Images of the Divine Feminine

Stone Age Mother Goddess Holding Crescent Moon (top)
Venus of Willendorf (below)
Earliest known images of the divine are of the Mother, not as the anorexic Barbie, but as the buxom birther of All. Originally, male scholars thought these ancient images were meant as a sort of primitive pornography, or perhaps a joke. More recently, feminine scholars, such as the great archeologist, Marie Gimbutus ('Language of the Goddess') discovered that these images were used in sacred sites and can be found throughout ancient Europe.

Asherah: Goddess of ancient Canaan & Palestine
Though the prophets railed against her, archaeologists have found these images in Jewish homes of every century and every social class in ancient Israel.

Isis and Horus, Egypt

Osirus, Hours, Isis
The most popular religion in the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus was the cult of Isis, originating in Egypt. Isis gave birth to Horus, image of the Pharoah, through her husband, Osirus (left). She also became the witness of his resurrection after Osirus was sacrificed. She is portrayed here with the head-dress of the Ram's horns and the solar disc (right). 'Ram' is a sacred sound or mantra in Egypt, Israel, India, and Islam. It carries the radiance of the sun.

Madonna and Child
The early images of Madonna and Child in the Church were patterned on Isis and Horus. They predate and far out-number images of Jesus on the cross.

Raphael's Madonna (16th C)
In this Madonna painting by the sublime Renaissance artist, Raphael, the Word replaces the Mother's breast. Is the mother offering the book to the child, or is the child offering the book to the Mother?

Artemis (Greek) or Diana (Roman), Goddess of the Hunt and Feminine Power.

The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the great wonders of the ancient world. Ephesus became the first great Christian center outside of Israel.

Temple of Artemis, artist's reconstruction.

Many-breasted Goddess, sacred statue in the temple shrine as it appeared at Ephesus.

In the shrine... as it looked. Note she is black, like the black Madonna's in churches of central Europe. What does the black color symbolize?

Cybele (Rhea to Romans), with her consort Attis
She is drawn by a lion in her imperial chariot, holding the wheat thresher which became the first sacred drum. Drummers were women, masters of nature's rhythms. The male God was subject to those rhythms: thus he died with the grain in the winter and was resurrected in the Spring. Here, Attis leans against the pine tree, where he was buried after his death. Through the power of the Goddess, he will be reborn with nature in the Spring.

Three-fold Goddess of Pre-Christian Europe: Maiden, Mother, Crone

Hecate, Goddess of Wisdom, Wild Creatures, the Moon and the Crossroads.
She is associated with the Celtic New Year (Samhain) at the turning of Autumn to Winter, the most prominent figure associated with the Three-Fold Goddess of ancient Europe. Like the Goddesses of the ancient Near East and Mediterranean, she is the holder of the Serpent, sign of Wisdom.

Serpent Goddess of Crete: ancient Minoan civilization, where women were equal to men and the Mother Goddess was the supreme deity. Throughout the ancient world, the serpent was a sign of wisdom and associated with the Goddess.

Spiral Art (ancient Ireland) and Labyrinth (ancient Crete)

The spiral is found in many pre-historic Goddess-worshiping centers of Europe. It is also found in the pattern of the labyrinth found in ancient Crete, the mother-centered Minoan civilization.

The spiral is found as the building block of nature's geometry, from the patter of seeds in a pineapple and a pine cone, to the DNA molecule, to a spiral galaxy in the vastness of space. The spiral is generated by a mathematical ratio called 'The Golden Section'. Ancient Goddess worshippers intuitively believed the spiral to be a symbol of the great mothers creative womb.

Botticelli's 'Birth of Venus' (1493)
One of the greatest Renaissance artists, Botticelli was part of the intellectual circle of the De Medici family of rulers and popes in Florence, Italy. These intellectuals reinterpreted the Greek myths as Christian allegories. Aphrodite (Venus), goddess of love, was born directly from Zeus without a human mother. She became in the artist's imagination the feminine power of Christ. The goddess of Spring (right) represents Easter and the resurrection. The wind-god, Zephyr (left),represents the breath of the Holy Spirit. The Biblical word for Spirit also means 'breath' and 'breeze.' When Raphael painted Christ's baptism and the descent of the Spirit upon him, he portrayed Christ in exactly the same pose as Venus in this painting.

