ArtWay

The artist is not a special kind of person. Every person is a special kind of artist. Eric Gill

Artists

Gilfedder, Michael F. - BM - Victoria Emily Jones

Michael Felix Gilfedder: Blue Madonna

Pregnant with God

by Victoria Emily Jones

Advent is a season of expectancy, of growth beneath the surface. In the darkness of Mary’s womb, the Christ child germinates, and her body prepares to birth him into the world. Only she and a few others were privy in those prepartum months to the amazing thing God was doing through her, in her—how God’s flesh was being knit together from hers day by day, how that shriveled little pod of a baby would be the salvation of the world.

Scottish artist Michael Felix Gilfedder portrays the life growing inside Mary in his painting Blue Madonna (Mary, Mother of God). Mary supports her pregnant belly with her hand, contemplating the Christ child within, who is visible as a warmly nestled fetus, cradled by a sweep of gold. The egg-like form that encompasses Jesus is duplicated and enlarged to encompass Mary as well, because even as he is being formed in her, she is being formed in him.

It’s rare to see the in utero Jesus rendered with anatomical accuracy—and with an umbilical cord! Isn’t it strange yet wondrous to think of Jesus starting as a fertilized egg in a woman’s body, growing incrementally larger and developing features over the course of nine months? Dependent on oxygen and nutrients from his mother’s blood? At a virtual Advent salon hosted by Image journal last year, the Rev. Dr. Lauren Winner said that one of her Advent practices is to use a pregnancy tracker app over the season’s four weeks, following the daily development of Jesus in the womb from thirty-six weeks until his birth on December 25. Much as it would for an expectant mother, the tracking builds excitement for the latent life soon to be revealed.

Blue Madonna is highly textural, with Mary’s face emerging from off the flat surface of the wooden panel. Her form is rocklike—an artistic choice inspired, Gilfedder says, by the stony landscape of South Uist, an island of the Outer Hebrides in Scotland, where he lives and works. Mary is traditionally portrayed wearing blue, a color associated with heaven, and in this semiabstract painting, the color suffuses her and her surroundings. The thick black outlines and the luminosity evoke stained glass. 

Perched on Mary’s left shoulder is a dove, representing the Holy Spirit, by whose power Jesus was conceived.

Gilfedder’s painting contributes to the iconography of the Madonna del Parto—that is, the pregnant Mary—an image type that dates at least as far back as the ninth-century fresco in the crypt of Santa Prassede in Rome. Showing Mary with a baby bulge was especially common in late medieval Portuguese sculpture, but the most famous example is Piero della Francesca’s ca. 1460 fresco from a church in Monterchi, Italy, which shows Mary loosening the lacing of her dress to accommodate her enlargement.

Alongside this Western stream of more naturalistic renderings, in the Orthodox East, an icon type called the Virgin of the Sign (referencing Isaiah 7:14) developed, showing the Mother of God facing forward in an orans posture, with the fully formed Christ child depicted inside a round aureole, a symbolic womb, at her breast.

Waiting is the primary posture of Advent—waiting not only for the birth of the lowly babe in Bethlehem, preparing our hearts to receive that gift of Incarnation, but also for the return of Christ in glory. Using a pregnancy metaphor, the apostle Paul says that humanity and creation together “wait with eager longing” (Rom. 8:19) for that day when the whole world will be reborn, when Jesus’s kingdom will be ushered in fully and finally. This world is pregnant with another world, and during Advent especially, we groan for it to come. But we also exult in the many little signs that it’s alive and kicking beneath this old earth’s belly, its arrival imminent.

As we wait for this cosmic deliverance, we as individuals are called to bear Christ within us—not physically, like Mary, but spiritually. The seventeenth-century German Catholic mystic Angelus Silesius writes, “Will pregnant be of God: / His spirit verily / O’ershadow must my soul / To quicken God in me” (trans. Paul Carus).

Is Christ alive in us? Are we filled with the Word? Does the Christ-life enlarge the contours of our lives and hearts? Gilfedder’s Blue Madonna can aid us in meditating firstly on the miracle of God becoming human in the womb of a teenage virgin, phase one of Project Redeem, and secondly on our own role of carrying that promise, that divine presence, within.

*******

For the duration of Advent, Victoria is publishing short daily art and music posts at ArtandTheology.org. Subscribe here

Michael Felix Gilfedder: Blue Madonna (Mary, Mother of God), 1987, Oil and egg emulsion tempera on wood with gesso relief, 25 1/4 × 13 in. (64 × 33 cm). Private collection, London. High-quality, limited-edition litho prints of this image are available for purchase here.

Michael Felix Gilfedder (b. 1948) graduated from the Glasgow School of Art in 1970, where he studied icon painting, portrait painting, stained glass, and calligraphy. From 1977 to 2016 he was an art teacher in primary and secondary schools in the Southern Isles of the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. Since retiring from teaching, he has pursued his art practice full-time, focusing on sacred art. He has exhibited in group shows in London and with the Society of Catholic Artists and works mainly on private commissions. He and his wife, Margaret, live on the island of South Uist and have four grown children.

Victoria Emily Jones lives in the Baltimore area of the United States, where she works as an editorial freelancer and blogs at ArtandTheology.org, exploring ways in which the arts can stimulate renewed engagement with the Bible. She serves on the board of the faith-based arts nonprofit the Eliot Society and as art curator for the Daily Prayer Project, and she has contributed to the Visual Commentary on Scripture and the Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception. Follow her on Instagram @art_and_theology.

ArtWay Visual Meditation November 27, 2022 - First Advent