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Mater Dolorosa


I saw this painting recently at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle. Titled “Mater Dolorosa” or “Madonna at the Cross,” this image called me back several times that afternoon, and has lingered with me since.

“Gabriel von Max: Be-Tailed Cousins and Phantasms of the Soul,” with its rather awkward title, is the painter’s first solo exhibit in the United States — remarkable in that, in his day, Max captured lots of public interest, but perhaps more understandable because not only was Max an Austrian painter, but “his day” was the Victorian era.

Max presents a mixture of religious symbolism, spiritualism and Darwinian anthropological musings overlaid with meditations on mortality, all rendered in a dark oil palette. The viewing experience in the Frye’s still galleries is both somber and disconcerting, as Max seems to have intended. There are crucifixions, martyrs, deathly pallid faces — and lots of monkeys, often in human-like poses.

The monkeys haven’t much stayed with me, but “Mater Dolorosa” has. Painted about 1888, it’s a portrait of the familiar subject of the Virgin Mary — the Madonna — at the foot of the cross. Mary is looking upward, presumably at her son dead or dying, and her face also has the pallor of death — “’mortified,’” says the Frye’s curator, Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, “in a state of decomposition and transformation, to indicate both her own mortality and her profound grief.”

The presence of Jesus — The Christ — is only hinted at, and so dark is the wood of the cross that at first I didn’t notice it. What lingers with me is the impenetrable expression on her face — sorrow, grief, the acceptance of what we cannot accept. It is the face of humanity in confronting death, a depth of sorrow that even divinity cannot assuage.

She is too young to be the mother of a man past 30, of course. Yet, as Max seems to be pointing out, youth has no relevance to mortality. We are, as the gods of Homer referred to us, the dying ones. All this I see in this face of Mary.