This imposing sculpture is an interesting witness to the early
tensions between imported missionary art and indigenous artistic
creations. It is the work of Guénu who lived on Bougainville Island
(Solomon Islands) at the turn of the twentieth century. The artist saw
himself invested with an artistic mission. He believed that the Madonna
had commissioned him to create a statue in the typical style of Papua
New Guinea. Thus, departing from Western models present in chapels and
churches, he followed his own inspiration and the tradition of his
culture. As might be expected, his sculpture was not well received by
the local bishop. The statue was brought to Europe by a missionary, and
was eventually donated to the Vatican Museums (1935).
The stylized rendering of faces and bodies may be reminiscent of the
original purpose of Melanesian art. Art was associated with ceremonial
events, such as passage rites, funerals, and warfare. Indigenous art was
not meant to tell stories (narrative character), but to convey the
presence of the spiritual world and to exorcise evil spirits. Thus, it
had an icon-type quality, as can be observed in our sculpture. The stark
colors and strong facial expressionism easily created an atmosphere of
awe and drama. Once the ceremonial functions were over, many works of
art were destroyed. The black-painted bodies, Mary’s hairdo and skirt,
and the awe-inspiring faces are reflective of these local artistic
characteristics. Christ, who is supported by the mother’s arm and body,
reaches with his right arm under Mary’s left arm. According to the local
culture, this gesture signifies intimacy, protection, and maternal love.
Cultural images of Mary are now commonplace and contemporary world
culture offers some highly interesting renditions of her person. We
would like to mention the vitalist image of Africa, the spiritual image
of Asia (in particular India), the strongly socially oriented image of
Mary in Latin America, and the personalist image of North Atlantic
The African image of Mary is a manifesto for life: the goodness and
beauty of life; of life received, celebrated and passed on; of life
treasured and shared in community; life in this world as promise and
anticipation of life eternal. Mary embodies this holy vitalism as mother
and guardian of life.
The Marian figure of Asian cultures conveys a strong ecumenical note.
She is a highly spiritual figure inviting the communion of spirits,
pointing out unity beyond diversity, and offering reconciliation and
communion with transcendence.
Mary of Latin America is both the Mother of Sorrows and Our Lady of
the Magnificat. She is a symbol of sacrificial love with a strongly
incarnational purpose. She embodies hope, change, and social justice;
she stands for righting the wrongs of the past and embodies the dawn of
a better future.
Contemporary North Atlantic culture has discovered Mary as one of us: a sister figure, a companin on our pilgrimage to God, our alter
ego and the figurehead for many causes and a variety of
We are well aware of the limitations, ambiguities, and stereotypes of
these cultural images, but it is equally important to thrive on their
inspirational and creative character, and to explore and exploit their
bonding and bridge-building potential, as well as their capacity for