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The Virgin with the Laughing Child Antonio Rossellino c.1465 V&A Museum Number: 4495-1858

My museum allergy has subsided a bit, so yesterday I went to the V&A to ‘convert myself to the enjoyment of my own possessions’, to paraphrase John Cage. I am not crazy about Rauschenberg’s combines, which is what he was commenting on, but the quote often comes into my mind and I think it’s very true. Sometimes you need to have things re-presented to you in order to look at them and enjoy them again. I’ve been so exhausted by museums lately, but yesterday the things in glass cases succeeded in taking my breath away.

I’d forgotten how moving the Renaissance madonna-and-child groups are. I do see how you’d feel emotional about Jesus if your experience of religion was informed by these intimate, well-observed, and oh-so-sweet groups. They look like real mothers and real babies, not remote ideals. I know this is a hoary old chestnut, but it really struck me as bizarre that a religion and culture whose most sacred image is a woman with her child places such little value on its own women and children. Christianity’s early success was partly due to the relatability of the mother-and-child motif (see: cult of Isis) and yet actual parenting is seen as just about the least elevated thing in the world. I haven’t yet read much of Band of Angels: The Forgotten World of Early Christian Women but it might be worth a look to remind onesself that Christianity once upon a time was pretty female-friendly: it needed and encouraged its women followers. I’m not suggesting that if there’s a baby involved it’ll get the girl-vote. Of course not all women are – or want to be – mothers, in fact it’s interesting that most early women saints were martyred because of their refusal to marry or partake in other gender-appropriate activities.

The church has done a pretty toxic 180 really. Expunging those other women – the patrons, the disciples, the preachers, the rebels – from its history, whilst retaining the prominence of the one wife-and-mother amongst them? Ugh! I have a secret suspicion that lots of historical women we now call ‘extraordinary’ were not that extraordinary after all, we just don’t expect to see them. We are too used to the idea that all the interesting things were done by men.

This all makes my head hurt, which is sad because there are parts of Christianity I have quite a lot of time for*. Its recognition of humbleness, for one thing. I’m choosing my words carefully here, because I don’t like all that self-abasement and not-worthy-to-be-your-child twaddle. What I can get on board with is the idea that things don’t have to be rare to be special. I really don’t believe those mother-and-child groups are meant to be so lovely because of the little chap’s godhead: it’s because he was a human being once, with really fat little thighs. What I saw at the V&A was the possibility for ordinary things to be amazing, and surely this was the intention of the sculptors of 1465: to make us look again at a scene we’ve known since we were babies ourselves and to ‘convert us to the enjoyment of our own possessions’.

A religion about smallness? That would be OK.



*just not any of the parts that would make me a Christian, eg God, Jesus, resurrection, etc etc etc