Troy Gua’s Untitled Madonna: The Opening at the Beginning and the End of Being
This afternoon, Seattle artist Troy Gua uploaded a pair of photographs of a found object assemblage to his Facebook page. I’m into it.
The objects themselves are quite visually satisfying, and there is an obvious relationship in that both the icon and the cake pan symbolize very particular codified ideals of femininity, but the main reason I’m interested in this assemblage is because it opens onto my favorite topic of conversation: the strange, mysterious place where art and mythology map onto the phenomenological world of biology, cosmology, and psychology.
A mass-produced icon of The Virgin Mary, the mythological mother of Jesus, emerges from a funnel-shaped hole in the cosmos. The action recalls both the emergence of the virgin goddess Athena from the head of Zeus and the convention of Venus Anadyomene, which portrays the perennial rebirth of Venus/Aphrodite from the sea in an act that perpetually restores the love goddess’s virginity.
A cursory reading of comparative religion reveals there to be no shortage of virgin goddesses and miraculous virgin births across the world’s mythology. But as integral as Mary’s virginity is to Christian—especially Catholic—theology, many scholars of the New Testament believe that this characterization is an accident of history. In The Origin of Satan, Princeton University religion professor Elaine Pagels describes how the author of the Gospel of Matthew consulted the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) in order to help him make the case that Jesus was the Messiah prophesied in Isaiah 7:14:
The LORD Himself shall give you a sign: Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel—God With Us.
Matthew’s gospel has Jesus being born to a virgin. This is because in his Greek translation of Isaiah, the word “virgin” was “parthenos” (Παρθένος), which means exactly that. However, the original word in Hebrew is “almah” (עלמה), defined as a young, unmarried woman who may or may not be chaste. (There’s a more precise word for “virgin” in Hebrew, “betulah,” that Isaiah could have used if he had meant it.) Thus, we very well may have inherited our image of the Virgin Mary at least in part because large swaths of the New Testament were written by people who, despite their audacious enthusiasm for providing a sequel to the Jewish scriptures, were not even conversant in the original language of the Old Testament.
Nevertheless, Mary’s purported virginity becomes her, for the same reason it becomes goddesses like Athena and Venus/Aphrodite. Symbolically understood, the “virginity” of these goddesses has little to do with their ostensible sexual history. Rather it underscores the wholeness with which they have issued forth from That-Which-Creates. The goddess is the primordial opening through which the entire world of biological forms emerges, and she is a virgin because she contains both the womb and the seed of Creation within herself. Popular representations of Mary (such as Our Lady of Guadalupe) often portray her as simultaneously quite yonic and phallic, betraying her secret identity as the cosmic union of sexual forces.
Troy Gua’s art object has this androgynous tension in spades, and upon closer inspection, it is actually unclear whether Mary is emerging from or penetrating the cake form. Indeed, she appears to be doing both. It is worth noting the formal similarity between the piece and the Lingam and Yoni symbolism that reminds Shiva’s devotees of the paradoxical bifold unity inherent in the universe’s “male” and “female” energies.
For most of human history, fertility cults that resonate with the biological facts of Creation dominated our mythological landscape. But for a number of arcane reasons ranging from politics to Paul’s tortured sexuality, early Christians saw fit to do everything in their power to demonize and eradicate the nature-based religions they supplanted in Europe and the Near East, and continue to do so all over the world in the form of colonialism and evangelism. Yet even in an outwardly patriarchal, monotheistic religion like Christianity, the truth about cosmic, primordial androgyny is always there too, both hidden and laid bare in texts (like the so-called Gnostic gospels) and images.
Especially images. (Artists constantly recapitulate the process of Creation, and so they are often aware of some of its subtler facets, sometimes in spite of their cultural programming.)
In Medieval Christian art, the enthroned Virgin is often inscribed within a mandorla or vesica piscis shape, which of course formally resembles the vulva and also has multiple associations within the realm of sacred geometry. Interestingly, so are images of Christ at the Last Judgment, which are often positioned in cathedrals directly opposite the enthroned Virgin. In such spaces, we are bookended by a form which represents the goddess, the threshold to the void of nonbeing on either side of life. We all emerged into this life through the vagina of a female human, avatar of the goddess, and have assigned the point of departure into death the exact same shape.
As the Great Goddess, Mary is the opening at the beginning and the end of being. She is the Virgin Mother, the beginning and the end. But above all she is, like Isis, Ishtar, Aphrodite and many others before her, a profound symbol for the mysteries of life itself.
(Which are, incidentally, more than a little sexy. )