Magnificat, The Song of Mary
‘And Lifted up the Lowly’
Commentary by Elizabeth S. Dodd
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.
‘And Mary Said’
Commentary by Elizabeth S. Dodd
This sculpture of Mary and Elizabeth, created for the women of the Dominican convent of St Katharinenthal in the Lake Constance region of present-day Switzerland, is an image of sisterhood which reminds us that Mary’s song of praise arises in response to her encounter with Elizabeth. Because the sculpture does not, as most paintings of the scene might, provide a landscape or architectural setting for this moment, its context becomes the timeless one of relationship between two women, reflected in the circle created by their arms.
In some early versions of Luke the Magnificat is attributed to Elizabeth instead, and this work highlights their shared experience (Carroll 2012: 48). Many depictions of the Visitation contrast the youthful Mary with the elderly primigravida (first-time mother) Elizabeth. Here they look much closer in age and could even be sisters, sharing the common but marvellous experience of an unexpected but welcome pregnancy, hands clasped in mutual joy and understanding.
In many artistic representations of the Visitation Mary and Elizabeth reach out to touch each other’s bumps or shoulders. In the process their long cloaks often hide their bellies. The more open stance of the women in this sculpture invites the viewer to contemplate what they are carrying. At one time the cavities in their stomachs almost certainly contained images of Christ and John the Baptist, protected by clear rock crystals. Now it is only the rock crystals with which the women’s stomachs swell. The absence of foetal figures leaves the viewer free to contemplate the women and the radiance of their bodies, whole and complete in themselves, covered in glory and shining with the Spirit within.
Mary in the text of Luke begins her song with two declarations of personhood and of agency—‘My soul magnifies’ and ‘my spirit rejoices’—while each subsequent line begins with a verb.
The Mary of this sculpture is similarly dynamic. No passive receptacle, she reaches out with her right hand to greet and her left to reassure—a motherly gesture. This is woman blessed and woman blessing, drawing the viewer into the circle of sisterly love.
Carroll, John T. 2012. Luke: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press)
‘Behold, from henceforth’
Commentary by Elizabeth S. Dodd
Alison Lapper Pregnant is best known for its exhibition as a monumental 3.5-metre-high statue on the fourth plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square in 2005–07. Marc Quinn’s rendering of Lapper’s pregnant form was part of a series entitled 'The Complete Marbles'. In this series, Quinn sculpted people who have either lost limbs due to accident or who were born with a disability, using the bright white Carrara marble classically reserved for statues of heroes. The medium of white marble has long been associated with strength, purity, and durability.
Where ancient statues may be missing a limb or appendage due to the injuries of time, what these sculptures depict is whole and complete.
The sculpture is unapologetic in its depiction of both disability and pregnancy. Representing what Quinn has called ‘a different kind of heroism’, the beauty of the subject is conveyed in the smooth, luminous finish of the marble and its nobility through Lapper’s posture, with her head erect, face composed but angled slightly to one side, gazing beyond the viewer.
Lapper’s gaze can be interpreted as expressing a serenity that looks to the future with hope. An artist herself, Lapper’s own work challenges the prejudice and fear that surrounds congenital abnormalities and their causes in contemporary society. Her posture might be read as expressing not just hope for a successful pregnancy, but a defiant confidence in the reproductive process. Such an assurance is rooted in the knowledge of the beauty, strength, and power of lives that are often devalued, patronized, or pitied by others.
Mary’s expression of joy in the Magnificat can also be interpreted as an act of defiance, in a time when an unmarried mother would have no reason to celebrate. The term ‘servant’ or ‘handmaiden’ in verse 48 echoes her response to Gabriel in Luke 1:38. Her faith in God’s plan is not a passive acquiescence. It requires courage to look towards an uncertain future with hope.
