The Beauty of Her Gaze

 

Henry Moore was perhaps the most well-known British sculptor of the 20th century. As happened with some American artists during WWII, Moore was engaged to use his artistic skills as part of his nation’s war effort. His drawings of people sheltering in the London Tube tunnels during the bombing were compelling. And they had a great effect on a certain priest who was considering commissioning a sculpture. In particular, Henry Moore’s way of depicting mothers holding their children struck this priest as indicating a great sensitivity. This led him to hire Moore to carve a large stone Madonna and Child for St. Matthew’s, Northampton.

Though Henry Moore was not a practicing Christian, he was rather thoughtful about the spiritual dimension of this important commission. He was already making sculptures in a modern manner tending toward abstraction (see his St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, Mother and Child). And yet, he knew that this piece had in some way to be different. At the time, he wrote that, unlike secular sculpture, this piece “could not be too abstract or it would have forgone the traditional deep meaning of the subject.” Here is how he described his thinking about the project:

I began thinking of the ‘Madonna and Child’ for St Matthew’s by considering in what ways a Madonna and Child differs from a carving of just a ‘Mother and Child’ – that is by considering how in my opinion religious art differs from secular art. It’s not easy to describe in words what this difference is, except by saying in general terms that the ‘Madonna and Child’ should have an austerity and a nobility and some touch of grandeur (even hieratic {or ‘priestly’} aloofness), which is missing in the ‘everyday’ Mother and Child idea.

Humanly accessible, and yet spiritually apart, might be another way of capturing Henry Moore’s thought here. Like some other artists, Moore achieves this human accessibility by building upon an important strand of Christian spirituality. Mary provides and becomes our human connection with the incarnate Holy One. In this sense, Mary is not only the mother of our Lord, but also the mother of our faith. Look at her posture, in this photo of Moore’s sculpture. As I understand it, a person walking forward seeking to view this work up close, advances along an aisle that is to the side of the sculpture. And so, Mary’s face and gaze engage the approaching viewer. This connection is therefore established before the visitor stands face to face with the representation of the Christ child. To extend this idea, the Church as our mother, engages and upholds us as we approach the mystery of Mary’s God-given child.

 

This post is based on my homily for the First Sunday After Christmas, December 30, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

2 comments

  1. Dr. Calvin Seerveld, emeritus professor of philosophical aesthetics at the Institute of Christian Studies in Toronto, has studied Moore extensively. I think you’d appreciate his work. A short piece of his work is in Title
    Rainbows for the fallen world : aesthetic life and artistic task /​ Calvin Seerveld.
    Author
    Seerveld, Calvin, 1930-
    Published
    Toronto : Tuppence Press ; Beaver Falls, Pa. : U.S. distributor, Radix Books, 1980.

    1. Thank you for this comment and suggestion. I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Seerveld at a CIVA conference at Calvin College a couple of years ago, and I am glad to learn of his interest in Moore’s work. / Stephen

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