Monday, June 16, 2008

The Little Madonna

She is young and beautiful, wrapped in a blue cloak, her head covered in a gold-coloured, patterned, scarf. As she looks upwards, a small baby in her arms sleeps peacefully, its little arm resting so trustingly and naturally on her breast. The baby’s pose is so realistic, that there is no way in which the artist, Ferruzzi, could not have painted his exquisite portrait of ‘The Little Madonna of the Wayside’ from life.

Yet how many millions of people, including myself, have seen and treasured this picture, have seen it as a representation of Our Lady, not knowing that Ferruzzi himself had merely painted an 11 year-old girl by the name of Angelina Bovo as she tried to keep her little baby brother Giovanni warm?

The captivating story behind the Little Madonna can easily be read online by going to but briefly, for those who don’t have access to the Internet, let me just summarise by saying that an American orphan, who later entered Religious Life, in trying to trace her family, discovered from her mother’s relatives in Venice, that the beautiful painting, that she herself had taken to be of Our Lady, had been modelled by her mother and one year-old uncle!

It is easy to see why the artist had seen something beautiful and innocent, gentle and deeply touching about the child sheltering from the cold. I myself have held this image as saying something so real and utterly genuine about our Mother, that I was amazed to hear the story behind the picture. Even knowing the story, the ‘Madonnina’ (Little Mother) is still, indisputably, Mary.

Take a step backwards in time.

Who was Mary? Wasn’t she just a simple village girl who lived a perfectly ordinary life in the midst of perfectly ordinary people? Perhaps she was, to her contemporaries, remarkable only in the same way that any of us would look at a child and see that there was a depth and genuineness beyond the commonplace. Never did she expect to be singled out for any special honours as she carried the jug to the well and chatted with her friends.

What were her thoughts as she held her Baby in her arms for the first time? What did it mean to her as she realised that she had become a mother in a way that never, in her wildest dreams, could have occurred to her? How did Mary approach being a mother? What were her hopes and fears for Jesus? Surely some of them would have been the same as those of any other. Yes, she had to cope with his looking for an early morning feed, dirty nappies, sniffles, bumps and bruises as well as enjoying his smiles, gurgles, first words and first steps. But what was it like to know that this baby was different and had a future that only God knew and only He could predict? Was Mary scared? What form did her trustfulness take? How did she experience God when His Son was born to her?

What does it mean to be a mother? Is it possible to summarise all that we expect of a mother or to encapsulate in a few words all that we have received from our mother? In Mary we have enshrined all that it means to be ‘mother’, all that is means to be ‘woman’. There is nothing feminist about her, but, instead, everything that is feminine.

If, as women, we are called, in a special way, to imitate Mary, even if we have never given birth to a child, what does it mean to imitate her motherhood? What does it mean to be a mother, not only in a family, but within the Church, within the world? Sort that out and the answers to many of the world’s problems fall into place. Suddenly there is a real answer to the needs of a hurting world for the presence of someone who is nurturing, caring, faithful, enabling, sustaining…

The world needs a Mother. It needs Mary. 2008 will be all the more loving, fulfilling and meaningful with her presence in our midst.

God bless,
Sr. Janet