29 October 2022
City of Madonnas
Construction of Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal, The Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, Belgium, began in 1352 and took nearly 170 years, though only one spire was ever finished. It is the largest Gothic church in the Low Countries. In 2010 and again in 2012, Peter and I took an apartment in Kromme-Elleboogstraat, Bent Elbow Street, in the old quarters of Antwerp, City of Madonnas. Peter was on sabbatical working at the local Institute of Tropical Medicine; I was writing.
A Journal entry
Today I write in a café built in the shadow of Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal, Cathedral of Our Lady. My table is set near the great pale stones of a seven-hundred-year-old gothic buttress. The hip young Belgian waiter, hair pulled into a ponytail, has forgotten about me. I am tucked away in his otherwise empty bar, and he is quarrelling with his girlfriend in a private cobblestone courtyard where ivy sprawls over ancient walls. She must be foreign, because they argue in heavily accented English, with a heat and a woundedness that speak of sex, and of love. I have a relationship with myself, first, she declares emphatically. I am a person too, she protests, agitated. Ja ja ja, he replies, of course, of course. Then she asks angrily: what if I was to have a baby? There is a long silence. A delicately wrought Madonna rides the moon and a dragon, watching down upon us from the building’s façade, a plaster sun blazing out from behind her and a lively toddler clutching at her breast. The cathedral bells peel the hour.
There are over 150 Madonnas in Antwerp, made of stone or plaster or wood, put up on street corners or tucked away in niches during the Counter Reformation. Citizens didn’t need to pay tax on their street’s gas lamp if it lit a Madonna. They have their own names – Our Lady of Immaculate Conception, Our Lady with Child, Our Lady of the Fireplace, Our Lady of the Swan Song. In Antwerp, Madonnas watch us from street corners backlit by sunbursts, toddlers squirming in fulsome arms. White birds brood over them. In Antwerp Madonnas ride through the skies upon the globe of the world, on the horns of the moon, on the serpent.
Bone mother: a memoir in milk
Excerpt from unpublished manuscript p 87-89
A midwife friend and I were chatting at my kitchen table. Anyway, it’s no surprise that more than a third of babies are cut out of their mother’s womb with a knife, we agreed: caesarean sections save lives, either the mother’s or baby’s, but the pendulum has swung too far towards intervention. Because caesarean sections, too, have risks. There is no such thing as a risk-free birth. That’s why birth takes courage. It’s why the birthing woman needs profound psychological protection, as well as physical care.
‘We’re all terrified,’ I said. What I meant was that in giving birth we face a great and primordial power, elements of which will always remain outside our control, despite our best technology and best efforts. ‘It’s a human right to have proper midwifery care during labour and the best possible obstetric care when things go wrong,’ I continued, ‘and many countries in the world are still fighting for that basic right for their birthing mothers. But it’s also dangerous to imagine that the whole answer lies in technology and biomedical solutions: we have forgotten the power of the psyche and how the psyche affects the body.’
‘I know, I know,’ replied Linda, making an effort to put aside her distress about the newborn she’d been telling me about, the one with hypoxic ischaemic encephalopathy.
‘Our culture has forgotten the mythological blueprints for this heroic female feat.’
‘The Virgin Mary’s no use, she’s got no body!’ Linda declared.
‘That’s unkind!’ I say though I smile. But the Virgin Mary is silenced.
‘No morning sickness, no screams in labour –’ Linda is laughing now.
‘No lochia –’
‘No engorgement, no sleep deprivation –’
We wanted to know how long the Virgin Mary was in labour for, anyway. Did she cry out, did she tear, did she bleed? Did she smother her newborn’s slippery little body with kisses? Women need to know these things about the birth of gods!
The Virgin Mary is all we’ve had. How does a woman traverse her extraordinary initiation into motherhood without a mythological story to guide her? How can she make meaning of her ordeal? How can she find confidence in her body, and courage? The only representation of the maternal divine that women in the west have had for the past one thousand years is the disembodied Virgin Mary. My Protestant forebears had not been free to look upon her image from the 1500s, from the time of the Iconoclasm of the Reformation. Even for the Catholics, she is defined by the men. In Rubens’ painting, Descent of Christ, which I gazed upon regularly in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, Mary weeps pale as death as the sun eclipses and the curtain in the temple tears in two, revealed to us only by the fateful masculine gesture: Behold, your mother.
What would it be like, Linda and I wondered, to be raised amidst stories of women who parted their vast thighs and travailed and roared and shook up the world with the magnificence of birth?
Another Madonna and Child in Antwerp.