A Mother and her Child – 12 March, 2018
This picture is by Mary Cassatt, an impressionist artist born in Pittsburg, USA, and mentored in France by Edgar Degas. It is an image in pastels, created in 1898. Here a mother sits at a table feeding her infant, an image of care and tenderness. The composition is calm, and explicitly draws on images of the Madonna and child. On the table there is a flagon of wine and a plate, evocative of the Eucharist.
Much of Mary Cassatt’s later work was concerned with exploring the relationship between mothers and children. Mary herself was never married, and she did not have children. Through her art she offers mothers and their children as universal subjects, definitive of nurturing care.
Commonly the creations of male artists are seen as relevant to every viewer, saying something to all, whereas the art of women, particularly the later pictures of an artist such as Mary Cassatt, have been understood as speaking only into the sphere of women’s lives. So, for example, Mary’s pictures will have appeared on many cards given by children to their mother’s yesterday. As viewers we should resist this reductionism, not least because it locates such care in childhood, as something that we grow out of when we become mature. Rather we should ask what this image has to say to each of us in our relationships of care, and what it has to say about God’s care for us.
For example the psalmist draws on the image of child sitting in the lap of the mother to describe how we can be when we are intentionally seeking the presence of God:
‘But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother’ (Psalm 131:2)
The same image is used in scripture to describe how Christian leaders could be towards those in their care. St Paul describes his ministry as an apostle in such terms.
‘we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.’ (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8)
As we look at this image, we know ourselves to be found in both subjects. Sometimes we are like the mother, sometimes we are like the child.
Answer my prayers, O Lord,
for your unfailing love is wonderful.
Take care of me,
for your mercy is so plentiful. (Psalm 69:16)