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Mary Expectant with Child

November 25, 2006 - January 7, 2007

This year the Cathedral Museum’s Christmas exhibit deals with the theme of “Mary expectant with child”. The image of the pregnant virgin, “Maria Gravida” was widespread especially in medieval art but since the 18th century has also been common in folk customs and folk art. The exhibit shows the art historical and theological context as well as the worship and customs in the region of Salzburg.

In Christian art the issue of Mary’s pregnancy was broached not only in scenes of Jesus as a child but also in pictures of the virgin mother by herself or in association with the Eucharist. Depending on how realistic or symbolic the picture was meant to be, her pregnancy was made evident as a rounded belly, by showing the figure of a child or by having “IHS” marked on Mary’s stomach.
The original portrayal on this theme was the veneration with which, during her pregnancy, Elisabeth greeted Mary: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Luke 1,42) This bible text became widespread due to the “Ave Maria” which became part of the occidental advent liturgy in the 7th and 8th centuries and as of the 13th century one of the most important Christian prayers.
Otherwise the gospels have little to say or are only vaguely descriptive of Mary’s pregnancy. St. John for example only writes: “And the Word became flesh” (1,14). Despite this fact the topic was expounded upon in great detail in apocryphal and mystic texts. The apocryphal gospel of Bartholomew states “Oh womb that hid the Messiah who became visible to many”. The mystic literature of the Middle Ages identified the Virgin Mary with a “spiritual pregnancy”: “Take great care […] of the Son of God within you” a Cistercian abbot of the 12th century warned his fellow brothers.
Portrayals of Maria Gravida on icons remain similarly as abstract as the bible texts: Mary holding the child in a disc at her breast with no connection between mother and son. This type of portrayal is called “Platytera” or “Mother of God of the Sign”. However, with the exception of Venice it never gained a foothold in Western Europe.
In medieval times portrayals of Mary and Elisabeth meeting (the “Visitation”) became very common. Since around the year 1300 the children were shown in front of their mothers’ bellies as can be seen in the exhibit’s painting from Kremsmünster (around 1460) or on the doors of the Irrsdorf church (around 1403). The IHS monogram as a symbol of pregnancy can be traced back to the 14th century, the cross in a painting “Joseph’s misgivings” at the Nonnberg Convent (around 1420, according to Mt 1,19).
In paintings of the “Annunciation”, pregnancy as a motif remained rare. In the 14th to 15th centuries however, the child was portrayed on a ray that extended from God to Mary. “Open your ear to the word of God” the previously named Cistercian abbot warned his fellow brothers.

Johann Michael Rottmayr, Virgin Sewing, 1712, Mattsee, Stiftsmuseum

Virgin Expectant with Child, ca. 1770/1790, Salzburg, St. Peter's Abbey

Miraculous images of the pregnant Mary can be found in Bogenberg (near Straubing/Bavaria) and in Ohlsdorf (near Gmunden/Upper Austria). According to legend the Bogenberg figure came floating down the Danube in 1104. The present sculpture is not as old and its worship can be demonstrably traced back to 1400/1410. It has a square opening with a corona of rays, but the child has been lost. Numerous copies including one in Lungau from the 17th century as well as votive pictures attest to pilgrimages.
The Ohlsdorf painting portrays the “Immaculata” with the IHS monogram signifying her pregnancy. A banner with the sentence “And the Word became flesh” deals with this motif. The painting was presumably done by Christian Degenhart (*about 1611, † 1676) from Garsten. Its worship can be traced back to 1663.
The connection to the Eucharist is exemplified by St. Mary monstrances with a repository for the Host placed in Mary’s belly. They equate the Christ child with the Host, and incarnation with consecration. The same is true for the paten with a Platytera from Kremsmünster.
Numerous copper engravings and paintings portraying “Mary expectant with child” have been completed since the mid 1700s. The engravings originated in Augsburg in the studios of Martin Engelbrecht (*1684, † 1756) and Johann Andreas Pfeffel the Older (*Bischoffingen 1674, † Augsburg 1748) or the Younger (*Augsburg 1715, † 1768). They were most likely used as models for the paintings. They all show the same scene of Mary reading and do not illustrate Elisabeth’s visitation but rather the “Magnificat”, Mary’s answer to Elisabeth’s veneration: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1, 46-55). A series of engravings express each verse.
Up to the present this painting is often used in the custom of “Frautragen” (carrying the woman) in which the painting of the Virgin Mary is carried from house to house. This custom is said to have been common at the time of the counter-reformation but can only be demonstrably traced back to the mid 18th century. The custom is mainly spread in upper Pongau, in lower Pinzgau, in the Gastein Valley as well as in Flachgau where during advent a picture of Mary is carried from house to house and worshipped with a prayer or song. This custom, especially the folk song “Als Maria übers Gebirge ging” (When Mary went over the mountain) is reminiscent of Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging.

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