Hyperrealistic installations often shock us, when what we take to be a living person turns out to be an artwork. Yet, even by these standards, Anders Widoff’s Maria (The Return) is extraordinary. The sculpture, commissioned by Uppsala Cathedral in 2003 and installed in 2005, answered their brief for a ‘visible reinstatement of the Virgin Mary inside the church’ after the upheavals of the Reformation.
I came across the work totally unexpectedly when visiting the cathedral. My attention was caught by a woman standing in the retrochoir, composed, and seemingly deep in prayer. I took her for a refugee: her head was covered by a scarf, and her unfashionable coat too light for the time of year. I wondered where she had come from, and what she had been through. Not wanting to intrude, I waited a long while for her to move. Eventually I made my way past her, and as I went by, I turned to smile at her. It was only then that I realised what this figure was—and, more startlingly, who it was.
This was Maria, returning to the Cathedral where she was once exalted as Queen of Heaven, but in a form so different from any of the majestic images of earlier tradition. The portrayal is of an older, unassuming woman, quietly dignified and resolute, gazing unflinchingly towards the East Window. This is the symbolically-charged focus to which Christian churches are traditionally oriented: the place where the sun rises, and of resurrection and renewal (Matthew 24:27: ‘For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man’.).
Mary’s ‘return’ in this installation is much more than a religious/political restoration: when we encounter her, we meet her at a human level and on a human scale. Maria’s careworn look is emblematic of the suffering and courage of so many women around the world. Unlike the saccharine depictions featured so frequently on Christmas greetings cards and in nativity scenes, this striking image of Maria resonates with Jesus’s words in Luke 11:27–28. ‘Blessed’ is not just the woman who ‘gave Him birth and nursed Him’, but the courageous one who listened and freely accepted the role she was asked to fulfil, no matter the anguish and heartbreak. Widoff brings her back among us, sharing and heartening our expectant wait for His return.
27 As he said this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!” 28But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”