The Makings of Motherhood

Charity by Van Dyck

Charity by Van Dyck

Charity, which Christianity considers to be the love of humankind, is often depicted in art as motherhood. Dressed or breastfeeding, with babies or young children on her lap, the mother image became an allegorical personification of Charity. I admit I find this rather perplexing. What has the love of God and your neighbor got to do with a woman caring for her young children? How is generosity and kindness to strangers connected with a mother breastfeeding her own babies?

Apparently, the image of the mother has not always been an allegory for Charity, argues the noted art historian Edgar Wind. The Christian perception of Charity used to have a different meaning. In the Middle Ages it was a combination of two forms of love: that of God and that of one’s neighbor. It may be difficult for us to grasp this, but the two qualities meant one thing, and not two separate inclinations. In the thirteenth century, the philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas set the theological principle of ‘unity of Charity’: heavenly charity and human charity are one. The love of human beings is derived from the love of God. Charity is “the friendship of man and God”. People love their neighbors because they love God.

As long as this belief prevailed, art depicted Charity as one person with two attributes. Giotto, in his Arena Chapel in Padua, represents charity as a woman with a basket of fruits in one hand, the human aspect of Charity, and a heart in the other, the heavenly aspect – two traits of a single image. This corresponds directly to Thomas Aquinas’s doctrine of the two facets of Charity.

But gradually the two forms of Charity became separate and distinct qualities. People found it hard to accept that loving God and loving the people around them is the very same thing. Thomas Aquinas’s theological principle stood in conflict with the basic human experience: there are those who love God but are not generous in any way, and there are those who are thoughtful and considerate of others but don’t care so much about God.

It is in the sixteenth century that the allegorical personification of Charity appears as motherhood. But the double nature is still there. In Van Dyck’s beautiful seventeenth-century picture of Charity, for instance, the artist’s deep religious sentiment is clear. Three children cling to their mother’s body, but she ignores them and is fully focused on looking upward, to God; this is a common pose in paintings of this subject. Rafael portrays Charity as a mother with three young children; the double nature of Charity is embodied in the character of the naked puttos.

The turbulence of the sixteenth century, with the Reformation and then the Counter- Reformation, affected the perception of Charity. But what changed it more than anything else was the growing secularism. In a society no longer closely identified with religious values, it was practically impossible to see the love of God and love of man as one. Modernism stood in sharp contrast with this belief. But though the religious principle gradually disappeared, the visual symbol remained. Motherhood continued to be a synonym for the love of mankind.

In the eighteenth century the British painter Sir Joshua Reynolds made his portrait ‘Lady Cockburn and her Three Eldest Sons’. The composition of the portrait shows Lady Cockburn holding three children, a clear reference to the artistic tradition of portraying Charity in this way. It was the painter’s way of flattering her. Yet at the same time the portrait illustrates the secular spirit of the time: she is not looking upwards, and there is no suggestion that her generous and loving nature contains a religious element. As Winds puts it “It was only with ‘Lady Cockburn’ that the secularization became absolute.”

I find Wind’s article both fascinating and intriguing. His delineation of the development of ‘a pattern’, as he calls it, of Charity is illuminating. However I am still left wondering: why motherhood? What made these artists choose a mother, often breastfeeding, as a personification of Charity?

It seems to me that Wind has an underlying premise, left unspoken. Motherhood is perceived as a manifestation of selfless love. The mother is never selfish, always preferring the comfort of her children to her own. And since Charity, the love of God and humanity, was viewed as a demonstration of selflessness, the choice of a mother seemed natural.

I don’t think being a mother is being selfless. To me it is attention directed outward rather than inward, attentiveness to the needs of others, responsibility that is always there. Strangely, I find Van Dyck’s ‘Charity’ breathtaking – but wrong.

Lady Cockburn and her Three Eldest Sons by Joshua Reynolds

Lady Cockburn and her Three Eldest Sons by Joshua Reynolds


  • 9 says:

    I agree with you.

  • Emanuela Rubinstein says:

    Thank you for you comment. I don’t think three children refer to Trinity since in many works depicting Charity the mother is surrounded by two, four or five babies and toddlers.
    My feeling is that there is a distinct line between selfless and attentiveness to others. It may look the same, but it is not. I find motherhood very rewarding, in the sense that it is fulfilling, granting the ‘self’ a central place. Yet the essence of motherhood is looking outwards, to the needs of others.
    I will read about Kannon, very interesting. Thanks.

  • Jason Danely says:

    Thank you for this post. I agree that Hrdy’s work is fantastic (and would also recommend her book “Mothers and Others”). I have wondered why there is always three children (my third is due in about 2 weeks so I may discover the meaning of charity soon) but I assumed that it was a representation of the holy Trinity. Do you know if there is any founding of this?
    Also clear in the artwork is that the attentiveness to the needs of others (and especially children perhaps) is not something done at a distance. Those children are always right on top of charity, as if to merge with her in their empathetic sharing. In this way attentiveness to others can blur the line between inward and outward, care of the self and of others.
    I am an anthropologist of Japan, and can’t help but see the similarities with Kannon, the Bodhisattva of compassion, also depicted often times with children in her arms or hanging at her robes. Would be a lovely topic of comparison!

  • Emanuela Rubinstein says:

    Thank you for pointing out this book, I will certainly read it! I am absorb now by various perspectives of motherhood, a fascinating subject.

  • Fascinating article – thank you!

    Also relevant to the myth of the selfless mother – and how it has no place in the biolgocial reality of being a human being, is the work of anthropologist, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. Hrdy’s very readable (but big) book on this subject is called ‘Mother Nature’.

    There is an in-depth but relatively short introduction to Hrdy’s ideas in an interview I did with her for my book, ‘Understanding and Healing Emotional Trauma: Conversations with Pioneering Clinicians and Researchers’.

    The myth of the selfless mother causes real problems for actual women when they somehow fail to live up to that unrealistic ideal. It is something I explore in the conclusion of my book.

    But its wonderful to have this perspective to add to the anthropological one.

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