Alison Lapper’s website, http://www.alilapper.com/about [accessed 10/4/2020]
Quinn, Mark. The Complete Marbles, 1999–2005, http://marcquinn.com/artworks/the-complete-marbles [accessed 10/4/2020]
Frida Kahlo :
Henry Ford Hospital, 1932 , Oil on metal
Master Heinrich of Constance :
The Visitation, c.1310–20 , Walnut, paint, gilding, rock-crystal cabochons inset in gilt-silver mounts
Marc Quinn :
Alison Lapper Pregnant, 2005 , Marble
‘Surely, from now on’
Commentary by Elizabeth S. Dodd
The Magnificat provides a moment to pause in the story of Christ’s birth. It invites us to contemplate the weight and significance of the unfolding events of Luke's opening chapters against the backdrop of the history of Israel and of humanity in general.
The artworks in this exhibition in differing ways invite contemplation. As images of humanity abstracted from a physical or historical setting, Marc Quinn’s and Master Heinrich of Constance’s works speak to universal themes. The pregnant body draws together past and future in an intensified present moment, providing a powerful site for meditation on reproduction, change, hope, love, and strength.
Building on ancient songs of joyful mothers, victorious warriors (Winter 1954), and liberated slaves, it is striking that Mary probably utters these words in the early weeks of pregnancy. Her joy is invested in a hope for the future felt so tangibly in the present that it is expressed as if already accomplished. Mary takes the long view, pointing to God’s eternal attributes and historical faithfulness to Israel as a sign of the wonders to come. Curiously, the promised child is never mentioned, yet the song is all about the hope of the coming generation who will transform the world not just for his own time, but for all time. The child in each of Quinn’s and Heinrich’s works is similarly both on display and hidden, in the process of being revealed.
There is strength in Mary’s hope, expressed through an almost militaristic confidence in God’s almighty saving arm. The female figures in this exhibition provide contrasting images of feminine strength, born out of pain and nurtured by faith. Mary’s curved posture and inclined head in Heinrich’s sculpture is stereotypical of feminine humility, in strong contrast to the upright pose of Quinn’s subject, Alison Lapper. Heinrich’s Mary nevertheless demonstrates authority as she offers a loving blessing, and Frida Kahlo’s naked vulnerability is just as courageous as Quinn’s luminous nude.
Kahlo’s painting provides a counterpoint to the other artworks and to the text. It is the only image where the foetus is visible, reduced in its loss from the hidden dynamism of possibility to something concrete. Tied to the objects that surround her by red strings like umbilical cords, labelled as the property of Henry Ford Hospital, set against the backdrop of a masculine industrial landscape, this painting represents much of that from which Mary pronounces liberation.
As a reminder of the pain, grief, and trauma that still surround processes of reproduction, Kahlo’s painting lends poignancy to the famous declaration, ‘behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed’ (KJV). The NRSV translates this phrase as the more prosaic, ‘surely, from now on’. The English word ‘surely’ carries overtones of insistence, even impatience, feelings which emerge when the Magnificat is set alongside the works by Quinn and Kahlo.
The Magnificat is a song of joy for all who have suffered, yet many of the oppressive realities that shaped the life of a first-century middle-eastern woman are still at work today. Such is the current contention surrounding reproductive issues in Kahlo’s country of Mexico that a woman who has suffered a miscarriage can risk being convicted of abortion—a modern form of an ancient prejudice.
Conceived for a new millennium, Quinn’s work pronounces a movement towards a society free from discrimination that decades on has not been smooth or swift. While the work became a totem for the 2012 Paralympic Games, the son that Lapper bore struggled with others’ negative responses to his mother’s disability. He suffered from mental health issues that contributed to his death at a young age.
That the promised victory remains incomplete does not mean that there is no reason to hope. Quinn’s smooth white marble is formed out of a long process: the intense heat and pressure of metamorphosis, the rough violence of the mine, the mess of turning the human form into a plaster cast. The statue shines just as brightly for the pain that precedes and follows it.
Just so, the work of liberation is not lost. Read against the background of these modern works, Luke1:46–55 can be heard not just as an expression of joy and hope but of challenge to the status quo, and of appeal to the mighty God whom we look to in hope for the transformation of society.
Quinn, Mark. 2015. ‘The making of “Alison Lapper Pregnant”, 15 December 2015’, http://marcquinn.com/studio/studio-diaries/the-making-of-alison-lapper-pregnant [accessed 10/4/2020]
Winter, Paul. 1954. ‘Magnificat and Benedictus—Maccabaean Psalms?’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 37.1: 328–51