On Accessing Art as a Amateur: Betye Saar’s “Midnight Madonna”

Betye Saar, Midnight Madonna, 1996, mixed media assemblage

Midnight. Madonna. This piece immediately stands out with its dark color scheme but more so because of the figurines present: Black women and children. I’m familiar with Jesus Christ, son of God, born of a virgin, who walked the Earth due to my Baptist upbringing. I actually grew up surrounded by images of a Christ who was darker than the ones portrayed by the media and in most biblical texts and such. This Christ does not alarm me, he does not shock me, he does not disgust me. There are similar versions of a Jesus that looks similar almost all around the world, especially in parts of Central America and Mexico. The Black Christ of Esquipulas , The Black Nazarene and Cristo Negro are just a few examples.

The Madonna, Holy Mother, Mother of Christ, The Virgin Mother is a figure who is also familiar to me. Outside of my Baptist upbringing I learned she is further revered especially for those of the Catholic faith. Taking up Art History class in college found me looking up found that early Christian sects would carry small, portable statues of her. She is present in much art from Christianity’s history. There are some many different versions of her around the world, growing up in Los Angeles I grew familiar with the brown skinned Lady of Guadalupe finding her in murals often around the city along with seeing her depicted in art on candles and small minature figurines of her in front of homes and in small mom and pop shops.

And here in this piece of art? The Holy mother is present with her child, born to save a wretched world. They are present in a golden circle with golden halos adorning their heads. They are beautiful. They are Black. They are to be loved and to held in high esteem. The Madonna holds her child close. Neither of them look towards the viewers, neither of them make eye contact with us. Their minds are on other matters, perhaps heavenly. Perhaps nothing we can be worthy on presently.

Our second photo is of a mother and her babe seated. Judging their clothing I would date this image to perhaps the late 1800-or early 1900’s. I am reminded that in this stage of photography: the actual sitting for a photo and the processing the film were still time consuming events as this was before all the modern advances in technology that we have today where you can take a photo digitally and have it seconds later to edit and print. This mother and child are seated, dressed in period clothing and very aware of the photographer with both individuals looking forward.

It reminds me that so often in period pieces in film and television, Black people are actively absent and a rallying cry is that having them present in whatever show or film would make the project “historically inaccurate”. (Granted this is also what happens often when a person of color is cast for a role in projects from certain time periods. One of my more recent favorites: when Sophie Okonedo was cast as French Queen Margaret of Anjou.)

Having both women, both mothers, both black women with their children together in this mixed media piece strikes me as remarkable. To portray Mary, mother of Christ alone as a dark skinned woman and the Christ as such is already an revolutionary action. And have another likeness of a woman with similar skin in the same space is illuminating as well.

In my film classes, particular my documentary film class, I’ve been taught that arrangement is deliberate. How a filmmaker introduces a character or a social actor is carefully planned. That is perhaps not always the same when it come to mediums such as painting and the like. But just perhaps this arrangement was necessary and deliberate move on Saar’s part. Perhaps it was her idea in this piece to elevate blackness, to place it in a loving and protected context where it is often not — in real life for black women and black babies. Womanhood and motherhood does not automatically guarantee protection, consideration and respect in today’s world, nor has it been historically.

I’ve very fond of dark, dark blue coloring of the paint (or perhaps it is print?) that is set in the background of this mixed media piece — on top of it lays a single golden crescent moon in the corner signifying night. Added is fabric (or printed paper with patterns), what looks like a rosary and even a small charm that could be bronze or copper that looks like a small hand that holds on to one end of the rosary.

All together it is a striking collage that demands my attention: it could very well be a love letter to blackness and black mothers. This could be a soliloquy to black women who bear black babies who, could easily be compared to Mary who, watched her son be crucified — as many Black women have watched their sons be crucified in the media from way before the days of Emmet Till to Trayvon Martin, Micheal Brown, Tamir and Eric Garner.

Midnight Madonna. The Mary of the darker skin. The black mother to behold and adore. How appropriately named for such a lovely image.

Read more about the artist here.

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