Henry Ford Hospital by Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo

Henry Ford Hospital, 1932, Oil on metal, 31 x 38.5 cm, Museo Dolores Olmedo, Xochimilco, Mexico, © Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York ; Photo: Schalkwijk / Art Resource, NY

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‘And Lifted up the Lowly’

Commentary by
Read by Lydia Ayoade

This stark image provides a counterpoint, even a contradiction, to the Magnificat. It is a self-portrait of a miscarriage, painted on a metal panel in the style of a Mexican ex voto. Such votive tablets commonly used tin sheets for economy and were painted in a primitive style. They would often depict a terrible event, and were offered up in gratitude for deliverance from it.

In Frida Kahlo’s case there has been no salvation. Instead of a crucifix hanging in the air there is an unflattering representation of the foetus whose life has been cut short. The sacred overtones of the medium nevertheless give the work the sense of a life offered up, if perhaps in reproach rather than praise. Kahlo lies exposed on the bed, offered up as a sacrifice of human experience to a clinical procedure, represented by the medical images that surround her.

While the opposite of Mary’s song of joy, this painting also illuminates the hinterland of grief that lies behind the Magnificat. It reminds us that the lowly are only lifted up because they have first been laid low. Mary’s joy is so powerful precisely because it emerges out of generations of pain.

The closest Hebrew Bible source for the Magnificat is Hannah’s prayer of praise on bearing a son after years of infertility (1 Samuel 2:1–10). In cultures where infertility is punished with derision and censure, grief is compounded by oppression, shame, resentment, and rage.  In Hannah’s case this lends an almost vengeful tone to the celebration of God’s marvellous work of reversal. Mary’s song transforms this anger into a hope that is not just for her alone or even for all women, but for all those who have suffered.

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