Guénu (Solomon Islands)
Madonna and Child
late nineteenth, early twentieth century
polychromatic wood
Missionary-Ethnological Museum, Inv. 6552

General Description

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.

The Cultural Variety of Marian Images

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 culture.

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 situations.

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 inculturation.

For more information:

Consult the exhibit catalog: The Mother of God: Art Celebrates Mary, pp. 126-127

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