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In 2002, while living and painting in Oaxaca City, Mexico, I began a series of paintings called Images of Faith, Power & Life: Myth and the Divine Feminine. This work has been in some ways a meditation on the continuum between the human and the divine, and in others a search for an image of the divine feminine that is relevant to contemporary life. As religion has recently become more politicized in America, the series has expanded to encompass the relationship between religion, politics and history as well.

The series was originally based on Oaxacan religious sculpture of the Virgin Mary from the era of Spanish colonization. The images of the feminine divine that I saw in Oaxaca were rendered in the form of high art with the purpose of converting the indigenous peoples of Mexico, and also of teaching a conquered people the useful principle of martyrdom. It was a principle similarly useful in molding the female character.

As one of many daughters in a long line of Catholic women, my initial response to these exquisite icons was as palpable as an allergic reaction: forceful rejection of something harmful to my particular make-up. I had never seen the image of the Catholic deity in such abundance, nor emulated with such reverence and literalness. Even from a safe, ex-Catholic distance, it made me uncomfortable.

But the sculptures were also an artful element in a carefully crafted environment of meditation, and they were undeniably worthy of contemplation with their calm expressions of managed suffering. I had to ask myself why this archetype made me so uncomfortable and further, what it was that I wanted to see in an archetype of femaleness. I began asking friends and acquaintances about the qualities they found most striking in the women they deeply admired, at the same time that I began seeking out other feminine mythologies. I realized that while one of the key spiritual questions will always be that of how to transcend suffering, nevertheless passivity was, for me, a value of little relevance in modern life; especially in American life. I have simply never had the luxury of passivity. I required images representing a fuller experience, one that included evidence of an active engagement with life, in addition to passive acceptance of that which cannot be changed.

I began to combine images of the feminine divine from across cultures, or sometimes merely across time. For example, early Mexican culture viewed snakes as powerful forces of mostly good—life-givers, rain-makers, fertility-bringers—and they were often associated with female divinity. With the introduction of Catholicism, the serpent became the embodiment of evil. Within the same culture, the same symbol evolved into a profoundly different interpretation.

To address this work, I embraced the distinctive Mexican tradition of syncretism. Syncretism is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as “reconciliation or fusion of differing systems of belief, as in philosophy or religion, especially when success is partial or the result is heterogeneous.” In the attempt to envision something as monumental as an image of the divine feminine that held real relevance for me, the syncretic imagery of Mexico with its complex and imperfect melding of contradictory cultural components became the foundation for this work.

I mixed this syncretic method with a study of mythology. The more I read, the more I embraced the observation of the late scholar, Joseph Campbell, that similar questions, themes, journeys of discovery, maturity or transformation, and in fact the same images and symbols occur across cultures. From the Tree of Life and Knowledge, to the Virgin Birth, to the sacrifice of a hero for the betterment or salvation of humankind, these myths persist. But they acquire their connotation—the sense of what they are, their positive or negative charge—based on the historical context in which they occur. I placed these themes and images in unexpected relationships to round out passivity with additional qualities of female power, thereby changing the lens through which these familiar icons could be seen.

Current Work
When I returned to the US, as the country was briefly debating the merits of and then entering into war in Iraq, I found the series expanding to encompass current history as well as the period of conquest that inspired the Oaxaca paintings. I am currently working on the last of four pairs of Dolorosas (the grieving Virgin Mary) which will be the Dolorosa 9/11 and the Iraqi Dolorosa. These portraits represent the mourning faces of real women who have lost loved ones to acts of war—history in the making—just as Mary lost her son to a crucifixion rising from the social and political conflicts of her era. These and other works in progress depict an entangled relationship between politics and religion, a history filled with heinous acts, often in the name of religion, which elicit a need to believe in something higher than the human being which could commit such heinous acts…a complex, self-perpetuating, and apparently eternal cycle.

The newest works, the Coatlicues, are a melding of Christian and indigenous Mexican mythologies about the mother of the gods. The Mexican goddess of life and death, Coatlicue, also experienced a virgin birth. One day while sweeping the temple at Coatepec (Snake Mountain), a ball of feathers landed at her breast, mysteriously impregnating her. When the gods, her previous children, angered at their mother’s unexplained pregnancy, gathered to kill her for her indiscretion, the war god Huitzilopochtli burst fully formed from her womb, armed and war-painted with blue arms and legs, and defended his mother’s life. A famous sculpture of Coatlicue, who is distinguished by a skirt of serpents and a necklace of human hands, hearts and skulls, can be seen in Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology. She was considered both a terrible figure, with claw feet and hands for digging graves, and a nurturing one, with breasts flaccid from nursing her many children—an Earth goddess with both gentle and terrible aspects.

