Tuesday, August 9, 2011
What Virginity Looks Like
The Holy Kinship (c 1470), Westphalian School Saint Servatius Basilica Treasury, Maastricht, The Netherlands.
When I first looked at the painting in the back of last month's Magnificat, "The Holy Kinship," I was mesmerized by Mary, front and center, those wide eyes and doting mouth, so pleased with how things have worked out so far, both for her and the wise little baby-man standing there on her knee.
She looks young and virginal. I wondered how the artist managed to capture that innocence, and also, what are the physical qualities of virginity? Because there is something in the look of her face that distinguishes her from the other women in the assembly.
Back in high school, when I was experimenting with wearing make-up, my grandma used to tell me not to put on too much, or it would make me look "hard." A single girl who was "hard," it was understood, didn't have anyone in her life to tell her to tone down the eyeliner, and she also probably had more experience than was good for her. The implication being that sex outside of marriage was not just a sin, but it also made you look funny, a double deterrent.
Nevertheless, I had some idea of what she was talking about. There were very subtle facial changes in girls I knew who had lost their virginity. Their features didn't change, but their expression changed, from a look of openness that hid nothing, to a look that concealed a secret knowledge. Sometimes the expression was accompanied by a look of smug infatuation--the girl was hopelessly in love. Sometimes the expression bore a look of disappointment--sex had not yielded what she thought it might. Occasionally, there was a look of rule defying belligerence.
Sexual experience seems to affect the appearance of married women differently. I went to adoration last week, looked around at my fellow worshippers, all gray-haired ladies, and noted there wasn't a virgin in the house, a thought corroborated by the wedding rings on every hand (and the fashions of their clothing which differentiated them from any of the local nuns).
In the case of the married woman, or women who have become mothers, the cat's out of the bag, so to speak, so there's nothing hidden and withholding in her expression. But sometimes there's still a look that could pass for sadness or disappointment. Nothing prepares a woman for the heartache raising kids can entail.
Part of the artist's success in capturing Mary's virginity in the painting above, has to do with the way he also captured the knowing expressions of the matrons in the picture. The breastfeeding mother to the left of the Holy Family looks downright weary. Her eyes are not on her child, or the other children, but she seems to look within herself at some troubling specter.
The woman to the right of the Holy Family has a wry little smile suggesting she thinks this whole business is a bit of a joke: her kids misbehaving, her husband fiddling with his spectacles, Saint Elizabeth there giving her kids an apple. Life's a madhouse, might as well laugh.
There's a sanguine matron, and a melancholy one, and on the far left, a mother very dutifully educating a little one from a book. I recognize my sister, my friends, my sisters-in-law in these women. I see myself, in the distracted expressions of all of them, even while they sit in the presence of God.
"And the unmarried woman and the virgin thinketh on the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she that is married thinketh on the things of the world, how she may please her husband." (1 Corinthians 7:34)