Updated: May 4
Our most ancient art celebrates motherhood and birth, something our future depends upon!
Some of the earliest depictions of mother and child date back almost 10 millennia and survive in numbers that indicate they were produced as celebratory or devotional objects. As I mention in a previous article for Signifier, the earliest representations of the human figure were abundant women with features that emphasised their fertility. Some of the goddess figures at Çatalhöyük are in the moment of birthing. Among the earliest portrayals of a mother nursing a child are those found at Tell al’Ubaid in modern Turkey, the site of ancient Ur.
mother and child figurines found at the Tell al-’Ubaid site dating to Ur culture of c.7,000–4,000 BCE *
These small devotional statuettes, usually modelled in terracotta, have been labelled ‘Lizard-headed Figures’ and are much loved by UFO theorists and enthusiasts of alternative histories in which aliens once lived among us… At first glance, they are puzzling but a number of more credible theories have been put forward to explain their odd features.
We know from grave sites that ancient Mesopotamian cultures practiced a variety of body modification including head binding to elongate the skull, body scarification and ostentatious facial piercings to accommodate labrets. Interestingly, all these practices have strong parallels with the (less) ancient cultures of the Americas and were still fashionable with the Aztecs.
Similar traditions of scarification persist in tribal cultures around the globe, sometimes to commemorate significant life achievements — coming of age, motherhood — though have declined in popularity through the twentieth-century. Extreme body modification, such as head binding and neck stretching, is rarely practiced nowadays as the awareness of associated health risks has increased.
So, this gives us a more probable explanation of the simplified, distorted features and markings of these early mother-and-child figurines celebrating that generational bond and the continuing cycle of life. It’s therefore unlikely that the ‘lizard-look’ was intended. Though, figures of animal-headed gods were to become prevalent in Ancient Egyptian cults, and culture…
However, unlike many in the Ancient Egyptian pantheon of deities, top goddess Isis is never represented with the head of an animal. That’s not to say she doesn’t have closely linked animal aspects to her pervasive being. In the early mythology of Egypt, she took the form of a great cow to give birth to the Bull of Memphis and so is often mingled with Hathor and Nut who both share bovine forms. Depending on period and region, this trinity of goddesses can be considered facets of the same deity as each is representing fertility and motherhood. In some cults they were consciously combined. Interestingly, the aforementioned goddess figures of Çatalhöyük also have strong associations with cattle.
Isis is rarely shown alone as she is much loved and, in return, is generous with her company. So, in nearly all hieroglyphs and scrolls she guides another, is shown with her children, or with Osiris — the undead king of the gods whom she resurrected, facilitating his rebirth into immortality in the underworld. The mother goddess is equally the goddess of life itself.
Sometimes, Isis is depicted with great wings and was attributed with being able to fully transform into a falcon. Her son, the Great God Horus, inherited this animal aspect and often shows up in his falcon-headed guise. Images of Isis suckling Horus abound throughout Ancient Egyptian iconography. These always show both deities in their relatable human shape, thus emphasising their love for humanity and roles as mediators of divine wisdom.
Clearly, the very human emotional bond between parent and child is also being celebrated here. These popular representations templated the expected image of the holy mother and baby that has persisted for millennia. Some of these ancient statuettes of Isis and Horus were even reassigned as Christian icons when their true meanings were forgotten.
Some early depictions of the Madonna and Child were directly modelled on the established and familiar icons of Isis with Horus. Even the tendency in medieval devotional art to show the Christ child as a miniature adult can be traced back to representations of the infant Horus as, proportionally, mature. This seems to become a more obvious affectation as Christian art became ostensibly more sophisticated and sought to present the Holy Family as different to average church-goers…
What is thought to be the earliest surviving painting of Mary and baby Jesus, is strikingly more naturalistic than later icons. The ‘Madonna of the Catacombs’ was found in a secret shrine hidden away deep in the tomb tunnels of Santa Priscilla, Rome. Although generally thought to be an image of Mary it is so different to those later approved by the Church, which became ‘motifs’ rather than pictures of ‘real’ people, that some scholars believe it is simply a portrait of a woman with her baby. Note the protectively cradling arm and the hand to support the infant’s head. It has been suggested that it may be a memorial paining of one of the deceased buried in the catacombs, but this is unlikely if the circle around the head is the remnant of a halo.
second-century fresco thought to be the earliest surviving image of Mother Mary and Baby Jesus in the Catacombs of Priscilla, Rome, and the carved ivory panels from the Codex Aureus of Lorsch (c.830) with Madonna and Child, displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London [view license 1 and 2 ]
It’s not the only example of unusual religious imagery to be uncovered there that led to a re-evaluation of the role of women in early Christianity. Another fresco appears to show a woman breaking bread for the Eucharist — the reenactment of the Last Supper — if so, this would be rather radical. Remember also, that these shrines, in the heart of the Roman Empire, would’ve been used during a tumultuous era when Christianity was a clandestine religion. Adherents faced bouts of severe persecution including public humiliation and mass executions in the arena.
After the sustained effort to eradicate Christianity finally failed, the emperors Licinius and Constantine drew-up their ‘universal declaration of peace’ that recognised the religion in the year 313 and ended state-endorsed discrimination. A few centuries later and icons of Madonna and Child became plentiful. These had been standardised by the church as an approved template that would be easily recognised by followers.
Generally, Mary was now depicted enthroned, presenting the infant Jesus who often resembled a miniature adult, implying his innate wisdom. These mosaics, frescoes, relief carvings, and statues all harked back to the ancient imagery of Isis and Horus.
Further east, there’s an abundance of mother goddesses and it seems every region across Asia has its own. In India, the divine mother is associated broadly with the light of the sun and the fertility of the Earth — Mother Nature, perhaps. She is often shown with several children, celebrating fertility. When depicted as a mother with a child there are, again, similarities with Isis including a continued association with cattle.
She is not passive and the protective role of the mother is often emphasised. Like her ancient predecessor, she is a dynamic force with many aspects. She’s a slayer of evil, either conquering or energising the male principle. Thus, she often has multiple arms and bears a sword. Many of the feminine divinities of the east have complex interpretations but are often considered aspects of Devi — mother of all, embodiment of the creative feminine principle. A goddess of life itself.
This time of year, regardless of faith or denomination, it’s appropriate to celebrate the cycle of life, of birth and renewal… Mother and Child… So, Yuletide Greetings! Wishing you and yours the very best for a New Year… and the new life it brings.
‘Nativity’ panel by Giotto for ‘Capella degli Scrovegni’ (c.1305) [view license]