The Coatlicue paintings combine parallel Christian mythologies—that of the Dolorosa, the Madonna at her most terrible moment following the loss of her child, and that of the Virgin at the moment she is chosen to conceive by mysterious means—with the Aztec Earth Mother tradition. Both paintings are based on antique sculptures found in Oaxacan churches, each beautifully executed in the viceregal tradition. I mimicked that tradition as closely as possible, in no way changing the attitudes or aspects of the original sculptures, but simply adding to these passive models of femininity the symbolism of Coatlicue, a goddess of great power, both nurturing and destructive, and closely associated with the serpent. The Dolorosa Coatlicue’s flowing robes are transformed into the skirt of serpents, her stomach is filled with the hearts of men, her foundation a pile of bones, and her face is distorted with the pain of witnessing and even advancing death. The Inmaculada Coatlicue tenderly guards the ball of feathers at her breast, her womb carrying a child with the blue arms and legs of the Mexican war god, and the marks of crucifixion of the Christian sacrificial lamb. She is worshipped by angels as she stands upon a beautiful serpent who is her totem, not her enemy. Her expression is as gentle, as accepting and humble as in the original sculpture.

The three most contemporary pieces, The Magdalenes, are expressions of the politics of myth in real time. Each Magdalene is a contemporary representation of Maria of Magdala, or Mary Magdalene, a real woman who lived and was associated with Jesus of Nazareth. For almost 1,400 years, she was characterized by the Catholic Church as a prostitute. She was not. In the year 591, Pope Gregory the Great, for reasons that are unclear, declared her as such. In Magdalene I: The Prostitute, I associated the contemporary image of a woman selling sex with possibly the most influential woman in Christianity, thereby giving form to the pervasive but rarely visually-articulated figure this historical act established and nurtured in the minds of Christians for nearly a millennium and a half.

Magdalene II: The Chalice represents the view held by some historians that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ wife and the mother of his children. By this account she was in fact the Holy Grail, the Chalice that carried his seed. Children being corporeal, and child-bearing being perhaps the ultimate and certainly most visceral moment of a woman’s life, I represented this Magdalene at the ripest point in pregnancy, just before giving birth.

The third Magdalene is based on the idea, uncovered in the Book of Thomas from the relatively recently discovered Gnostic Gospels, that Maria of Magdala was Jesus’ closest advisor and confidante, possibly his financial backer, and the individual he chose to carry on his teachings. Mary Magdalene was, by this account, the preferred foundation, or rock, of his church going forward. She was, simply, a friend.

Each of the Magdalenes also contains a symbol from mythology. In the first, it is the apple, the turning point in Christian mythology that brought shame into the world, made sex forbidden, and knowledge something beyond the grasp of humankind. In the second, it is the toothed vagina, or vagina dentada, an image that appears across world mythologies, and which was co-opted by Freud as a symbol of men’s fear of castration. I have encountered other interpretations including an understanding of the life-changing consequences of sex and a fear of death, of returning to the womb that originally gave life, this time to be devoured in death. In most cases, it seems to be a mythology about men’s fears. I applied the myth to the vessel of those fears in the very moment that this symbolic tunnel becomes, for her, the canal through which she will give birth. Seen in relation to the life about to pass through these jagged jaws, the toothed vagina takes on a completely other significance than that popularized by Freud.

And finally the myth in the third Magdalene is that of race. As the frequent victors in modern history, the Caucasian race has more or less defined the color of divinity as “white.” But the man who lived and became the founder of Christianity is highly unlikely to have been the blue-eyed, fair-skinned lamb of Western mythology. In this piece, I simply give the hand and arm of The Rock’s friend a different ethnic background than that presumed by Western culture.

To ensure the iconic nature of the Magdalene images, which were much more contemporary than those of other work in the series, I rendered them in sepia tones to provide a visual marker of historical context, and placed them in a free-floating white to suggest their existence in time and imagination.

Thus this series reinvents iconic imagery of the divine feminine from both mythological and historical perspectives, challenging existing images and offering them from a different viewpoint for consideration. These paintings are the completed members of a larger series in progress which explores various aspects of life, myth, image, power and history.

— Susan “Montana” Murdoch