A Feminist Madonna

Orant Madonna & Son, Longovarda Monastery, Paros

It came as a surprise to learn that, for some early feminists, the Virgin Mary was a symbol of the feminine ideal. In Our Lady of Victorian Feminism: the Madonna in the work of Anna Jameson, Margaret Fuller, and George Eliot, author Kimberly Van Esveld Adams explains how Victorian feminists made considerable use of the Madonna to help empower women. In part thanks to the representations of Mary in art, the Virgin Mary was often presented as independent, powerful, and wise.

Anna Jameson (1794-1860) was born in Ireland but raised in England. Her father, a miniature portrait painter, taught his daughter basic art principals. At the age of 31, Anna married Robert Jameson but the marriage was an unhappy one. Jameson was emotionally aloof, prone to drink, and a whiner. Luckily, a book Anna had written previous to her marriage, The Diary of an Ennuyée, was published and launched Anna’s literary career creating a means for her to become economically independent. She wrote popular versions of the lives of queens and poets, accounts of her travels, and literary and art criticism.

As women at the time were not permitted to frequent universities, Anna was self-taught. Her scholarship was shaped in large part by her activism of behalf of women. In the late 1830s, Anna began visiting private art collections in the London area and taking notes. To help those without a background in art better understand paintings, Anna wrote a series of art related books.

Madonna of the Hat Rack, La Sussurrata (by Stavros of Plaka)

At a certain point in her studies, Anna began focusing on the Madonna. Although many scholars see the Marian tradition as extremely misogynist, Anna, as well as many early feminists, had another outlook. Christianity was the cult of Jesus who represented the highest form of manhood. However, a Godhead must be whole thus Mary, representing the highest form of womanhood, is Jesus’ counterpart. Like Jesus, Mary is both human and divine and the implication is that Mary and Jesus are equals and their roles are complementary. What can be more feminist than a man and a woman being equals?

Anna’s appreciation of Mary came from carefully studied paintings she saw in art galleries and not from religious indoctrination. For Anna, the worship of Mary and of the other mother-Goddesses who came before her is “an acknowledgement of a higher as well as gentler power than that of the strong hand and the might that makes the right.”

Cretan Goddesses on Paros

Mary was the Queen of Heaven and sat on a throne with a crown on her head. There was thus nothing docile or submissive about her although certain “motherly” traits are seen, by men, as being passive and accommodating. But compassion and care for another are anything but a sign of weakness. And this, for women, is empowering.

According to the Mariology of John Henry Newman, the fall of man was Adam’s and not Eve’s fault as Adam, not Eve, represented the human race. Eve, instead, is the “Mother of All Living” and had no fault other than that of satisfying Adam. Mankind, said Newman, had a second chance with Jesus as the new Adam and Mary as the new Eve. But Newman’s Mary, obedient, pure, and self-abnegating, is nothing at all like Anna’s Mary who is a merciful mother standing between humankind and an offended Father. She is not a shy cloistered virgin but the Queen of Heaven and ready to show it.



Adams, Kimberly Van Esveld. Our Lady of Victorian Feminism: the Madonna in the work of Anna Jameson, Margaret Fuller, and George Eliot. Ohio University Press. Athens. 2001. Read on archive.org HERE.

Adams, Kimberly Van Esveld. “Feminine Godhead, Feminist Symbol: The Madonna in George Eliot, Ludwig Feuerbach, Anna Jameson, and Margaret Fuller”. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Spring, 1996), pp. 41-70 (30 pages). Published by: Indiana University Press on behalf of FSR, Inc. Read on JSTOR HERE.

Feuerbach, Ludwig. The Essence of Christianity. Harper. New York. 1957. Read on archive.org HERE.

Jameson, Anna. Legends of the Madonna. Houghton, Mifflin & Co., Cambridge. 1881. Read on Project Guttenberg HERE.

Thomas, Clara. Love and work enough; the life of Anna Jameson. University of Toronto Press. Toronto. 1967. Read on archive.org HERE.

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This entry was posted in Art Narratives, Conditions of Possibility, female consciousness and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Feminist Madonna

  1. Sherry says:

    interesting and well thought out — sending to my SIL — a minister with social conscience. She will love it..

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