Beyonce: A Reimagined Madonna

by Vicki Stuart

           The famous Beyonce shocked her audience once again: rather than wowing them with her silky dulcet tones, however, the artist’s maternity photos caused the public uproar. In the capturing of Beyonce’s pregnancy in 2017, photographer Awol Erizku controversially reimagined the typical depictions of the Mother Mary and challenged socio-philosophical norms of the Madonna’s image that have been ingrained in the artistic eye for centuries.

Awol Erizku’s photographs of Beyonce, 2017

           Since the emergence of Christian art and the depictions of the Virgin Mary and other maternal figures in the Middle Ages, artists have mistaken her appearance, specifically her race. Some of the most famous depictions of the Virgin Mary include Raphael’s The Aldobrandini Madonna (1509), Giorgione’s Castelfranco Madonna (1503), and Botticelli’s Madonna Adoring the Child with Five Angels (1485). These three paintings all depict Mary with fair skin, light hair, and typical western clothing. However, this is not what Mary of Nazareth would have looked like at all! Being from Israel, Mary would have probably had a skin tone much more similar to Beyonce’s than to the European artists’ pale-skinned paintings. She would have had dark hair and would have worn wool or linen, practical, and loose-fitting clothing, unlike what Raphael, Giorgione, and Botticelli imagined.

The Aldobrandini Madonna, Raphael, 1509-1510
Castelfranco Madonna, Giorgione, 1503
Madonna Adoring the Child with Five Angels, Sandro Botticelli, 1485-1490

            Erizku, however, challenges these historical depictions of a white Mother Mary in his portraits of Beyonce. The photographer alludes to Mary most directly in his positioning of the mother’s children and her blue veil. The famous artist is seen holding her newborn twins, Rumi and Sir, draped in a voluptuous, flowing purple robe and blue veil in front of an elaborate floral wreath. While the mother stands on a vertical plane, her children lay in her arms in a dramatically diagonal recline, arms and legs draping like depictions of Jesus after having been taken down from the cross. The position of the children connotes a rebirth of Jesus after death through Rumi and Sir as they lay in the same position in which He died. By carrying the reborn incarnates of Jesus, Beyonce acts as a Mother Mary figure. Allusions to Mother Mary are also seen in Beyonce’s blue veil, which parallels the veil seen in Renaissance portraits of the Madonna and child.[1] The veil is almost the exact color of the sky behind Beyonce, creating a halo-like silhouette, connoting her heavenly embodiment of the Mother Mary. Erizku focuses the viewer’s attention on the mother and her children by emphasizing their figures amid dark shadows around them. This makes the light on their faces and bodies stand out against the darker world, again suggesting a sense of holiness associated with the mother and her twins. By alluding to traditional depictions of the Virgin Mary in western culture, Erizku challenges the historically inaccurate pale skin of the Mother, forcing the viewer to accept other races as representations of holy figures.

The Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, 1485-1490

            The racial representation of Mary is not the only aspect of the biblical figure that Erizku challenges: he also contrasts the depiction of Mary’s purity through chastity with the natural sexuality of a mother through his allusions to Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (1485). Beyonce’s stance alone, especially the diagonal line made by her thigh, parallels that of Botticelli’s Venus and portrays the mother as a symbol of erotic beauty. Like Botticelli’s Venus, Beyonce’s exposed stomach and just covered private area are the center of the image, drawing the viewer’s attention towards them. Similarly, the bright blue of Beyonce’s underwear and the purple robe that drapes her, the focus of the image’s color, draws attention toward her body and curves. This forces the viewer to acknowledge the mother’s sexuality and beauty, even though the image is a maternity photo and intended to celebrate the birth of Rumi and Sir. By posing Beyonce as allusions to Mother Mary as well as to Venus, she displays characteristics of the two women, characteristics that all women have, but that are taught in society to be kept separate: Beyonce is both a mother, pure and caring, and a sexual being, beautiful and erotic. Throughout history, women have been taught to keep these two characteristics, purity and sex, separate, but Erizku challenges this belief in his depiction of Beyonce, a depiction of a true woman who is capable of being both sexually progressive and a selfless mother.

            Erizku’s photograph of Beyonce and her newborns insinuates allusion to both the Mother Mary and to sexual figures, like Venus, during a time when women have been taught to contrast the characteristics and associations of the two figures. By doing so, the photographer adds to today’s reimagining of what it means to be a mother and how the Virgin Mary is represented in Christian art.

[1] Grady, Constance. “Decoding the Artistic References in Beyoncé’s Gorgeous Birth Announcement for Her Twins.” Vox, Vox Media, 14 July 2017, Accessed 17 Feb. 2021.

CIVA’s intern Vicki Stuart is currently studying Art History and Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Outside of the classroom, Vicki is on the UW Women’s Lightweight Rowing Team and is an active member of the team’s Bible study group. Vicki has participated in an annual mission trip to South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where high schoolers help run a summer camp for Lakota children. Vicki loved this mission work so much that she continues to participate in this annual trip, now organizing and designing the camp’s art curriculum. Vicki enjoys spending time with her family, playing with the dog, creating art, and soaking up the sun outdoors.

One Response to Beyonce: A Reimagined Madonna

  1. Vicki, thank you for this essay about photographer Erizku’s approach to depicting pregnancy and motherhood. I had not seen these photos, and they are indeed provocative.

    I agree that it is important to bring together the ideas of motherhood and sexuality. Society has clearly divorced these two concepts, with detriment to women. So in this regard I think Erizku is onto something good. However, I take issue with his approach here — not because it is provocative but because it is not provocative enough.

    His work, along with many media depictions of photoshopped women, sidelines the fact that most women aren’t, and never will be, this beautiful. This is as true now as it was in Boticelli’s time, when any thirty-year-old woman who still had all her teeth was a rarity.

    The idealization of female beauty (so often carried out by and for men) has, for hundreds of years, neglected the experience of most flesh-and-blood women — mothers or otherwise. How radical it would be to explore female physicality and motherhood in a way that respects how women really are here on earth, instead of working from a Platonic notion of ideal female beauty and sexuality. If I met Erizku I would challenge him to do a photo essay on postpartum women in a hospital maternity ward, to see the reality of what the birth process does to our physical forms.

    Moreover, these images of ideal beauty promote the notion that physical beauty is a core value that we should aspire too. And it is true that beauty has been a form of currency for women, just as physical strength and wealth have been for men (I’m speaking historically). But it is an especially fleeting form of currency, and those who have it are often left emotionally bereft when aging sets in. The fact that women spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year on beauty-enhancement products — most of which don’t work — is a testament to how these images brainwash us from a very young age to put a huge value on our surface appearance.

    Part of the balancing act inherent in the Judeo-Christian way is being able to appreciate and revere what is fleeting, beautiful, enjoyable, and yes — erotic, while at the same time keeping our feet planted firmly in enduring soul values. For me, these images of Beyonce have a surface glamour that engages the eye, but does not dig deeply enough into what it means to be an earthly woman, and does not explore the types of interior power an earthly woman is capable of wielding.

    Part of that power, for many women, is often about “giving away by letting oneself go,” that is, letting yourelf look like a wreck sometimes because you’re busy being “a tree of life” to others. By focusing on female power as being predicated on eroticized physical beauty (which demands a lot of rather narcissistic self-care), Erizku’s work is just more of the same old approach to the female image that girls grow up with. It does not challenge women to seek their internal power, which alone can carry them into their elder years with hope and strength, and allow them to truly “walk in beauty.”