The painting’s called Madonna, but there’s no reason you’d think so. A naked woman twisting against a dark sky, in Edvard Munch’s typical hallucinatory colors, looking somehow both corpse-like and more alive than alive—none of this brings Mary immediately to mind. It’s sensual, but hard to imagine anyone finding it much of a turn on. The visuals are disturbing, almost violent, but at the same time comforting. Without the red nimbus behind the woman’s head, nothing about it would appear especially religious.
For a while, the Madonna was the only piece of art I owned; it hangs (well, it’s propped up) in my bedroom. It has never seemed disrespectful to me, but I will also admit that it’s the disturbing nature of the painting that draws me to it. And it’s that quality that seems to elicit two different, if equally mistaken, Christian responses to Munch’s painting. One is to see in Mary’s nakedness only the salacious preoccupations of a not-very-pious artist. The other is to make the painting less disturbing, draining it of its peculiar force, as Michael Neubeck did in an article for America last year. Munch depicts Mary, he writes, as “an adult and a partner, one who has made and continues to make choices.”
But there’s no need, least of all on religious grounds, to flatten the work’s meaning in these ways. The violent nature of the painting, and of the dark story of the real-life woman most commonly associated with it, actually tell us something important, or at least useful, about Mary.
Much like the ambiguity surrounding the painting—Madonna or no?—the identity of Munch’s model is also a mystery. One popular theory identifies her as Dagny Juel Przybyszewska, a close friend of Munch’s who was considered by many in their shared circle to be a femme fatale. Her peers described her in extreme terms, calling her “goddess, queen, sovereign” but also “cold” and “deadly.”
According to Dagny’s biographer, Mary Kay Norseng, however, Munch himself denied that Dagny was the model in a letter, owning up only to “a certain likeness” between the two. But since this letter from Munch doesn’t exist in his hand, we can’t know for sure that he wrote it. So it’s a Madonna that’s not a Madonna, with a model who might not even be the model, and a painting that Munch painted, as he was wont to do, several different times. (One variation, with sperm and a fetus, is both more obviously Madonna-like and more sexual.)