Raphael's painting of Aristotle's 'Prime Mover' (1515)
At the height of the Renaissance, Pope Julius II commissioned the young Raphael to paint the papal apartments in the Vatican. In this painting on the ceiling, Raphael illustrates the Greek philosopher Aristotle's proof of the existence of God as 'Prime Mover.' There must be a first cause to set the sphere of the universe in motion. Raphael portrays the First Mover, God, as a woman.

Mary as Theotokos, Mother of God: the center of the dome in Istambul's Chora Cathedral, surrounded by 12 angelic powers. What does the circle of 12 represent?

'Dormition' of the Virgin Mary
Though the story is not in the Bible, it was believed from very early centuries of the Orthodox Christian era that Mary did not die. Like the prophet Elijah and Jesus, she was assumed bodily into heaven. The Roman Catholics adopted this belief as 'the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.' They also adopted, in the 19th Century, the official doctrine of 'the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary.' Like Jesus, she was directly conceived in the womb of Anna by the Spirit, without a human father.

Does this imagery turn Mary into a Goddess, a feminine complement to the male Jesus? Why do so many worshipers feel the need to honor the divine not only in the humanity of Jesus, but in the humanity of Mary? The question here not whether it is true or false, but what psycho-spiritual need does this imagery fulfill in the human heart?

The Holy Spirit as Sophia, Wisdom
In the early Church, the Holy Spirit was associated with the figure of Wisdom in the Hebrew Bible and the important Jewish holy book, 'Wisdom of Solomon'. The Bible and other holy Jewish texts personify Wisdom (Hochmah) as female. In Proverbs, chapter 8, she speaks and reveals that she was with God at the creation of the world! In Greek, the word for Wisdom is Sophia.

Noli Me Tangere ('Do Not Touch Me') by Fra Angelico (14th C)
In some early Christian circles, Mary Magdalene was considered to be the favorite disciple of Jesus. She was the first to see the resurrected Lord in the garden on Christmas morning (see the ending of the Gospel of John), where she reached out to touch her master. He said, "Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended." There is even a Gospel of Mary Magdalene from the fourth century, which portrays her as receiving wisdom from the resurrected Jesus that no other disciple knew.

In the early Medieval era, Pope Gregory wrote that she had been a prostitute before her conversion, but the scripture never says this. Yet the image of Mary Magdalene as the 'Penitent Prostitute' was handed down to us through the centuries. Why do you think the Pope and the priests of the Middle Ages found it necessary to develop this myth?

"Mary Magdalene Removing her Jewelry” by Alonso del Arco, 17th C.

In Christian mythology, the story developed that Mary Magdalene accompanied Joseph of Aramethea to Europe after the Resurrection. Jesus had been buried in the garden of Joseph, a wealthy follower of Jesus, and in his garden, the resurrection occurred. It was the mission of Joseph to take the Holy Grail to Britain, where he buried it under a thorn tree near Glastonbury, beginning the legends of the Holy Grail, and the knights of Arthur's Round Table. Mary's mission was to plant the seed of Christian prayer in the European continent. She debarked from the ship near what is now the port of Marseilles in southern France and went into the hills of Province, where she became the first Christian monastic. There she lived a life of contemplative prayer in a cave. Her official tomb is not in Jerusalem, but in France, at the pilgrim church of Vezeley.

How would you interpret some of the imagery in this painting: the colors, the evident movement of the wind, the dropping of her necklace, the turning away from the red table as she moves toward the space where the wind is blowing her? Is the exposure of her breast meant to be symbolic? Have you seen that woman's breast in earlier images of the divine feminine?

Our Lady of Guadalupe, essential image of Latin America

Raphael, Madonna and Child, 16th C.

How would it change our culture if we incorporated powerful images of the feminine in the imagery we use to think about God?

Some scholars and even Christian theologians believe that our culture is experiencing a re-birth of God's feminine aspect, to balance the masculine. Do agree or disagree? Explain your answer.

Choose one or two of the images above and interpret some specific details of it. Use your own creative imagination.