The Virgin and the Whore: Mary and Eve in Renaissance Art

Chances are, most of us have encountered the Virgin/Whore dichotomy. It’s the idea that women conform to two archetypes: the pure, nice girl that you take home to your mother as compared to the dangerous, sexually aggressive woman. We see this a lot in popular culture; Taylor Swift as compared to Kesha, Disney stars making the transformation from purity ring holding sweetheart to Hollywood wild child (Most often accomplished by posing in Maxim and taking on a string of roles playing rebellious characters. This example is really perfect because it’s a transformation restricted to young women; Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, and Demi Lovato’s actions are carefully policed while Zac Efron and the Jonas Brothers’ are not), basically every teen movie known to mankind where the cute band nerd wins the affections of the bitchy cheerleader’s bland yet generically attractive boyfriend, and so on. There are too many examples to list.

But let’s go back in time. Back to the original virgin and the original whore.

The Madonna of Humility with the Temptation of Eve

Carlo da Camerino, The Madonna of Humility with the Temptation of Eve, circa 1400.

Eve and the Virgin Mary are often paired within Renaissance artwork. They represent Christian thoughts on the roles of women in the church; one serving as a warning and one as an ideal. A great example is Carlo da Camerino’s altarpiece, The Madonna of Humility with the Temptation of Eve, in which the Virgin Mary sits with the Christ child, beautiful, kind, and humble; a role model for all good women of the church. Below Mary, however, lies Eve with the serpent; largely nude and lascivious as the serpent (feminized!) emerges from between her legs. Fur is wrapped around her hips, a symbol of lust.

In the church Eve is seen as dangerous because she disobeyed the word of God and led her husband into sin. She is seen as disobedient, and therefore a danger to the church’s structure in which women are helpmeets to their husbands, mothers to sons, and little else. The Virgin Mary, however, is the church’s ideal woman. A virgin, yet miraculously a mother, Mary is the impossible embodiment of Christianity’s conflicting ideas of what a woman should be. She resides within the church’s preferred realm of a nonsexual woman who does the bidding of her God and of her husband; obedient and therefore safe. Works linking these two women are typological in nature, requiring the viewer to link Eve and Mary together as the vehicle for mankind’s fall and for mankind’s salvation. Camerino’s work, as an altarpiece, is meant to police the behavior of men and women of the church into turning away from the actions of Eve and towards those of Mary.

The focus upon Mary and Eve’s bodies emphasizes the different attitudes towards the two women. Eve’s body is beautiful and sensual and is displayed as an object of lust. She is the embodiment of the era’s physical ideal of beauty with high, firm breasts, small feet and hands, curly blond hair, and delicately colored white and pink skin. She represents temptation at its finest. Mary’s body is clothed and maternal. The little nudity there is in this Madonna lactans is almost absurd in how non-sexual it is, with one bared breast emerging demurely from her collarbone. There is only one, and it serves to feed the young Christ. Eve’s body is for men in that they see her as a sexual object while Mary’s body is for men as a mother.

Leonardo da Vinci, Madonna Litta, 1490-91

Guido Reni, Madonna and Child, 1628-30

Guido Reni, Madonna and Child, 1628-30

Rogier van der Weyden, Madonna, 1430-32

Rogier van der Weyden, Madonna, 1430-32

Pedro Berruguete, Virgin and Child, c. 1500

Pedro Berruguete, Virgin and Child, c. 1500

While one would imagine that depictions of Eve would widely vary throughout Renaissance Christian denominations, particularly between Catholics and Protestants, they largely did not. Although the equation of nakedness with sin was more common amongst Protestants than Catholics, religion was not the main reason for this association. Rather, southern artists were working within a stronger classical tradition while northern artists were not. Therefore, northern artists were more likely to view nudity, specifically female nudity, as taboo, while southern artists viewed nudity as part of their great classical tradition. Following the reformation Europe had a north/south split between Protestants and Catholics, and artists of both denominations drew information from their surroundings. There are examples of artists crossing the line of nudity as a taboo and as a classical tradition, such as the Catholic artists Van Eyck and van der Goes, who both used the “Protestant” technique of emphasizing fleshly sins in their depictions of Eve.

More damning in their depiction of Eve were artists influenced by the cult of the Virgin Mary, venerating Mary while painting Eve as a temptress and sinner. An example would be Jan van Eyck’s Lucca Madonna, in which the Virgin Mary nurses Christ upon her lap—once again with an oddly placed, singular, non-sexual breast—with a humble, loving look upon her face. Although Mary is regally dressed and bejeweled upon a throne she is in a domestic setting, which highlights her humility and piety. Eve is not physically represented in this painting, but is clearly referenced by the small fruit Christ holds between his mother’s body and his own. The cult of the Virgin viewed Mary and Eve as opposites; one obedient and one not, one orderly and one disorderly, one a virgin and one a whore.

