Several years ago, my wife and I took a tour of Iceland. We stayed for several nights at Stykkishólmur, a seacoast town in the western part of the country. There, we visited the Stykkishólmskirkja Lutheran Church (pictured under the rainbow.) Inside, the church was bright and airy. A huge painting of a woman and child hung over the communion table. Drawing everyone’s eyes, it was the center of attention.
I found this painting by Kristín Guðrún Gunnlaugsdóttir to be captivating. How are we meant to understand this? I wondered. Normally when we go into a Christian church and see a woman with a child, we immediately think of Mary and the baby Jesus (Madonna and child). Western art is loaded with thousands of examples of this genre featuring the young Mary caressing the baby Jesus or perhaps nursing him. That is what we expect to see, but the more I thought about this painting, the more I realized that it defies these artistic conventions.
First, the female figure in blue is not seated caressing her child but appears to be floating in midair. Her arms are sort of holding the child but open. Hey, watch it or you’re going to drop the baby, I want to yell! Instead of looking at the child, as we would expect, she is looking at us. The baby also is ignoring his mother. Like her, he is also looking directly at us with his arms reaching out as if to give us a hug. What are we to make of this?
I think the artist was inspired by John 3:16-17: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
So, following this line of thought, perhaps the main figure is not Mary but God. This might explain why the floating figure is not grounded in our version of reality and why we do not need to be concerned about her “dropping the baby.” In this interpretation, God is lovingly looking at us while “giving” her son to us — not to condemn us but as a gift so that we might better understand what it means to live in the kingdom of God.
What might it mean to our understanding of God to think of God as a mother? Mothers give birth. This divine mother gives her son to all of humankind. Since the baby Jesus is completely secure in the love of God, he has no need to look at God but lovingly reaches out to hug us instead.
I sent a copy of this article to the artist to get her take on my interpretation and she was pleased by it. If I saw this painting every week in worship, I would be reminded of John’s beautiful description of God’s loving-kindness to all of humanity.
David R. Kepley has a Ph.D. in history and is a ruling elder at Providence Presbyterian Church in Fairfax, Virginia, where he serves as chair of both the Adult Ministry Committee and the Earth Care Team.