Madonna (the painting hangs in the Munch Museum, in Oslo, Norway) appears in a state of trance or sleep, with scattered hair and exposed breasts and abdomen. She is enveloped in a swirling background that seems to want to draw her in, or backwards, almost like a Maelstrom (a quintessential north-European term Edward Munch must have been familiar with). Her bended arms mirror each other, producing a spiral that enhances the rotational visual effect. Despite the elemental movement around her, the protagonist remains completely calm.
The swirling contours, a motif that recurs in the Scream and other works, denote a break from reality and an entry into the world of imagined, subjective expression. While in the Scream the distortion conveys mental or psychological crises, here the religious context implies the supernatural: for instance, the immaculate conception. Munch paints a real woman in an erotically suggestive pose — but the union, perhaps taking place right in front of our eyes, involves a higher power from beyond the “real,” an agent of metaphysical nature. That would probably be the holy ghost.
Madonna’s posture begets a certain compositional ambiguity: she may appear lying, putting the viewer directly above her, or standing, offering a frontal view. This floating transitional state counters somewhat the corporeal immediacy of the young woman’s body, suggesting elusiveness and spiritual, rather than material, footing; incidentally, Munch omits the lower limbs from the canvas. To remove all doubt the artist outfits the head with a bright red halo — a direct reference to the virgin’s saintly provenance.
And yet, even this quintessential attribute of sainthood is married with the material form. The color of the halo embellishes the navel and the nipples: points that allude to the processes of carrying a child, giving birth, and feeding the offspring. By strategic color distribution, Munch notionally links Madonna’s sainthood with reproductive signals of her body, reminding that by being the physical mother of Christ, she performs a divinely assigned task. Her very own body becomes the vehicle for her saintly purpose and cause. This juxtaposition of material and spirit also anticipates the dual transcendent nature of Christ, at once corporeal and godlike.
Munch created a series of lithographs where he explores the theme of Madonna from different psychological angles. In some of the lithographs (particularly the black and white versions) the figure appears with accentuated shadows that create a ghastly, lifeless semblance; these pieces also include a skeletal embryo in the left low corner, suggesting a more realistically grounded vision — the halo is nowhere to be seen. The prints often flatten the image, eliminating duality and ambiguity, forcing a singular, darkly realistic, interpretation of the original.
*this article has been edited at a later date