Madonna Cryptica (Miriamne)

by Patrick Mizelle


Acrylic on canvas, 4' x 2'

Artist Statement

I’ve been reading Robert Graves’ "The Greek Myths," with his analysis of their major theme: the recording of the transition from matriarchal to patriarchal religion in the eastern Mediterranean and Greek and Etruscan Italy, catalyzed by the successive invasions of Indo-European tribes. I was consequently struck by the image of St. Catherine of Alexandria with her wheel in the Kress Collection. It has long been known that this saint has no basis in historical fact, but her legend could well have been made up to “Christianize” an icon of the Great Goddess in her aspect as Hecate (Katherine=Gk Hekaterina) with the wheel of the solar year, i.e, Mistress of Time, the All-Devouring, cognate in the present day with the Indian goddess Kali.  Such pictures are known throughout the region.

In this context, the image of John the Baptist in the same panel made me think of him as perhaps Jesus’s solar twin (see below), in the manner of other such pairs as Abel and Cain, Jacob and Esau, Moses and Aaron, Isaac and Ishmael, David and Jonathon, Solomon and Absolom, Set and Osiris, Castor and Pollux, Romulus and Remus.

I thought it might be fun, consequently, to imagine and “reconstruct” a “suppressed” central panel, here “missing” from this altarpiece, with a cryptic or perhaps Gnostic explanation based on known earlier matriarchal religious practices for what, on the surface, appears to be standard Christian iconography, and see just how far I could take it. I was surprised. So play along and imagine for a moment a commission from a conservative, rural congregation (Latin: pagani) seeking a focus for their traditional beliefs under the radar, so to speak, of the new Church, the culmination of some centuries of patriarchal ascendance.

The central figure is the Great Goddess presenting her triple aspect in one person: virgin, mother, queen. We can address her perhaps as Marienna (“All-Fruitful Mother”), one of her titles from Sumer, or Mariamne, as she was known in Syria and Palestine. Or we could invoke her as the Hittite/Hurran Hawwa, in English Eve, “Mother of All Living.” Behind her is the full moon, her major metaphor, adorned with seven stars, which can be taken either as the five visible planets plus sun and moon that govern the days of the week or as the Pleiades, whose rise signals the beginning of the rainy season. Her mantel is blue, the color of the skies and water, and her underdress is red, the color of the underworld:  she is queen of heaven and queen of the dead, mistress of time, fertility of the land, and the eternal cycle of life. On her shoulder and headdress are the morning and evening stars, her aspects as Anath/Athene/Neith and Ashtart/Aphrodite/Ishtar. Even today we still call the evening star Venus.

The roundel at the top of the altarpiece shows her solar consort represented by a king, her heavenly deputy and, in the temporal world, her mortal consort. In her honor, he wears a triple crown, thus displaying the origin of his authority. (He can also be regarded as her son, depending on which aspect of the Goddess is contemplated.) In heaven, he has been put in charge of thunder and lightning; on earth he enforces law and upholds justice, wherefore he holds a thunderbolt scepter/mace. His other hand displays three fingers in the gesture called the “Phrygian blessing” transferring to worshipers the blessings of the triple Goddess, known under the title Myrine in that part of Asia Minor (the city of Smyrna or Izmir is named for her).

From very early times in the region, a man would be chosen as king for half the year and then sacrificed. As time went on, the king ruled for his natural lifetime, and substitutes were chosen instead, young men or children. The Goddess here holds a child who represents the waxing sun, chosen at the winter solstice and sacrificed at the spring equinox to insure the fertility of the grain. In some sheepherding areas, it was the local shepherds’ prerogative to present the divine child to the Goddess at the solstice (perhaps a foundling exposed by its parents on a hillside in an ancient form of family planning), insuring a successful lambing. In many places the victim was torn apart at the equinox by intoxicated priestesses, his blood sprinkled on the fields and his body eaten. In time, animals were substituted for humans in the sacrifice and the offerings burnt: here the child holds a dove or partridge, both birds sacred to the Goddess in her erotic, spring aspect. The youth by her side is the waning sun, chosen at the summer solstice and sacrificed at the autumnal equinox to insure the harvest and the fertility of the flocks. Here he accompanies a lamb (or ram or calf or goat), sacred to the goddess in harvest mode. The apple the Goddess holds is offered to the waxing sun victim as a pledge of immortality—he will be set among the stars as a demigod.  The pomegranate at her feet is an offering to the dead—the waning sun will descend into the underworld and become an oracular hero. The serpent is a symbol of the continuously renewed cycle of life and also of communication with the dead and prophecy.

Two roundels show the aspect of the Goddess as Creatrix, from a time when the role of men in reproduction was not understood. The winged North Wind is shown breathing on the Goddess, who becomes thereby pregnant, in the way that the North Wind of winter “produces” spring in the eastern Mediterranean. Alternative local variations on this theme might show the Goddess bathing in a stream or pool instead.

The predella’s Latin motto comes from the Song of Solomon (whose name, like that of his brother Absolom, includes the name Solyma, the Spring Willow Queen, an epithet of Asherah, long ago worshiped in Jerusalem—or Uruk Solyma—along with Anath and Ashtart and their deputy, Yohweh [coincidentally? the Latin pronunciation of Jove]) reads: Quae est ista, quae ascendit sicut aurora consurgens:  pulchra ut luna, electa ut sol, terribilis ut castrorum acies ordinata. “Who is this woman who surges forth like the dawn: beautiful as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army arrayed in battle formation.”

Transitions are never easy, straightforward, consistent, or clear-cut. And traditions, once entrenched, are incredibly tenacious—for example, we still toss coins in fountains and wishing wells today the way our ancestors offered precious metal objects in pools and streams to Brigid/Athene/Anath at the dawn of the Bronze Age.  Any day on the news, the perceived manifestation of Jesus in the wood grain of a barn or the Virgin Mary in a water stain on a building can still excite reverent crowds. The later patriarchal subversions and revisions of the matriarchal myths above are fairly obvious and familiar enough to most educated people not to need rehashing here. Both points of view (and their many compromises over time) helped humans bring order to their world in the face of an overwhelming and frightening universe. Slowly, and especially since the 18th century, however, modern humans seem to be tentatively abandoning both Mother and Father tropes, “leaving home” in a way, and slowly beginning to stand up as adults in a science-based world. If we are wise: We acknowledge the chaos. We limp along towards lives of gender equality. We attempt to go forward together with solidarity and compassion. How that will play out, and the implications long term for art and poetry, is still unclear.

Project Entry