Praise for My Books

"Manreet Sodhi Someshwar is a gifted writer of great promise. I have a gut feeling we have a new star rising in Punjab's literary horizon. She has an excellent command of English and a sly sense of humour."
- Khushwant Singh on The Long Walk Home

"An enjoyable tale of a sassy girl's headlong race up the corporate ladder."
- India Today on Earning the Laundry Stripes

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Mother Mary and Devi Ma - Sacred, yes; Women ...? Holy Guacamole!

You can traipse down labyrinthine Louvre, look and linger, peer and ponder, gaze and gasp, for the treasures of the world’s first real public museum (it opened during the French Revolution in 1793) are numerous, varied in their delights, and, without doubt, entirely pleasing, but what if I told you there was one particular piece that would reach out and grab you as you passed? In fact, if I could flesh out that encounter, it’d either sock you in the gut or grab you by the neck and you’d find yourself within the scene, awestruck at what you beheld.


It is a painting in the Italian Paintings section of the Louvre, a 3.69 x 2.45 m size with a subject – Virgin Mary – that has been oft painted.  So what gives it its awesomeness? 

Death of the Virgin is a monumental oil on canvas by Caravaggio, a painter who is perhaps as famous for his life as his art. The painting was commissioned by a papal lawyer to hang in his private chapel in the Carmelite church of Santa Maria della Scala in Rome. On completion, however, it was rejected by the monks who found it too real. Read real to mean shorn of sacred symbolism.

Under a red canopy Mary, still with rigor mortis, is unequivocally dead, her body bloated, feet bare, head lolling – it was rumoured that the model was a corpse recovered from the river Tiber! A thin, barely discernible white halo marks her as sacred, as the holy figure of worship. Obviously the monks were miffed. That was early seventeenth century,  a period when the Catholic church used the medium of painting to spread its message. Church doctrine stated that the Virgin rose to heaven “body and soul” intact.

Caravaggio, however, was a painter whose work was based in dramatic realism – no cherubs hover as Mary, seated atop a cloud cushion, floats upwards to heaven (as depicted in The assumption of the Virgin by Guercino or Poussin). Instead the starkness of death is captured in all its harrowing reality in the painting. Even the mourners surrounding the corpse, who were supposedly the apostles, are not easily identifiable – indeed they seem as ordinary as the woman they are grieving. Caravaggio gives prime place in the painting to Mary Magdalene in anguished repose in the foreground. One of Jesus' most celebrated disciples, she is supposedly the first person to have seen him after he rose from the dead.

Perhaps because I am not a Catholic monk or because we live in the twenty-first century, what draws me to the painting are the very reasons that led to its rejection four hundred years back. The uncompromising realism of the scene, its intense and concentrated despair, the utter finality of death – these evoke such strong pathos and draw me into the painting.

For me, Mary in the painting is a real woman, a woman of flesh and blood despite the hallowed status to which the church has elevated her. Traditional religion has a knack for transforming real women into mystical lofty creatures who, once religion has claimed them, are fit only for worship. The things that make a woman woman are leached from her as she is cast in a sterile Goddess avatar – an avatar that doesn’t have sex (hence the Immaculate Conception), who becomes a mother without childbirth (Virgin), who doesn’t die (the Assumption) … Cast into the sacred, they are no more women.

In India this finds expression in the manner in which Hindu Goddesses are worshipped. Women aren’t allowed within temples during the period they are menstruating. However, the laws of biology would imply that the temple deity – the Goddess, be it Durga or Lakshmi or Kaali, would also have days when she was subject to the natural order of being a woman – in which case, is the deity to be cast in a separate room for those five days? Or her male worshippers aren’t to be permitted in her presence during that period?

Reality though is different - because the priests are men?

The famous Sabarimala temple in Kerala gets about 50 million devotees annually, predominantly male. It has honed the discrimination to a fine rule that disallows entry to women between the ages of 10-50, period. The story being that the temple deity, Ayyappan, was a celibate. Which means what?  As I understand, celibacy means an abstention from marriage or sexual intercourse. So why would women worshipping in the temple be harmful? If the temple deity's avowed status is threatened by the mere presence of women, then perhaps we need to reconsider what we worship and why we worship it.

That could be the start of rejecting the discrimination against women which is institutionalized in religion.

Coming back to Death of the Virgin by Caravaggio. The painting was rescued by Charles I, Duke of Mantua, on the recommendation of another famous painter Peter Paul Rubens, and eventually landed with the French Royals. 

No other painting renders as evocatively that Mary - Mother of God, Virgin Mary, Blessed Mary, Saint Mary - was a woman, and sainting her doesn’t mean a concomitant leaching of her womanhood. Mary, the mother of Christ, was an earthly woman.

In that sense, Caravaggio was a feminist.


  1. I like Caravaggio very much, and I liked this description of his painting in Louvre. Thanks.

    About lord Ayyapan and women, I think that people project all their insecurities on their gods, so that they are all mighty only in the mantras, in reality they are easy to fall - tempted by the charm of a woman or sullied by the presence of a human being (untouchable or a non-hindu)!

  2. @ Sunil Deepak : Glad you liked the post.

    And you're right about our treatment of Gods - projection it is. I like what the Urdu poet Akbar Allahabadi said in his ghazal - which has been sung inimitably by Ghulam Ali - har zara chamakta hai anwar-e-ilahi se, har saans ye kehti hai, hum hain to khuda bhi hai ...

  3. I recently visited the Louvre and I absolutely LOVED these 2 paintings.
    I have never seen such depth and meaning in a painting before.
    And, like everyone else, I was amazed by the Mona Lisa, as well. :)
    Brilliant description, Manreet!

    Please read & promote my post on IndiVine-

    The Tablet Revolutionary

  4. @ yash 1229: Thanks! Checked your post and did :) Cheers

  5. didnt know about Caravaggio until i read this post. insightful writing.
    agree with what you and Mr. Sunil have said about the Ayyappa temple practices
    i had asked a few about why things were so but hadnt got any answers at all. they brush it off saying, "its god's way"

    And Manpreet, after seeing your snap with Gulzaar saab, i absolutely envy u :). i love his writings so much

  6. @ Sujatha Sathya: Thanks! We're all in the legion of Gulzar saab's fans. And since you admire his work, thought to let you know that he wrote a shayr in praise of The Long Walk Home which is carried on the book's back cover. So, go read the book too:)