.C.), Isis is depicted with a crown of cobras. It is my view that Isis’s clear domination and control over snakes perhaps translate to an empowerment over nature. On the other hand, Christianity’s condemnation over snakes shows a disassociation from the creative feminine force that’s embraced by the older pagan traditions. Virgin Mary is regarded by one version of European Christianity as the Queen of Heaven, wearing a crown of stars and stepping on a serpent (Lioi, 2008, para.23). This Mary is regarded as the New Eve and is entrusted to reverse the Fall by crushing the snake.

“She combines virginity and motherhood with the metaphysical glitches of both states finally "corrected." This image, as many contemporary Catholic women have complained, creates an impossible bind for real women, who are told to be like Mary, even though they must know, rather than crush, the snake to become mothers.” (Lioi, 2008, para, 23)

From then on, women are expected to do their duty while smothering their innate feminie power that’s embodied by the snake. By this one single stroke of disassociation by labelling the snake immoral and calling it Abomination (Campbell, 1988), the patriarch disarmed and replaced the ancient matriarch in society.

Unknown artist, 2nd century A.D, Isis with Serpent Tail, [Ceramic, Terracotta,16.6 x 8.6 cm). Egyptian Art Department.
Unknown artist, 2nd century A.D, Isis with Serpent Tail, [Ceramic, Terracotta,16.6 x 8.6 cm). Egyptian Art Department. | Source
Unknown artist, n.d. Nuwa and Fuxi.
Unknown artist, n.d. Nuwa and Fuxi. | Source
Unknown artist, n.d. Isis and Osiris.
Unknown artist, n.d. Isis and Osiris. | Source

There are ample examples of the feminine goddess empowered with the symbol of the snake in many ancient civilizations.

One earlier example of Isis is depicted with the serpent tail. In The Good and Evil Serpent: How a universal symbol became Christianized (2010), the biblical scholar James H. Charlesworth spent nearly a decade studying the references to serpent in the ancient world and came out with an unexpected conclusion that the serpent of the ancient time was more often then not the positive symbol for healing and eternal life (Charlesworht, 2010, page. 2). Charlesworth traces the influence of the serpent Isis goddess to Rome, particulary Venice, Ostia and Auileia (Charlesworth, p.132).

Perhaps it is a logical step to make a similar connection between the Isis cult and the Snake Goddess from Knossos (c.1600BCE) from the Middle Minoan period. The sculpture is made with Faience, a combination of sand and crushed quartz. It was apparently a method that came from early Egypt and introduced to Crete through their frequent trade exchange (Drahman, 2012, para. 5). Neither shyness nor restrain was expressed by the double exposed breasts, and the feminie power is clearly firmly gripped by way of two snakes. The Minoan goddess is refreshingly without false modesty nor apology. Thought to be a symbol of fertility, and perhaps creativity, the goddess presided over a flourishing society that enjoyed affluence and impressive creative expression (Drahman, 2012, para. 5). It is little wonder that many art historians use these Snake Goddesses as concrete evidence that the Minoan society operated within a matriarchal system (Drahman, 2012, para. 7).

God and Goddess with serpent tails:

During my research, I happened to come across of picture of an ancient stone sculpture of Isis and Orisis as two serpents interlocking their tails. It jolted me like a thunderbolt as I was reminded of the ancient Chinese mythology of the creation of the world. Nuwa and Fuxi were two giant cosmic serpents who the legend credited with the first creation of the world. Nuwa, in particular, was responsible for patching up the sky after the great flood and making the first human out of clay. In both cases, the female plays the vital role of the matriarch redeemer and creator while the male plays the quiet supporting role. While I can not state unequivocally that the ancient worlds were a time of great creator goddess and matriarchal societies, I can say that we are shown a lot of evidences through the art that survived that show a very different balance between the masculine and the feminine, the human force and the natural force. I would like to leave you with the picture of the sculpture made by a very controversial American artist Daniel Edwards: Angelina Jolie Breastfeeding The Twins (2009) in the style of a true goddess.

Daniel Edwards, 2009, Angelina Jolie breastfeeding The Twins. [Bronze sculpture].
Daniel Edwards, 2009, Angelina Jolie breastfeeding The Twins. [Bronze sculpture].


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    • Violet Flame profile image

      Violet Flame 5 years ago from Auckland, NZ

      It has taken three days just to load up all the picture images properly for this hub. Some still need captions but they keep getting stripped off by somehow. Will keep trying. I hope some of you will enjoy it xoox