Jan van Eyck, Lucca Madonna, 1436

Jan van Eyck, Lucca Madonna, 1436. This piece references Eve through the small fruit Christ holds in his hand between his body and that of the Virgin Mary’s.

It’s interesting to see how this dichotomy has unfortunately stood the test of time. Have you seen this gender construct in your own life? Feel free to share in the comments.

This post relates to an earlier piece on the sexualization and feminization of Eve and the serpent. Check it out here.

If you’d like to learn more about the dichotomy between the Virgin Mary and Eve (and Carlo da Camerino’s altarpiece in particular) I would recommend reading Anne Elizabeth Dunlop’s paper, “Gender and Genre in a Quattrocento Altarpiece”.

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3 thoughts on “The Virgin and the Whore: Mary and Eve in Renaissance Art

  1. Hi Melissa,

    I’m not sure from this part:
    More damning in their depiction of Eve were artists influenced by the Cult of the Virgin Mary, a group that venerated Mary while painting Eve as a temptress and sinner.

    whether you are referring to a particular group of people as “the Cult of the Virgin Mary”? in which case could you elaborate? or whether you are referring more generally to the veneration of Mary (ie, using “cult” here as the non-pejorative technical term, as it is generally used in religious studies)?

    In Roman Catholic teaching, the Mary/Eve contrast is strongly analogous to the Christ/Adam contrast. St. Paul wrote “Just as in Adam all died, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” to indicate that Christ’s obedience wiped out Adam’s disobedience. Exactly analogously, Mary’s obedience in assenting to bearing Jesus is seen to have wiped out Eve’s disobedience. I definitely agree that this gets manifested by super-sexing Eve and de-sexing Mary, but the obedience/disobedience has theological priority (and is not particularly gendered, because of the analogous Christ/Adam contrast).

    I’ve written about this a bit in the context of the feast of the Immaculate Conception.

    • Haha, sorry about the confusion. Mistaken capitalization strikes again! I’m referring to the cult of the Virgin Mary in the non-pejorative sense.

      I agree that the relationship between Mary and Eve/Christ and Adam are parallels in Catholic teaching. However, in artwork of the era their relationships aren’t as comparable; being used for separate purposes and varying in frequency of typological pairing. As you mentioned, Christ and Adam aren’t sexualized to the same extent as Eve. Additionally, they are less frequently or overtly compared. We were actually discussing a comparison between Christ and Adam in one of my art history classes today (one of the first pieces we’ve seen that notably does so), in that the hand gesture of Christ in Caravaggio’s Calling of Saint Matthew mirrors Adam’s gesture in The Creation of Adam. Even in this case it’s less to do with comparing the two as the cause of the fall and the cause of redemption and more to do with the portrayal of an incredibly tense moment in which the audience knows that the subject (Matthew and Adam respectively, who are arguably the ones being paired here) is about to experience an awakening.

      I would also argue that Renaissance artistic depictions of Eve and Mary are a different creature from Adam and Christ because the portrayal of biblical women was largely limited to Eve and Mary whereas there were depictions of many biblical men. Because of this, the two are constantly portrayed as opposites, whereas this doesn’t happen as often with Adam and Christ (who can be paired with any number of people). I’m really trying to address how Renaissance patrons (churches, mainly) were using artwork to send a political message, which I don’t think necessarily lines up with the actual teachings of Catholicism.

      Long response, hope I didn’t ramble too much! Thank you for linking to your post by the way. I loved reading about your relationship with Mary as a Roman Catholic and a feminist. I’ll definitely check out more of your writing!

      • Thanks for the detailed response! and for the follow. 🙂

        I definitely see your point that the use and treatment of Mary/Eve in art is different from the theological treatment. I think it might be fair to say that these artists exploited some aspects of the cult of the Virgin Mary, and that art probably fed back into and emphasized the contrast between them as primarily about sexuality, rather than primarily about obedience. (Of course, it’s harder to paint dis/obedience than non/sexiness.)

        It occurs to me that the Jewish tradition has a virgin/whore dichotomy, too: how do pictures of Eve/Lilith compare to pictures of Mary/Eve?

        And on an unrelated note, are you familiar with The Sacred Gaze by David Morgan? I read some of it before putting it aside for a while, but I’m very interested in how images *function* in religion, or one might say in the visual aspect of religious praxis, as well as being interested in the visual works themselves. Though I’m really much more a word-gal than an art-gal! But that’s why I appreciate your blog, because this is an area I don’t know very well at all.

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