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This Graced Life

by Terry Monagle

The Secret of the babe

We had come around the world for birth but this looked more like death. Our daughter was wheeled into the delivery room, still, white, unconscious, lying on her back as though in a morgue and with a plastic tube in her mouth. Gulp.

But soon the baby was brought back and this little string of membrane and bone, this thing bright orange with jaundice, this caricature of a human was placed on the mother's pale lemon breast.

Our daughter had needed a total anaesthetic so she could be stitched up. "It was a level four tear, the worst you can have", said the midwife.

Sleepily the daughter said, "I don't know why I didn't have an epidural first thing; after all I've spent enough on recreational drugs over the years".

I wonder if the scriptural Mary tore. I wonder if there was a frantic search for clean rags. Was there anyone there who could stitch her up? Did a woman from the village make a paste with clay and herbs and smear it on the wound? Did Joseph panic at the new world of breasts, milk, blood, umbilicals, and faeces into which he had stumbled? How did he feel when he held this little boy, who was not his?

On this trip I visited the big art galleries in North America, the National Gallery in Washington, the Art Institute in Chicago, and the Metropolitan in New York. I darted through the galleries straight to the mediaeval rooms. Here was nativity after nativity, mother and child after mother and child. Mediaeval and renaissance artists including Verazano, Verocchio, Giotto, and Raphael repeatedly painted this beautiful image. Sometimes the child reaches inside the mother's diaphanous top and caresses the breast, sometimes he is holding, seemingly strangling, a small finch, representative probably of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes he is far too old to be really sitting here.

My favourites were the primitive mediaeval wooden carvings of mother and child, sometimes missing limbs, chipped, and with flaking lacquer. They faces were absorbed in a mute piety.

R. S. Thomas, the Welsh poet, remarked upon the chipped figures in Rouen Cathedral. He saw them as having "budgerigar faces - a sort of divine humour in collusion with time. Who but God can improve by distortion", he asked?

A common representation of mother and child is known as Sedes Sapientiae or Seat of Wisdom. The child is shown as a knowing young divine monarch. He looks out towards humanity. He is sitting in the lap of his mother who is on a throne and she also is an embodiment of authority and divinity. In these representations I thought that woman was given her highest status, almost a place within the godhead.

I also saw an example of the Sedes Sapientiae on the train from Chicago to St Louis. In our carriage were two Amish families. The women wore heavy black half length cloaks, ankle length skirts, robust shoes and white bonnets. A little girl, in identical clothing to her mother, had fallen asleep in her mother's lap and the two somnolent white bonnets waved with the motion of the train.

The Christian churches, present the fact of birth, the generation of an offspring, the intimacy between mother and child as a crucial step in humanity's narrative. The universal is depicted through one particular birth. It makes sense that we humans would project the limited we do know onto realms we do not.

Later I carried the new grandchild, Nora at two weeks old, around Target. It was as though someone walked with us spraying a benevolent vapour. People, even in far aisles, dissolved into smiles, stopped us to look and ask how old she was and if they could buy her. Babies are magic.

The Metropolitan Gallery in New York has just spent $45 million, its biggest expenditure ever, to buy a mother and child. The painting is no bigger than a sheet of A4 paper. It is by Duccio, and was painted in tempera and gold on wood in about 1300. The Madonna looks lovingly down on the child she is holding on her left side. The boy is reaching up and pushing the veil back from her temple so he can stroke her. The Gallery says it is worth the money because, if patiently contemplated, it reveals a moving intimacy at the heart of humanity.

I sat on a couch in Baltimore and cradled Nora. Her body hung limp, her closed fists rested up by her ears, and she was deeply asleep. We were both content like that hour after hour, day after day. I soaked up the trust, serenity and innocence in her face. And I wonder if she, so newly from god's mint, was showing us some of our maker's own serenity and innocence. Is this the magic of the babes?

Terry Monagle is an author and public speaker. Terry's articles are regularly published in The Age and other magazines both in Australia and internationally. His first book, Fragments, was published in 2003.

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