Damien Hirst’s Mother and Child (Divided) arguably confronts us with a stark subversion of traditional artistic representations of the Holy Mother, Mary, and Child, Jesus.
The work might be described as a bisected mother cow and her calf, separated for eternity, preserved at a painful distance from one another, suspended in formaldehyde. These are unavoidably mortal bodies, representing both the potential of life in their parent–child connection, but also the inescapability of death. Yet, in creating this visceral and moving piece of work that could be interpreted as challenging idealized images of holy maternity, Hirst seems to produce a profound meditation on maternal suffering that in many ways embodies the experience of the first mother, Eve.
This image appears to speak of the fracturing of community, love, and identity that is central to the story of the first human couple in Genesis 2–4, and in particular for the first woman as she is described in Genesis 3:16 and 3:20. In these texts, following her consumption of the Fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Bad, Eve becomes alienated. She is alienated from the man who is with her: he will now ‘rule over her’. She is alienated from her maternal body: she will now give birth in pain. And she is alienated from God: she is now barred from his Garden.
In particular, I believe Eve’s ‘pain in childbearing’ (v.16) is illuminated through Mother and Child (Divided). Although traditionally the pain that she is to endure during childbirth has been associated with physical labour, the Hebrew word issabon—from which the translations ‘pain’ or ‘pangs’ are taken—is more closely associated with the existential struggle of motherhood. This is the kind of sorrow that is alluded to in Genesis 4 when Eve’s first son, Cain, murders her second son, Abel. Although the biblical text provides no details of the pain Eve would have endured at this rupture in her family, reading this chapter of the Bible alongside Hirst’s image might encourage us to empathize with the first woman.
Manchester, Elizabeth. 2009. ‘Mother and Child (Divided)’, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hirst-mother-and-child-divided-t12751 [accessed 26 October 2018]
Meyers, Carol. 1988. Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (New York: Oxford University Press)
16To the woman he said,
“I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”
20 The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.
4 Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” 2And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground.