A Smiling Madonna – Amuse Bouche #42 (Dennis Aubrey)


In our many posts about the vierges romanes in France and Spain we have discussed their unique expressions. There is often a distant look, as if Mary is looking into the future, into the sacrifice that will be demanded of both herself and her Son. While there are exceptions like the triumphant Madonna in Saint-Aventin, most have serious expressions.

Today, however, while editing the photographs of the lovely Église Sainte Marie in Corneilla de Conflent I was shocked to find a smiling Madonna and Child.

West portal detail, Église Sainte Marie, Corneilla de Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Given the place of honor in the mandorla of the west portal tympanum, Mary is literally smiling. Jesus, however, is grinning! The effect is completely disconcerting. The sculptor must have had some unique vision to create this ensemble, but for the life of me I don’t know what it was. Perhaps after a lifetime of carving religious figures of the most solemn and serious character, this man or woman just felt that maybe there was room for some levity in religion, some expression of light-heartedness. Here in the remote Pyrénées, perhaps an expression of pleasure was warranted.

Whatever the reasoning, I found the image profoundly disturbing. As I tried to smile back, my lips were drawn back over my teeth in a grimace. I held the expression and went to the bathroom to see it in the mirror – it was grotesque! Coming back to the image I thought, even Jesus’ little bare feet seem to be smiling. The angels on either side also seem to be in on the joke.

West portal, Église Sainte Marie, Corneilla de Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

If there was ever a piece of sculpture that deserved to be featured as an amuse-bouche, it is this tympanum in Corneilla de Conflent.

This is part of a series of posts featuring an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized appetizer to whet the appetite of diners. Each of these will explore a single interesting feature of medieval architecture or sculpture. To see other amuse-bouches, follow this link.

11 responses to “A Smiling Madonna – Amuse Bouche #42 (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Dennis, this is intriguing. I’m wondering if perhaps the artisan had in mind the Gospel of John’s rendering of the meaning of it all: “that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” (Jn. 15:11) And “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (Jn.16:33)

    Nevertheless, the grin strikes me as curious. Even if the artist’s intent was to express the post-resurrection victory of love and the sentiment of the Ascension that the resurrected Christ sits at the right hand of the Father with the world as his footstool, the grin seems more like a “ha-ha-ha-ha!” to the powers of death, the imperialists who thought they were rid of him.

    Maybe the artist had a Saturday Night Live sense of humor. Who knows; maybe the sculptor had a crystal ball and was anticipating Robert Mueller, Stormy Daniels, and the end of the reign of DJT. 😉 😇🥃

    • Gordon, not sure if the sculptor was so prescient as to seen the SNL world in which we live, but this was certainly an outlier in the world of Romanesque sculpture.

      It was so strange last night to try to respond personally to the smile/grin. The rictus that was on my face was not to be taken lightly!

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