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Had the Virgin Mary no girl friends?

Visiting an exhibit of Albrecht Dürer woodcuts at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (AGGV) on Sunday, I was especially struck by one image in his series The Life of the Virgin: her death.

At this most intimate and final moment of her life, she is surrounded by a phalanx of ten solicitous and grieving men (the apostles).

How very odd, I thought.

In one of the earlier woodcuts – The Birth of the Virgin – we see Anne (Mary’s mother) surrounded by women. That seems appropriate enough, right?

Yet by the time the Virgin Mary is herself ready to give birth (to Christ) – a scene that’s not represented, replaced instead by The Adoration of the Shepherds – other women are missing in action. It wouldn’t be extraordinary if Joseph had acted as midwife (it wouldn’t be the first time that the husband fills that post, for midwives do get stuck in traffic or are otherwise late in arriving), yet we never hear about that. No agency is given to Joseph – no stories of how he heroically clamped or knotted the umbilical chord or wiped the mucus from the infant’s air passages. Nope, Jesus probably delivered himself, or else had help directly from the Holy Ghost.

In the interpretations given by scholars and artists centuries after the storied events occurred, women are very much on the sidelines.

You’d think that the Virgin Mary was much loved by women, wouldn’t you? Yet her death, in this all-men’s setting that seems more appropriate to Socrates’s suicide, leads one to believe that Mary only mattered when she was interpreted and understood and venerated by just one half of humanity.

I know that the iconography for Mary’s death is established by textual authority (how she was surrounded by the Apostles, etc.). But because Dürer in every other way captures a kind of stolid, bourgeois realism – his figures practically scream “Augsburg, here we come!” – it suddenly seems shocking to see that level of realism (in how the figures look) married to such a pig-headed level of abstraction (that the Virgin would be surrounded only by men at her death).

In most other ways, his realism (which includes an often insidious view of women, whom Dürer too often shows as vain or weak or selfish) wins out: The scene of Christ Taking Leave from His Mother presents another woman in a significant position – but she’s there to support Mary, who, in a moment of motherly weakness (wanting – selfishly [sic] – to preserve her son?), has collapsed in grief. In the earlier Presentation at the Temple (in which Mary is a girl-child), women are already diminished: there’s her mother Anne (looking smug), a couple of semi-obscured women in the claque of relatives, and two devious-looking female merchants. At Mary’s marriage to Joseph, we see a few females – relatives? Mere filler. The Sojourn in Egypt vignette seems to be men-only, which is downright weird. But overall, I don’t really have any problems with most of those scenes – Dürer was in many ways simply reflecting back what he imagined everyday and ceremonial life would have been like, and that meant no particularly significant roles for women, as well as a view of women that didn’t really highlight their virtues. But how idiotic to imagine that the death of beloved woman would take place without a single other woman around.

Below, two more images I snapped in situ (perhaps against the rules?) – for better images, go to this page.

Birth of the Virgin Mary: many women in attendance (no men, but appropriate to event)


Christ leaving home: Virgin Mary, weak, is supported by a woman, another stands and observes

Addendum: Compare Dürer’s Death of the Virgin to Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin, where several of the apostles seem almost feminine in their overt grief, a display of emotion that in no way diminishes them, and which also features – front and center, right where she belongs – Mary Magdalene.

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